LA Noire

Posted on June 18th, 2011 in games

Hmmm.  Very mixed feelings about this one.  In a nutshell it’s an attempt to do a kind of James Ellroy video game.  You play do-gooding cop Cole Phelps in corrupt 40s LA, with an emphasis on casework, hunting for clues and interviewing suspects.  It’s a concept of which I heartily approve, both in the offbeat choice of setting, which they summon up beautifully, and in the attempt to provide innovative investigative gameplay, which ends up a little more hit and miss.

On the upside, 40s LA looks spectacular, as massive, free-roamable and characterful a setting as Rockstar have produced, which is saying something, and the various crime scenes, flats, stores, warehouses and railroad sidings you explore are spectacularly detailed, every one unique and lovingly rendered, full of appropriate objects and neat touches.  The sun bakes the patchy asphalt, the rain hammers the sidewalks at plot-appropriate moments.  How much of a contrast from Dragon Age 2’s endlessly repeating bland warehouses and backstreets?  This is setting and atmosphere done right.  The policework can also be surprisingly rewarding, and certainly refreshing.  We’ve all gunned down a lot of heavies in the past, but how often have we cornered one in an interrogation and wrung the truth from him?

And this brings us to LA Noire’s real USP, which is the faces.  I’d heard some bragging beforehand about how they’d worked out some totally new way of rendering faces and expressions and thought, yeah, whatever, if I had a penny for every time I’d heard overinflated claims from software houses I’d be a rich man indeed.  But the faces in LA Noire truly are incredible.  And not only the faces, but the range of expression, the movement, the body language of the characters.  It truly is uncanny.  And every single character has their own set of mannerisms.  Some swallow when they’re lying.  Others’ eyes wander.  Others twitch about a bit.  Again, it makes the odd eyebrow twitch, hand wave and walk-up-and-down-while-expounding stuff of Dragon Age 2 and the like look absurd.  A quantum leap forward, I’d have to say, and it allows for the acting to be raised to a whole new level.  Frequently you’ll see a character and immediately recognise the actor.  They’ve not only captured the voices but the faces, the mannerisms, whole.

Unfortunately, what they do with these two class-leading tools of setting and faces is, for me, rather flawed.  I remember bemoaning with Grand Theft Auto 4 that, while the setting was beautifully rendered, there just wasn’t enough going on within it to really involve you, and drag you into exploring and getting to know the city.  The same is doubly true here.  Outside of the main cases there really isn’t much going on, so you tend to end up just driving from one set of clues to another, or more frequently just getting your partner to drive and skipping it entirely.  Red Dead Redemption was ingeniously designed to draw you into completing all kinds of side quests, experimenting with the corners of the game.  LA Noire provides the corners in spades but gives you no reason to look into them.  Likewise the central character remains a bit of a mystery.  You see none of his home life.  You understand he has a wife and kids but never see them and then, when this suddenly becomes key later, it feels a bit thrown away.  You feel that for a little more effort in extra stuff around the edges they could have made a 100% bigger and better game.  Maybe it’ll come in the DLC…

And the casework system also doesn’t work brilliantly.  There’s a lot of inventiveness and variety in the cases, and they do their very best to provide new things, but looking for clues can become a bit of a matter of walking around whacking the x-button.  Your options in conversation are usually to believe what you’re told, doubt what you’re told, or accuse someone of lying based on some hard evidence.  Sometimes it’s neat and rewarding, at other times will spin off on wild and unintentional tangents.  You might doubt you’re being told the whole truth, so go for doubt, only to have Phelps leap immediately to accusations of murder.  You often have very little choice about how cases play out, as well, with no option but to charge a guy you’re pretty sure is innocent.  Ultimately, I guess it’s a lot harder to accurately simulate conversation than gunplay.

And then there’s the plotting, which I think could have been a lot tighter.  Things and people are given a lot of prominence then disappear never to return.  Others become important having been only skated over earlier on, and in the end a lot of the great characters they’d set up felt somewhat underused.  Maybe that’s the realistic complexity of life, the loose ends of true police work, but I don’t know, it all just felt a bit unrewarding in the end – I’d have liked to see some of the relationships and rivalries have a bigger pay off.

