L.A. Noire Revisited

Posted: February 23, 2013 in Uncategorized

So there has been something new in my life that fills me with utter glee whenever the promise of alone time comes to fruition. No, not that! Get your minds out of the gutter!

I’m talking about L.A. Noire, and by new, I mean something kinda old-ish, but not really. I first picked up L.A. Noire during its midnight release back in the fall of 2011. This gritty 1940’s era adventure game developed by Team Bondi, and published by the notorious Rockstar, boasted new motion scanning technology and gameplay that centers around detailed and challenging interrogations as opposed to the typical shoot everything that moves and kill it til it’s dead motif. Gumshoes such as myself brought home that night a title that offered hordes of cases scattered throughout four police departments (traffic, homicide, ad vice, and arson) in a faithfully recreated postwar Los Angeles.

Booting up this gem thrusts you into the role of keen young policeman Cole Phelps, a former lieutenant in the Marines and storied war hero. While the horrors of war in Japan are now behind him, Cole opts to continue a life of protecting and serving when he joins the ranks of L.A.’s finest. From there, L.A. Noire weaves an intricate story of justice struggling to find purchase in a landscape fraught with corruption. Phelps quickly ascends among the ranks of the LAPD even while we are slowly offered glimpses into his military service. Over time, threads begin to link up, characters from the past meet and connect with characters of the present, heroes fall and saints are revealed to be sinners. Meanwhile, the city keeps churning out crime after crime like a smoke-belching factory; underage girls are used and discarded by shady movie execs, bookies try their hand at pushing military grade morphine, and even the Black Dahlia killer makes an entrance.

Not only is L.A. reconstructed faithfullly, but so is that classic noir feel. L.A. Noire is clearly the work of someone that truly loves hard boiled crime stories of old, as opposed to being the slapdash product of someone who watched one Bogart movie and aimed for a money-grabbing reboot. The clothes, the language, the cars, and most especially the music are all pitch perfect and remind me of my favorite crime busting radio shows from that era. And if you are really itching for an authentic noir feel, you are even given the option to turn off the colors, chasing down suspects and slinging lead in stark black and white. This game is so dedicated to the hard edge of the seedy side of L.A. that it doesn’t shy away from the rampant racism and sexism of the time.

Which is good. That is part of what made noir so powerful then and continues to reverberate today. The genre laid bare the social anxieties and corruptions of a postwar nation that seemed nearly desperate to make its wholesome facade work. Even the scuzziest of bums managed to wear three piece suits, women were “ladies” and everyone went to church on Sunday. Noir revealed what was underneath–spousal abuse, infidelity, craven corruption, criminal nepotism and all the other demons that hid under the well-oiled and combed hair and pressed slacks. This juxtapisition between the wholesome exterior and the greasy underbelly is where L.A. Noire excels.

The game isn’t perfect. The action aspects of this title are easily its weak point. Shootouts are as rudimentary as it gets; you find cover, wait for the enemy to pop up, hit the aim button and pull the trigger. Actually having to aim is rarely, if ever, required. Chasing suspects on foot is almost as easy since all you have to do is aim for the perp and hold the spring button, and even if you don’t catch the bad guy your partner will usually eventually cut him off with the car. Speaking of cars, driving in L.A. Noire is abysmal, and most people who play this game will find themselves replaying car chase scenes multiple times until they have memorized exactly when to turn and how much brake to apply before finally getting it.

It’s almost as though the developers knew that these aspects to their game were crap, since you are given the option to skip all of it. Yes, all of it. Action sequences can be bypassed in the pause menu, and you can force your partner to do all the day to day driving for you. It’s tricky deciding if this is feature or flaw, but what it feels like is an inherent flaw that just kind of turned into a feature.

Beyond this, other mechanics could do well with some tinkering. Interogations can be frustrating and at times off key. With each question you ask, you must decide if the subject is telling the truth, telling a lie (which you must disprove with evidence), or you doubt the fullness of their answer. From a technical standpoint, all decisions made are irreversible and sometimes the right option isn’t even available if you haven’t collected evidence from earlier in the case. Your options tend to be very limited and unforgiving which will lead the player to retry many interrogations to the point of frustration. From a more aesthetic standpoint, there are many instances where Cole doesn’t seem to act in a tone that is in keeping with the nature of your selections. As it turns out this appears to be the result of a design decision made during the game; the original selections you could make were different from the current Truth, Doubt, or Lie.

Rounding out my nitpicks with L.A. Noire, while most of the game is stunningly beautiful, and the facial technology is jaw dropping, the rest of the character models from the neck down are clunky and off kilter. The result is that people in L.A. Noire, often look kind of… creepy, or weird. I’ve never been a fan of Rockstar’s character models or motion capture to begin with, but when they stack up against life like facial expressions, the effect is surreal.

This may make it seem like there’s a lot wrong with L.A. Noire, and if we are being honest, there kind of is. But there are a few things that give this game a pass. The first is that Team Bondi were being truly innovative in an industry that likes to play it safe and pump out mirror image sequels because they know they will milk gamers for the cash. Whenever a product of any sort comes out that is new and innovative, it will naturally have problems. What’s important is committing to the innovation and working out those problems in later installations. The other thing that saves L.A. Noire from being a well-intentioned but failed novelty is that it is fun. The interrogations are frustrating, yes, but engrossing and satisfying at the same time. Picking through a crime scene feels real and immersive. Even the dumbed down action sequences are paced just right to give what is essentially an adventure game a little bit of spice. Gun play here won’t satisfy hardcore shooter fans, but it does add to the experience L.A. Noire is offering.

When I first picked this game up a year and a half ago, I enjoyed much of it, got bogged down by some of the technical flaws, and ho hummed my way through the more repetitive bits. Still, by the end of that first play through, I felt like I had been a part of something special. As I do with a lot of games, I sold it back when I finished and for a year looked upon the experience with fondness. Then a few months ago I started craving it again, caved, and bought it at a deep discount. What have I learned during this second playthrough after a year and a half hiatus? L.A. Noire gets better with age. Now that I already know about all the flaws of the game I can sit back and enjoy a narrative experience that is extremely rare elsewhere in gaming. L.A. Noire’s greatest success is that when I get free time, I get to turn down the lights, and for a few hours become a detective in the City of Angels during a time when dames were real dames, men wore fedoras, and the naked city was waiting for me with its sleazy underbelly laid bare.


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