L.A. Noire is a good example of why videogames shouldn’t try to be movies. It’s like trying to make a platinum whoopee cushion – expensive, difficult and ultimately pointless.
Why should games try to be movies? Movies don’t try to be architecture. Paintings don’t try to be books. Actually, maybe games should try to be architecture, because both are concerned with experiencing a space.
Rockstar’s MO is essentially movie envy. I know local outfit Team Bondi did the heavy lifting in developing L.A. Noire, but it has Rockstar’s fingerprints all over it: choose a genre that’s popular in movies, make cutscenes using similar themes, characters, even dialogue from leading films of that genre and sprinkle in a mixed bag of game mechanics. The aim is to create a “look” consistent with the films and make you feel as if you’re in one.
I’d better get more specific to L.A. Noire. It draws inspiration from noir fiction and the hard-boiled detective genre. It’s set in 1940s Los Angeles. You start the game as Cole Phelps, a rookie cop who’s back from the war. The game is divided into episodic cases. In each case, you will search for clues at a crime scene, interview witnesses and suspects to judge whether they are telling the truth and have some chases and shootouts.
Team Bondi’s rendition of 1940s L.A. looks amazing. The clothes, the hats, the cars and the buildings look just like I remember them. They got the colours right too – easy to forget when so much noir was in black and white. This L.A. is not really a sandbox; more precisely, it is a sandbox with only a couple of toys in it. You can collect rare model cars and answer random dispatch calls to engage in a bit of brainless side-action and earn intuition points for investigations. You can only enter buildings with a gold doorknob – and these knobs are only placed on venues that are relevant to your given case. You can’t even pull your gun in public. It makes sense. As a cop, you shouldn’t be trespassing or going on random sprees of mayhem.
I don’t mind that L.A. Noire doesn’t have side activities. Clearly, Team Bondi was not going for an open world buffet of minigames and distractions, but instead a story-driven degustation. The problem is that the story they serve up is one of the game’s weakest ingredients. We’ll get to that later.
While I’m still talking positives, the face capture technology is amazing. Apparently they filmed the actors from approximately 200 angles and used that to render facial expressions, mouth movement and body language really accurately. As a result, when you talk to characters it actually looks like they are saying the words. The uncanny valley just got a little shallower. Regarding the casting, you can play your own minigame called “Spot the actor from Mad Men”, but there’s no trophy for it.
As to how the game plays, you work on one case at a time. Each will typically start with a briefing and a crime scene to investigate. When you get to the scene, there will be people to talk to and an area to explore for clues. Within this area you can pick things up and examine them. Some things are irrelevant and some will provide clues. There is nice use of sound – a little piano tinkle – to indicate when you are near something that may be a clue, and another little refrain sounds when you have found all the clues in an area. These sonic touches were a neat way to avoid pixel-hunting frustration. There is another frustration – a matchbook is relevant in one of the first cases and never again, so you’ll end up picking every subsequent irrelevant damn matchbook for the rest of the game.
As you gather clues, you also gather questions to ask people in interviews. Interviews are where the face capture technology comes in. Interviewees will give a response to a question and you have to choose what you think of their response: truth, doubt or lie. You are supposed to examine their facial expressions and body language to assist your decision. If you think they’re lying, you have to confront them with a clue that disproves their lie. If you think they’re telling the truth, you hit “truth” and move on to the next question and if you think they’re lying but you don’t have the clue to back it up, you hit “doubt”. After you make your response, you find out instantly whether or not you picked correctly, however if you got it wrong you will not be told what the right response was.
This is the most fascinating part of the game. It motivates you to scour a scene for every possible clue so you walk into an interview fully armed with information. There is no checkpointing within cases, so you can’t just go back and retry a wrong answer, you have to redo the case from the start. You can spend your intuition points to eliminate one option for a 50/50, or to phone a friend (being the internet and its aggregation of the most popular response). I played this during the Great PSN Outage of 2011 so I couldn’t use the latter option.
Early in the game, it was absorbing. I sat transfixed for minutes at a time, watching the well-captured animation. I asked Mrs Threepaper to join in and use her intuition. If we decided that the person looked dodgy, then it was “doubt” or “lie”. Did I have evidence to contradict them? There’s a transcript of the interview to check back on what’s been said. Then I’d check my notebook to see if any clues contradicted the words.
After a few interviews, flaws emerged. The script is often confusing as to what you’re actually putting to the person, or what they actually say in response. More glaringly, there is only ever one correct clue to match a suspected lie and the logic connecting the two is often reminiscent of a sadistic 90s adventure game. In one case, my clues included a list of guys my suspect was bribing and a ledger of bribe payments, yet only one of those counted as evidence of bribery.