So I guess I’d have to put LA Noire in the category of a glorious failure.  I’ve a lot of respect for the attempt to do something new, for the setting and the atmosphere, and for the acting above all, but it didn’t all roll into one cohesive, convincing, and immersive whole in the way that, say, Red Dead Redemption did.  I never felt it truly grip me and force me to play just one more hour.  Still, I do think that long after a lot of perhaps more enjoyable games have been forgotten, the faces in LA Noire will still be seen as a milestone.

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  1. Hmmmm ,sad to hear that. Was expecting a lot from the game. Sounds to me a bit like Mafia 2 where you really felt no need to explore the city any further…

    Ah still gut a big list of games in front of me so I think I’
    ll see what will come up as DLC.

  2. I agree with all of that. I think I expected more from this game when I bought it, something with the quality of Red Dead while at the same time giving me an LA Confidential experience.

    I was hoping for tackling multiple cases at once, some throw away, while others being pieces to one huge overarching puzzle that spanned the game.

    But then I’ve only just made Vice, so maybe that’s still to come.

    I think if it had come from someone other than Rockstar I’d have said it was a flawed gem, but since it did it’s a disappointing one.

    What’s there is fun though.

  3. Look at L. A. Noire as The Rise and Fall of Cole Phelps, Case Man, rather than some period-piece GTA, and I think a lot of the problems you raise with Team Bondi’s grown-up game-changer are put into perspective.

    I mean to say, I agree with you almost entirely on this one, Joe, except for the one flawed assumption: that bigger is necessarily better. L. A. Noire certainly didn’t need the massive period-authentic sandbox, nor was the player often forced to engage with it – I tend to think it was more a leftover legacy of using the GTA IV engine than any real design imperative. The very fact that you can skip over most of the driving, and nine tenths of the exploration, is an admission that players coming to L. A. Noire expecting a sandbox-styled experience are sure to be disappointed. I don’t believe it was ever positioned as such, anyway. And surely better that the world exists in the background, for you to pay however much attention to as you please, than the developers had opted instead to funnel players from one case to another from beginning to end.

    That said, I did all my own driving; that first time I watched my partner smash into oncoming traffic did not instil a great deal of faith in me. Thereafter, I enjoyed the challenge of driving through this faithfully (as I understand it) recreated city without murdering a million civilians as I went from place to place, so when it came time to tackle that wonderful treasure hunt, I was immersed enough in the world to become caught up in the thrill of it all. I wonder, were you? And if not, could that have something to do with letting your partner chaffeur you about from one crime scene to the next? I appreciate that Team Bondi allowed players so minded to skip these sequences, but if your impressions are any indication, I fear for the experience those players who took the developers up on their generous offer must have had.

    But yes, a glorious failure is fair. I loved what worked about L. A. Noire enough to forgive what didn’t, however; seems that there we differ.

  4. Grey Freeman,

    To your point, Rockstar really only slapped their name on L. A. Noire – it was developed out of house by Team Bondi, who I understand Rockstar have since bought out.

    So. Flawed gem status secured? :)

  5. I was anticipating LA Noire (didn’t buy it due to lack of free time and being a poor boy from a poor family), but have heard similar views to yours elsewhere. I hope the face-scanning technology can become more commonly used, as it sounds fantastic and could really complement top notch voice acting.

    Will you be getting Skyrim? Looks bloody good so far.

  6. Thaddeus,
    Certainly I’ll be getting Skyrim, despite having some issues with the series. And what the hell is with the names? Morrowind sounds like what you get the next day after a dodgy curry, Oblivion is just overwrought rubbish, and Skyrim sounds like something one might attempt in a airplane toilet with a consenting adult…

  7. Oblivion was the first one I played. Overall I loved it, although the levelling system was not to my taste at all (an issue that sounds to have been addressed, with a Fallout 3 type system of perks).

