L.A. Noire Reader Review
Although this might horrify fans of either game, has quite a bit in common with . introduces bold new ideas into a genre that is in dire need of them. It starts off confidently before losing its way in the middle. It is a work of astounding technical and artistic ambition, which makes the occasions of overreaching all the more painful because the passion of its creators is clear. Tragically, it also lacks the confidence to embrace its vision wholeheartedly and ends up falling back on tired conventions, which results in a seriously flawed game.
is at its heart an adventure game, casting the player in the role of Detective Cole Phelps of the LAPD. At the start of the game, he is a patrolman dreaming of bigger and better things. Through a series of introductory cases, we are provided with information about not just the game mechanics but also Phelps's motivation and his personality. These first cases are mostly forgettable - it is the insights about Phelps that are truly important and resonate throughout the rest of the game. While his character arc takes a turn for the ridiculous towards the end, he is one of the most vividly sketched characters I've encountered in a videogame. The rest of the cast fails to make much of an impact, primarily because Phelps and the cases take up all the air in the room.
The cases at the beginning of the game are episodic in nature, while the ones in the second half form story arcs and tie into the overall plot of the game. This is where things start falling apart. The developers are clearly adept at producing short, self-contained stories but they are far less successful at tying these stories together. The second chapter of the game is perhaps the best example of this. Loosely based on the Black Dahlia murder, the pacing soon becomes Tolkien-like and the game turns flat and repetitive. By the end of the chapter, plot holes abound and the investigation portion turns into a scavenger hunt with increasingly ludicrous and tortured clues. The second chapter is unconnected to the overarching plot (a common device in the series) but it is also the longest chapter in the game, clocking in at around 6 hours. All the while, Phelps's backstory is drip-fed to the player in confusing fragments so that by the time she is done, most of what has been revealed is fuzzy at best. Character motivations also become increasingly muddied and vague as the game hurtles towards its finale, with loose ends usually tied up in a disappointing fashion by a gunfight.
It is the action elements of the game that are inherited from its enginemates ( and ) that are considerable sore spots. The regular driving sections are somewhat enjoyable but the rest of the action mechanics are dull and uninteresting. Car chases happen much too often and are less tests of skill and more tests of patience due to the floaty handling, narrow alleyways and the inability of the AI drivers to consistently recognize the presence of Phelps's siren. The mercifully short brawling sections are best forgotten. The most egregious mistake the developers made is the overuse and overreliance on shootouts to solve plot points. The action sequences destroy much of the carefully built-up vulnerability and humanity of Phelps as a character. Instead they turn him into someone superhuman and therefore much less relatable. In a game as character-driven as this one, this is a major misstep. The investigation portions of the game are exciting and involving enough that these action elements should have been used much more sparingly in the storyline cases.
What does get undoubtedly right is the atmosphere. From the first second of the game to the very last, the illusion of being in 1940s LA remains unbroken. At no point did I feel I was driving around a recreation of the city. Instead the experience was more akin to actually living in the period. It managed to immerse me in the place of the game more effectively than even the most lavish period movie. Some of this is due to the fact that I'm the one in control, the magical thing that allows even the sparsest location in a videogame to achieve some level of immersion. What really sells the vision is something much more old-fashioned though - exquisite attention to detail. From the layout of the city on down, every single building, item and person looks and feels exactly like you would expect them to. It is difficult to overstate just how much of an achievement this is. There is essentially no anachronistic misstep, no moment when the setting loses its authenticity. The bar for what constitutes a truly convincing and engaging sense of place in a videogame has definitely been raised.
While somewhat less successful, the much-hyped facial animation system is another remarkable accomplishment. By performing what basically amounts to highly detailed motion capture on an actor's face, the developers tried to digitize that actor's performance and transplant it onto a polygonal model. These models are meant to be exact representations of the actors' faces and a significant chunk of the game is dedicated to scrutinizing these faces. Since Phelps is a detective, there are numerous interrogation sequences where he, or rather the player, has to figure out if the interviewee is lying, telling the truth or being witholding. The tells here are worlds away from the cartoonish and frequently nonsensical ones in . Characters being interrogated are frequently convincing enough it doesn't require too much suspension of disbelief to think of them as actual living breathing entities. Occasionally, these tells are much too subtle. When combined with the ambiguity of the response choices available to Phelps, much frustration can ensue. Assuming you aren't concerned with listening to every bit of dialogue or choosing the correct response 100% of the time, that frustration is a small price to pay to be able to witness a true technological marvel. The most amazing thing is that all the technology is being used in service of the most important part of - the gameplay. Unlike 3D effects for example, the game could not exist if the facial capture technology wasn't there.
Ultimately, I didn't like that much. There are numerous instances where the game forces you to knowingly finger the wrong person because of plot demands. After enough wrong responses because I had intuited the correct answer before the game decided I should have, I just played the rest of the game using a walkthrough. I ignored the majority of the side cases, which were exclusively action sequences lasting no more than a few minutes that contributed nothing to the plot, because I plain hated those mechanics. The story fell apart midway through and quickly reached levels of contrivance not seen since . And then, the disconnect between the human Phelps of the story and the superhuman Phelps of the gameplay became more and more jarring. Yet, I played through the game in one weekend. No matter how bad things became, I found it hard to tear myself away from the artistry and technical prowess on display. I couldn't help but be caught up in the ambition and drive of 's creators. It is an experience unlike anything out there and is an undeniably fascinating glimpse into the future.