Review: L.A. Noire

Full disclosure: I’ve never played a Rockstar game before, and I understand that this game is atypical for the company, especially since it was made by Team Bondi, an external developer. I’m writing from the perspective, then, of a long-time gamer and lover of films noirs, and not as a GTA or Red Dead fan.

As with any award-winning, well-selling title, L.A. Noire has drawn a lot of criticism since its release several weeks ago, and not all of it is justified. Chief among complaints I’ve seen are the slow pacing, the lack of action proper, and vagueness about the truth (particularly the loose ends at the conclusion of the game). Clearly, people aren’t doing their research.

Ambiguity and high-tension, slow drama are the hallmarks of the noir genre; to complain about their existence merely validates the game’s success as an homage to classics like The Maltese Falcon and Chinatown. Rarely is a game so understated or nonchalant in its handling of the details; that L.A. Noire’s story is as infuriating as it is satisfying is indisputable, if you’re a discerning player. I realize not everyone is — and if you’re more a fan of neatly-wrapped stories and/or epic firefights, you will probably hate the experience that Rockstar provides here.

Moreover, while I have always been clear in my belief that ESRB guidelines need to be more strictly adhered to (by players and parents alike), I think this game demands a reiteration of the point: this is an M-rated game, and it definitely earns its rating. The game doesn’t shy away from drug abuse, psychosis, adultery, rape, molestation, nudity, or torture. It is made by adults, for adults, and is neither proper (nor, likely, enjoyable) for younger audiences.

L.A. Noire invites you to follow Cole Phelps, soldier-turned-cop in 1947 Los Angeles, California, as he climbs through the ranks of the LAPD in pursuit of justice, commendation, and maybe a little redemption. Story progression is fairly straightforward: work a few cases, get transferred to a new desk assignment (in addition to opening patrol, the desks are Traffic, Homicide, Administrative Vice, and Arson). Each case requires you to visit a crime scene, look for clues, interview witnesses, and eventually make arrests/formal accusations.

L.A. Noire is the most character-driven game I’ve ever played, thanks to new technology which allows for actor facial and body movements to be captured in minute detail. Characters can have nervous tics, shifty eyes, or slight grins without looking epileptic or cartoony. This, coupled with absolutely stellar writing, generates a host of deeply believable, memorable characters, and goes a long way to make Noire’s story extremely compelling.

Much of the gameplay seeks to exploit the new technology, ostensibly forcing the player to actually read a character’s face to determine whether they’re being flexible with the truth. This is an excellent idea conceptually, but it falls apart in execution. Characters so rarely tell the truth that the game trains you to assume falsehood for every person who can’t look you straight in the face; consequently the timid and grieving are often castigated for their timidity, accused of bold-faced lying, conspiracy, and even murder as they try to cope with the grave reality of what has just been told to them. Phelps has zero tolerance for anything less than complete truth, and the mere act of “doubting” tends to result in a vicious tirade. I often found myself wanting to pull Cole aside and tell him to calm down — “I didn’t mean she killed him; I just think she should try a little harder to remember last night. Don’t flip out on her.”

Lying or otherwise, most characters will find some excuse to flee either before or after you interview them, and roughly half the scripted gameplay involves chasing, on foot or in a car, fleeing suspects. Chase scenes are featured in almost every story case; the forty optional “street cases” are almost entirely chases and shoot-outs. Though these chases can occasionally be exhilarating, they are often tedious and predictable; it’s difficult to really “lose” the target unless you hit a particularly nasty obstacle — likewise, in shootouts, the risk of actually dying is almost nonexistent.

Noir is supposed to be drawn-out, but not to the point of excess, and unfortunately the tedium of L.A. Noire sometimes gets excessive. Whether it’s inspecting yet another worthless bottle at a crime scene, waiting in the car for your partner to catch up, watching a cutscene you can’t skip, or tailing just a little too far behind a suspect to actually catch him, the game will inevitably get on your nerves. Usually it’s subtle, though at times (particularly if you’re pursuing 5-star ratings or collectibles) you may actually pause and wonder to yourself “why am I even playing this?”

And as a typical video game, there really isn’t a good answer to that question. Many aspects are patently not fun. The frustration you feel both at the mechanics of the game itself (the delays getting in and out of cars, the idiocy of pedestrians, the slowness with which Phelps handles every piece of evidence) and at the characters’ behavior (one pivotal decision of Cole’s infuriated me primarily because I couldn’t control it, and heretofore had had the illusion that I was in charge of the story) is enough to make even a lover of the experience like me hesitate about recommendations.

Yet there, I’ve said it: I love L.A. Noire.

Why? Well, for one, the story is wonderfully captivating. Team Bondi has done a masterful job of weaving together the most seemingly insignificant things in this game into a web that would make Raymond Chandler proud. In fact, the latter quarter of the game plays as if the developers threw their hands up in the air and said “screw all this gameplay stuff. We’ve got a story to tell here” and what follows is one of the most exciting climaxes (and thought-provoking denouements) I’ve ever seen in a game.

But it’s the city itself that truly shines. On Rockstar’s Social Club site I noticed a bit of trivia which said that over 90% of the downtown portion of the game was faithfully reproduced, down to the company names and signage on storefronts. The soundtrack — a robust offering of 30s and 40s hits — is delivered over a radio which also features full-length radio dramas, timely news reels, and historically-grounded station IDs and advertisements; the effect is that at times you want to just pull over, watch evening slowly fall, and listen to the radio.

And no matter how aggravating the traffic in L.A. is (though once the freeways got put in, I understand it got much, much worse), its existence is quite a marvel. Almost a hundred authentic, extremely detailed cars populate the streets. Traffic lights function on timers and vehicles behave in a fantastically realistic way; sometimes changing lanes without warning, signaling for turns, pulling to the side when your siren’s on. You get a real sense that there are drivers in these cars with lives and places to go; and if, or rather when, you commandeer someone’s car, the things they say to you will make you feel as if you’re a genuine jerk for abusing your position.

L.A. Noire doesn’t really work as an open-world, story-driven game (and I’ll join the crowd saying such a game is inherently impossible). As a story, it works only as well as your interviewing prowess can take it — if you can get all the interview questions right, you’ll get a lot from this game. But Rockstar has given something else, too, which is incidental to both story and game and yet makes all the difference. They have provided a working replica of a real city in a real time with a real history, and they have offered you a chance to explore it at your leisure.

I heartily recommend you take them up on the offer.