    The names are mostly from provinces, except Oblivion. They are a bit, er, unexciting, although now some rogue has implanted a horrid thought in my head regarding the latest one. Thanks, Mr. Abercrombie!

  8. Joe, until SKYRIM (tee-hee…) comes out you should pick up THE WITCHER 2 on the PC.

    It’s pretty hardcore for an RPG but it looks absolutely spectacular. One of the few games where I frequently stopped moving and just swung the camera around to marvel at how beautiful everything was.

  9. It’s interesting to note a stronger divergence of opinion on LA Noire than in almost any other previous game.

    The slow pace seems to be a major issue for many people. Speaking for myself, I loved playing out a game that did not require me to be either a good shot or a great driver and yet included elements of both in the secondary gameplay. It was an interestingly cerebral (initially) alternative to the CoD generation.

    While I take your points that some characters were undercooked (especially Phelps’s family), generally speaking I felt the story and characterisation unfolded in an appropriately noirish way.

    I agree that the interrogation mechanic is innovative but flawed and I also agree that more needs to be done to give a player reason to explore the city (further street-crime options maybe or perhaps even a tertiary gameplay feature).

    That said, when I completed the game last week, I put it straight back in the machine and started it up again. I am hopeful for a sequel that builds on the good ideas evidenced here, perhaps in a different locale but set in a similar time.

  10. OMG! I can totally predict the future!
    Well, that’s not really true, but right as I typed the address to your blog I was thinking “It’s already about time that Joe wrote a review for L.A. Noire”. And there it was!
    But on a less crazy note, I really like your reviews, even though I often disagree with your opinions. For example I loved Dragon Age: Origins and Red Dead Redemption, but didn’t care much for Fallout 3… Anyway, keep up with the varied and interesting blogging and the constant release of awesome novels!

  11. Thanks for the review. I was torn about picking this title up or not and now I think I’ll pass on it. I’ve already pre-order “The Mile-High Lavatory Tango” and I think it’ll be epic.

    The Witcher 2 is awesome. I just finished it; however, I did not find it overly difficult (on Normal). In fact, the difficulty scaling needs to be adjusted so that the end is not too easy, in my opinion. It reminded me of Demon Souls in terms of difficulty in that if you had just a tad of patience and took it slowly the game is not difficult. But, if you rush in, it only takes a second to get killed

  12. I forgot to add, as the previous poster noted, it is hardcore! Keep children far far away.

  13. nice review joe. i actually just started reading the blade itself, which is what brought me to your goodreads page and then here. thoroughly enjoying it might add. but anyway…you really mirrored my thoughts with this review, especially with that comparison to dragon age 2, i honestly couldn’t stomach the empty, vapid, repetitive streets of kirkwall, not to mention the recycled dungeons and such. it was a disaster of game. LA noire in typical rockstar fashion (although rockstar are only the publisher of the game) on the other hand had a much better atmosphere that drew me into the setting with ease. i didn’t need the same amount of substance to the setting as an RDR because i was totally drawn into the cases, oblivious to everything else. and i must say i did enjoy the characters and all the individual cases, which were intriguing, creative and genuinely fun to see solved. but i say SEE solved because the actual means to solve them was quite tiresome and mundane, inspecting a room and waiting for my controller to vibrate is not what i call engaging gameplay (like you said), and to be honest the guessing game that was the interrogations grated on my nerves. however it was definitely satisfying to use the evidence you had procured to catch certain people in a lie. trying to discern whether people were lying or not is just not a skill i’m all that enamored with, or skilled at i’m afraid. maybe that’s my fault more than the games, but it was annoying all the same. and i’ve just played through way too many car chases through the streets with rockstar’s GTA series, to find any real enjoyment in these inferior, frequent car chase sequences. same goes for the shooting.

    but sorry i’ve rambled. nice to see your thoughts on it.

  14. Game’s definitely hardcore. Poking around the assorted corpses of brutally murdered women is a place few games have gone before. But let’s be honest, who didn’t feel a flicker of excitement at the possibility they might coerce Phelps to examine a breast here or there, eh? Eh?