Eventually interviews felt like less of a brain teaser and more of a lucky dip. As such, there is no difficulty curve. Questions and body language don’t become harder to assess – the whole system remains disappointingly arbitrary.
Cole’s partners, who are so helpful in other parts of the game, go strangely missing during interviews and leave you to play good cop/bad cop all by yourself, which apart from anything else makes Cole look like a lunatic. One minute he’s gently asking a 13 year old rape victim to describe what happened; the next he’s screaming at her to co-operate. It reminded me of this bloke, except not as erudite:
I initially pooh-poohed Cole’s violent mood swings as an unrealistic depiction of human behaviour. Then I heard about the working environment at Team Bondi during its tortuous 7-year development cycle (detailed here) and the penny dropped. I guess there is a lot of Team Bondi boss, Brendan McNamara, in the game.
What’s further disappointing is that success in the “truth/doubt/lie” game doesn’t matter – most cases are resolved by an action set-piece anyway. When a game doesn’t impose different consequences for your choices, choice becomes meaningless and you don’t bother caring. Once this veil was lifted, it shifted my attitude toward the game from intrigued to irritated. It’s a shame because there is potential in the truth/doubt/lie system.
Aside from the investigating and interviewing, the rest of the game is typical action fare that you would have seen in GTAIV: cover based shooting, car chases, foot chases. As the game wears on, it stops keeping the investigations fresh and instead seeks to fill you up with action and story, which bloats the game and makes the back half a chore.
The story itself is an assortment of bits and bobs from the Noir oeuvre, most notably Chinatown. If you’ve delved into Noir, you will recognise the influences. A character even says “Forget it, Jack …”. About the only thing missing was a Maltese falcon. I guess Team Bondi had to show their work.
The magpie’s nest of a story isn’t so bad – you need something to string together the cases together. What rankles is the cackhanded way it is told. At almost every point, they stuff up in the telling of it. It’s like the story was written by Donald Kaufman.
The next two paragraphs are a (mostly) spoiler-free whinge fest about these shortcomings.
Most of the stuff ups come from confusion as to narrative perspective – through whose eyes are we seeing the story? The game opens with some “mean streets” narration, which inexplicably disappears after a few cases. The cases themselves each start with a little cutscene, in some of which you are given vital clues about the perp that Cole should not know. You can pick up newspapers to get cutscenes that show plot details about matters that Cole couldn’t know about (and which you cannot raise when you meet the characters involved) and yet there are key plot points involving Cole that are so coyly alluded to that I was not sure if they had occurred at all.
By far the clumsiest bit is when you find film footage of a meeting at which the attendees hatch a conspiracy. The footage is of people plotting some secret evil shit, yet it seems to be shot from four different camera angles and edited together. You come across it by stumbling into a room with the film already set up on a projector. So these master villains hired cameramen to film them bragging about an evil plot, which has to remain secret to work, then later they all got together and watched how the film turned out, then they walked out of the room and left the film behind. Riiight.
Imagine if the Mafia kept an Excel spreadsheet titled “Whacksregister.xls” with columns listing the names, addresses and dental records of each victim, alongside the same details for the goon who whacked him, and then they emailed it to each other every Friday to ensure that the register was kept up to date. OK, you can stop imagining now.
The cackhandedness is jarring for its own sake but especially because it clashes with the investigative part of the game. That part is all about what you know vs what they say. Why muddy the waters by giving the player extra information that Phelps cannot use? It might be a subtle comment on how police procedure can prejudice an outcome, but I suspect it is more a case of Team Bondi chucking in a whole bunch of stuff for the story without resolving it against the game mechanics. We should not know that the wrong guy is being sent down for a crime before Phelps does.
I am resigned to bad game stories and relegate their importance to the back seat compared to other elements of a game. The problem is that L.A. Noire doesn’t – it puts the story in the driver’s seat, whereupon the story cranks Mix FM at full blast, toots the horn and crashes into a tree. Maybe you won’t object to it as much, but you will have to appreciate it a lot more than I did in order to enjoy the game to the end.
Grading L.A. Noire is difficult. Each criterion has a stellar element pushing the score up and a crappy one dragging it down. Take atmosphere – the city, sound and face capture technology are stunning, but the story and dialogue are often woeful. Then take game mechanics – the truth/doubt/lie system is a great idea on paper, but its execution has glaring flaws. Shooting and driving are simply average. As for addictiveness, the game feels exciting to begin with, but the second half drags because it stops presenting new ideas during investigations. If I’d quit this game half way through, I would have graded it higher, which is why the “Finish before you Assess” rule is so important. These things must be judged in their entirety.
Team Bondi built a fantastic world but didn’t provide enough interesting things to do in it. Maybe DLC will have some more cool cases, but who cares? I’m assessing the merits of the game as released, and we shouldn’t be paying full game price just to get a platform to buy further bits of game later.