When I first started seeing the trailers for LA Noire, I couldn’t help getting excited. I was going to be a detective, sniffing out clues in a game with incredible graphics technology.
I’d be a golden era Sherlock Holmes!
Combine all that in an open-world game with a pedigree from Rockstar (ok, technically, LA Noire is from Team Biondi in Australia), which produced other famed open world games like the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series and Red Dead Redemption, and it sounds like another blockbuster game.
But it isn’t. Or at least it wasn’t for me. The potential is there, but for me, it wasn’t quite as revolutionary as I hoped it would be. Perhaps that was unfair of me, but if you watch all of the trailers, that’s what they suggest.
In LA Noire, you’re a 1940’s era police officer named Cole Phelps. You’re a bright Stanford graduate, recently having come back from Japan in World War II. You’re looking to make a name for yourself in the Los Angeles police department, and by solving cases, you will, moving from various departments in your rise to fame, including murder.
The core mechanics of the game involve going to the crime scene, talking to witnesses, and following up on clues to finally break the case and get an arrest. When you’re talking to witnesses, a key (and much advertised) component is the game’s facial tracking graphic technology. Faces are incredibly realistic, allowing you to see subtle changes in facial response, enabling you to separate the liars from the unlucky.
When you’re sifting through crime scenes, you can look through numerous objects to narrow down the relevant clues. Noire’s game world, incredibly detailed, allows you to drive around and gaze into the Los Angeles’ past as well as any fictional time machine. Side missions allow you to chase bad guys, get into gunfights, kick butt in fist fights, and drive criminal cars off the road, all the things you see in the movies. Pow! Bang!
And all this, as I started playing the game, was great. It looks great, it sounds great, and the production values are amazing. The acting is superb, with seemingly the entire cast (except for the Drapers) of Mad Men in the game. The game’s overarching storyline is told through cut-scenes before missions and interactions with other characters during them. While difficult to piece together during the first play, the plot comes together nicely by the end, rewarding replay so you can get a better feel on how everything connects together.
As I got deeper into the game, the limitations in the gameplay made me feel like I wasn’t really dictating the results. Even the storyline creates a disconnect between you and Cole Phelps. By the end, his story seems preset, and you were just there as Mike mentioned, to watch the movie. It’s a movie that only shows part of Phelps’ life, so it’s hard to relate to him, to really envision yourself as him.
The mechanics of finding clues are very simple. In a way, you’re just pressing the interact button randomly around scenes to trigger things. If you have played a point a click adventure game, it feels much like that and finding clues doesn’t feel like an accomplishment. You don’t feel like you’ve done anything special because the environments are so limited in what you can pick up. Sure, you don’t want to have to wade through 100 items – that would be boring. But showing the detective process in this way isn’t satisfying either.
Witness interviews and suspect interrogations suffer from limitations as well. While talking to people, you can decide if they’re 1) telling the truth, if you 2) doubt their statement, or if you 3) have evidence to prove they’re lying. If you think someone is lying, you will present evidence to backup your accusation. With each verdict you make on someone’s statement, you can get more information or get rejected, leading to ramifications for your case. For example, you might miss information to a new lead (which could cause you to close the case on the wrong suspect, or not apprehend anyone at all), or a detail you can use in questioning a different witness later.
The problem comes from the way you decide whether someone is lying, holding information, or lying – the process is too binary. You’re either completely right or wrong, and even if you know if someone might be lying or suspicious and know why, there can be a disconnect with which option you need to choose in the game. You can think someone is withholding information, and pick doubt, but you’ll be wrong. The right answer will be truth, even though it’s then revealed that the person is withholding information. The game’s definition of what happens in each of the 3 options can be very different from your own.
What the game needs is a more natural way for questioning people. Part of the problem is that you don’t have a feel of what Cole is going to say when you pick one of the 3 options. You could be approaching a problem one way and pick “doubt” based on your thoughts, but because Cole approaches it in a different way, you’re wrong. A better approach would be to hint what each dialogue option would be, or maybe show the first line of what Cole is thinking when you’re picking a specific option, a preview of what he would say if you picked that option.
When you judge each character’s statement, the game tells you with an aural cue whether you chose correctly, and this isn’t something that can be disabled. After an interview session, you’ll find out how many correct judgments you made. While this information may be useful, it creates the feel that a successful interview is based on individual questions versus the whole of your effort and preparation. These become reminders that you’re just playing a game, and games are meant to to be uh…. gamed. After playing through the first 5-10 cases, I realized that even though I had a feel of who was guilty or what the problems were, one mistake in a question could fail everything and force me to replay 30 minutes to get back to that point and approach a witness statement differently. That led to me simply quitting anytime I made a mistake and reloading so that I could get through the sessions through trial and error if needed, save time, and maximize my score. Because of that, as I progressed further in the game, I felt a decreasing sense of accomplishment with each case.
That all said….
Bottom Line: LA Noire is a very good game, but the more you play it, the more you may feel how much better this game could be in future iterations in terms of reaching its original promise. Easy to get into, and if you can get into it without worrying about perfect scores all the time you’ll find an addictive, if not deep, game experience.
Background: Played on XBox 360, 32” 1080P HDTV, Stereo Sound, 90% overall (100% story and side mission, no DLC) game completion.