    Great review, Joe. I think the high scores LA Noire has received are more an acknowledgement of the ballsy nature of the game (in theme and design) than an accurate measure of its gameplay quality, which as you said lags miles behind RDR. It feels like they spent years recreating a beautiful 1940s rendition of LA then said, “shit, we don’t have enough content to fill it with.” The street missions are repetitive in the extreme and seem to have been shoveled in at the last second.

    I hated Oblivion, too. Level-scaling is the bane of the modern CRPG.

  15. “…but how often have we cornered one in an interrogation and wrung the truth from him?”

    You were hoping for more Glokta-esque amputations weren’t you? :D

    I concur with the assessment of the plotting. Yes, the very games that often repeat the same mistakes and carry the same practices and flaws often come across as the next stage of gaming. Sadly, we’ve become more bound in a technological aspect over the past decade or so than the outright quality of gaming entirely. A good amount of this blame can easily be hefted upon the fact that more and more videogame companies merely wish to outdue another in the “technological lauding” department. It’s a good advertising scheme unfortunately, yet so often the story just…lacks in the end, thus collapsing the efforts of the “vital” sections overall. In the end it can come across as wasted effort.

  16. I have been unable to complete the game. I have been thoroughly underwhelmed by it. The action parts, derived from traditional GTA engine, are somewhat sloppier and less responsive than its cousin, which is annoying. The much lauded facial acting is quite impressive, but there are many times that the characters are showing ‘true faces’ when they are lying or showing ‘lie faces’ when they are telling the truth. As you noted, the Truth, Doubt, Lie system lack a great deal of nuance. Were I actually a detective I would probably doubt everything in an effort to trick and cajole more info out of people. Then again, I may have a bit of Glokta in me when it comes to that sort of thing.

  17. Cole Phelps was a rather interestingly developed character for a video game hero, no? I liked the fact that he was a bit of a sanctimonious prick, to be honest, it made him more feel more human and less crime solving robot. I was actually quite affected by the ending, without wishing to spoil anything. On a technical note, whoever decided that I can be seen whilst crouching behind a solid metal dumpster but become magically invisible when I glance at a shop window needs to be purged with acid. On the other hand, any game where I can shout at a teenage rape victim has to get some marks for risk taking.

  18. The major problem I had with this game was, as far as I can tell, there’s no way to lose. If you get 1 star on every single case, the story keeps propelling you forward. I mean, I got 4/5 stars on most cases, so the difficulty isn’t very hard either. The game should have had some failure option, and should’ve been harder. It felt too much like they wanted to tell a story, and the gameplay was just there as extra.

    Moreover, I never really got the Noir feel in this game. Where was the constant night, the rain, and the femmes fatale? RDR was a god damn Western, it had bits of every sort of Western too. LA Noir had references to Noirs, but it never felt like one.

  19. Nick,
    I thought Cole Phelps was a great character, which is why I was disappointed by the underdevelopment.

    SPOILERS, PEOPLE!

    His family situation was never really explored, his relationship with the German singer was whisked up out of a couple of cut scenes. Not particularly believable or convincing. And then a very odd decision to effectively cut away to Kelso for a large chunk of the end. To begin with I thought that was a great curve ball, but then Phelps barely reappeared as the player character. Really strange structuring.

    Niall,
    I get the point about it being the story of Phelps rather than some period piece GTA, but I don’t see how some extra variety in the gameplay that involved you more in the surroundings, plus some fleshing out of Phelps’ background and daily life could possibly have hurt. Red Dead Redemption was the story of John Marston, Wild West Hero, exploring all the side-material only hugely increases your connection to the character.

  20. MORE SPOILERS. SERIOUSLY.

    It didn’t really bother me so much about Phelps’ family not being explored, it kind of added to the sense that even the people at the Station don’t really know him, and that he wasn’t particularly emotionally close to anyone and lived through his case work. I agree that the German singer subplot was oddly tacked on though, I imagine to fill the required femme fatale quota.

    I think it was cetainly a mistake to not let us take control of Phelps for the final mission. Jack Kelso is basically the heroic lead that noir films typically DON’T have, the arse-kicking ex-marine who sorts everything out and handles all the bad guys without ever seeming to have any kind of pychological depth or character weakness (other than I guess a sense of loyalty to his men that sometimes drags him through the mud). I was actually hoping that Kelso would be sacrificed in Phelps’ attempts to uncover the conspiracy, as I still think there were situations where you could take Cole. I’d like to have seen him change from the idealist that he is into a more cynical and world-weary detecive, and it seems like the death of someone he had tricked into working for him, and a man he had known from the war, would do that.

    (While we’re on the subject of the conspiracy, who fucking filmed that secret reel of them gleefully discussing their various crimes? Orson Welles? And which of those halfwits left it there in plain view? Are they taking the piss?)

  21. The game was so full of promise. it’s not bad, but still not a classic. I think the review by Yahtzee also picks up on some of the flaws mentioned. Lots of deadpan humour coupled with cartoon illustrations pulling the game apart. This needs to be watched with the sound to fully appreciate.

    http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/zero-punctuation/3347-L-A-Noire

  22. They’ve just announced that this will be coming out on the PC.

    Joy!!

  23. I haven’t played L.A. Noire, but my feel on Red Dead Redemption was that it was more about establishing the absurdist corruption of the America (and Mexico) that the game was set in; Marston is probably one of my favorite game protagonists, but a running theme of the game was that, despite his toughness, he’s a patsy for just about everybody he runs into. He’s certainly no blank slate, but he’s so passive in his own story that he largely becomes a clear filter through which the world is examined. Why sure, Mr. West Dickens, I’d be happy to win this cart race for you. Alright, mysterious woman in a church, I’ll go and murder some guy I don’t know for you. Okay, evil FBI agent, I’ll systematically hunt down and shoot my former gangmates for you. He’s an excellent character, but it’s by virtue of the fact that he’s comparatively undefined in relation to the world around him, becomes a kind of void of action against which the Wild West can be described. There’s a hard disconnect between the apparent immediacy of his goals and how he goes about them, and as a result there’s an odd feeling of detachment I get from him. The dream logic of his quest—surely this fat idiot selling snake oil will be of use storming Bill Williamson’s castle—becomes the story itself, instead of just the means by which his character growth is illuminated.

    Spoilers ho. The underlying plot of the game is more-or-less your basic Hero’s Journey, where a man leaves the everyday world and travels into the romantic and dangerous unknown, only returning after conquering and growing from the experience. But here, the “romantic unknown”, the mythic American West, turns out to be a sideshow packed with freaks, charlatans, psychopaths and gangsters, and the “hero”, the only projection of reason in the crazyscape, proves wholly incapable of coping with it. (The only other characters not portrayed as sideways or crazy, Sheriff Johnson and Landon Ricket, have both pretty much washed their hands of the business altogether.) It actually reads like a deconstruction of the western mythos, more a jeremiad than a period piece. Not even the gunslinging anti-hero is clever or strong enough to defeat society. If the western hero is a reaction to civilization’s shortcomings, here he’s unable to transcend them. While the other GTA titles are about cartoonish pop fascism running headlong into the American Dream, to amusing result, Red Dead seems to me more about the impotence of good in the face of the system. Marston doesn’t fail because he’s a murderer and a criminal, because every GTA character is a murderer and a criminal; Marston fails because he can’t reconcile himself with the psychosis of his world, tries to find “redemption”, and so is destroyed as an outsider. Every other GTA protagonist succeeds because they adopt, wholesale, the lunatic corruption surrounding them. CJ buries some guy in a Port-A-Potty under ten tons of concrete, Tommy Vercetti cheerfully acts like the lovechild of Scarface and Magnum PI as he machine guns drug dealers. Niko Bellic drives a motorbike off a ramp onto a gunship and does wetwork for the CIA. Marston doesn’t assert himself as somebody who belongs in that environment. He’s acclimated to it, to an extent, but he can’t quite bring himself to become the monster, and his sanity ultimately destroys him.

    Uh…anyways, all that was just an excuse to post my question, which I’ve asked elsewhere to no fruitful gain. The Wikipedia article on Joe (incidentally, does that feel weird?) mentions that there’s a Waterstone’s version of The Heroes with a short story featuring Bremer dan Gorst, but I can’t find any mention of it on the Waterstone’s website (or Amazon), and I’m hesitant to drop A WHOLE TWENTY U.S. DOLLARS just to pack the book off over the ocean again for a refund. Does anybody know anything about this? I’d love to get my hands on that story, particularly if it comes wrapped in that sweet English cover.

    And boy, that was some excuse. Sorry, Joe’s blog!

  24. Mike,
    Was Marston doomed because he tried to find redemption, or because he was a man who could never escape his violent past, in spite of his efforts? That, after all, is the classic western archetype from Shane, through the Searchers, to Unforgiven. For me the contrast between the fate of Red Dead’s protagonist and those of the GTA games just underlined this was by far their most adult, courageous and confident effort at world, character and plotting. And about as strong an effort as you’ll find anywhere in gaming, I think.

    In answer to your question, Waterstones had 5,000 copies with that short story bound into them. Whether they still have any I’m not sure. They’re the only place you can get that story for now, but it will become available in other formats in due course, or so I’m told…

  25. Away from the topic…
    Just a question about your method. I recently played bits of Red Dead Redemption and was struck by the incredible world that seems so alive, like your just a cog in a big clock that moves in its own accord.
    You have said that your next book is inspired by the western genre. Are we going to have John Marston like action in your next novel?Fine country talking an all? How is the next standalone going to be?
    Also
    What is you favorite western, movie or book …?
    You have said that one of your favorite directors is John Ford. So is it the Searchers?

    Last question about the Heroes. Logen Ninefingers was King of Northment. Black Dow killed him(Supposedly). So how is Black Dow the protector of the North rather than the King? That was never explained in the novel.
    Sorry for bombarding you with questions.

  26. Wow, thanks for the quick response! I suppose I’ll take a swing at the Waterstones website, and hope for the best. I’ve got a few friends who are looking ripe to burst with spoilers, and I doubt I’d have much reading time during the ensuing homicide investigation anyways.

    To keep kicking that other can down the road, Marston’s sins catching up with him is certainly the thematic arc of the character–the Strange Man more or less hammers that home–but I can’t help but feel that the game uses that almost as a microcosm to describe the “fall of the West”. It’s a small mechanic, but the continuing encroachment of the railways as you “tame” more and more of the frontier parallels the classic Western imagery of unstoppable civilization, and all the destructive baggage it carries with it. Dutch’s gang, your penultimate enemies, are dispossessed Native Americans, and stomping the last life out of the original West becomes Marston’s final task for Ross; there’s nothing quite as emblematic of this as Marston gunning down dozens of Indians with a Gatling gun from the back of a car, I think! Dutch’s habitation of a weird ghostland between bandit, madman and freedom fighter only reinforces that reading, at least to me. And the fact that (spoilers!) the game continues after Marston himself is dead is telling. There’s a sense not just of inevitable doom but of continuity, of a cycle repeating itself again and again. Jack kills Ross, and becomes the outlaw that Marston spent his final years trying to escape. The stranger missions were the final nail in the coffin for me. I still feel bad that Sam never made it to California…but what would he have found even if he made it there, you know?

    Regardless of how it’s read, I’ll definitely agree with you that it’s one of the best stories in gaming, and certainly Rockstar’s most mature work. John Marston is probably the only protagonist I’ve ever really empathized with in the medium, to be honest, which says a lot. It’s a tragedy, instead of a manic satire like the GTA games. And to smoothly segue this into shameless author flattery, that’s what I really like about your books: That sense that maybe the heroes don’t really get to win, even when they do, if that makes sense. It just occurred to me that Marston’s story parallels Logen’s quite neatly, too, for what that’s worth. So there, this is kind of relevant to your blog again!

    Anyways, that’s my piece. Thanks a lot, Joe. Off to Waterstones!

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