Having finished LA Noire I think I understand how new Heavy Rain owners felt. I think LA Noire is an important game. I think it is a game that needs to be played. I think it is a landmark. I think also none of this has to do with LA Noire as a videogame.
LA Noire the Experience is something gamers should take part in. It does a lot of imporant things we’re going to see other things copy. But in order to get to that point you have to overlook a lot of things that make LA Noire an awful videogame.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most readers will remember when Resident Evil was new and interesting and not a stilted Gears of War clone. Resident Evil 1 was a game that absolutely needed to be played by everyone who had the means to do so at that time. It was fresh, it was never seen before, and it was important. But there is no denying that Resident Evil was a bad videogame.
Sometimes being important is enough. Games are not necessarily about fun, anymore than movies are always about explosions or comic books are about superheroes. Games aren’t exactly a new medium anymore, and there’s enough room out there to wander into places not defined by good gameplay ethics, provided the game can bring other elements, such as atmosphere or characterization, or writing or novel gameplay mechanics.
Not to say that gameplay isn’t important. Far from it. Enslaved for instance, that’s a bad videogame. But that’s all Enslaved ever meant to be. The story was hackneyed, the theme done to death. Enslaved was pretty, but there are better graphical powerhouses that double as good games. In order for a game to raise beyond mediocre gameplay fundamentals, it needs to bring in the player on an emotional level, using gaming as the medium of engagement rather than the means of engagement. No one seriously faults Bayonetta's story, anymore than anyone really minds that the gameplay in Persona 4 is sort of tiresome.
In LA Noire’s case, I wish it were that simple. I wish I could just ignore the elements of LA Noire that make it a bad videogame. I wish I could just sit and enjoy the story and atmosphere of Postwar Los Angeles.
You see, despite its fundamentally flawed gameplay elements, I badly want LA Noire to work as a videogame.
LA Noire is not actually a Rockstar game. Its produced by Team Bondi, a development studio with no ties to Rockstar aside from publishing rights. Despite this, LA Noire is crouched in a plethora of traditional Rockstar gameplay mechanics, none of which tie into the game itself.
This is infuriating as the world of LA Noire is something I desperately want to interact with. The Postwar Los Angeles depicted in LA Noire is a remarkably realized setting, but there’s little point in exploring it. In a strange sort of nod toward conventional game design there are experience points that you can gain by finding landmarks and completing side missions, but they’re only really useful for gaining Intuition Points which help you in investigation-- while that sounds helpful at first glance, they become less enticing to collect when you realize your Intuition Points max out whenever you replay a case. Also, since there’s a set number of levels achievable in the game proper, there’s a finite amount Intuition Points that can be gained by chasing side missions.
I would be remiss if I neglected to mention the driving-- I have a perversion in that I actually like driving in Rockstar games; I will gladly completed all the vehicle races in Grand Theft Auto 4. LA Noire kinda gives a nod toward the Rockstar driving mechanic pedigree in that there are a plethora of painstakingly re-created postwar automobiles to discover and tool about in. But none of that really matters in that you are actively discouraged from driving about . Not only can you fast travel to any location, any vehicular or property damage created in your travels negatively affect your final score. This is a Rockstar game where you are punished for exploration.
LA Noire features a historically accurate, beautifully realized, hugely expensive 1950’s Los Angeles-- and relegates it to little more than background chatter.
Despite desperately wanting to be a serious, methodical detective story, there are times when LA Noire suddenly decides it wants to be an action game., and this is where LA Noire The Videogame fails horribly. Your character’s animation takes precedence over any other action you want your character to perform, to the point where you are left unsure if the game has registered your actions. This is a frustrating issue. I don’t expect Devil May Cry, I just want some sort of confirmation that the character intends on making some sort of action following the twenty minute long process of standing up after being punched to the ground. This stiffness and detachment permeates every aspect of gameplay.
There are three basic action elements to LA Noire, all of which fail in their own unique ways:
1: Super Stiff Fighter 4: Police Edition. Sometimes civility has run its course and the only way to resolve the current disagreement is to punch the other guy repeatedly in the head. LA Noire’s brawling mechanic is admirably complex. You can can dodge blows,block, grapple, select from head and body blow-- none of which ultimately matter due to the stiff animations and unresponsive controls. All of LA Noire’s fisticuffs scenes devolve into holding down block, waiting for the other guy to throw a punch, then madly mashing the punch button until the segment is over. Imagine Mike Tyson’s Punchout! if everyone involved were stiff unathletic white dudes wearing starched suits--
2: Midnight Club LA Noire. There are a lot of car chase elements to LA Noire, and it is the point where the game comes closest to being an enjoyable gameplay experience. But even here Team Bondi introduced frustrating gameplay elements. The siren, for instance is a vital tool; if it is turned on pedestrians will tend to keep clear of your hurtling Detroit steel missile. Howerver leaving the siren on when tailing a suspect will alert your prey, virtually guaranteeing mission failure.
Team Bondi decided to place the siren on the clickable left thumbstick. The clickable left thumbstick that you’re constantly pressing by accident BECAUSE YOU USE IT TO CONTROL THE FUCKING CAR.
Also the chases are shamelessly scripted and if you don’t adhere tightly to that script then the mission will fail. Therese aren’t really chases so much as they are an exercise in reaching the next invisible story prompt.
3: Gears of Post-War. Most of the game’s action are shootouts, which take the guise of a cover-based 3rd person shooter. Since all character interactions in LA Noire are superseded by the stiff, clunky, fantastically detailed animations, these shootouts consist of creeping from cover position to cover position, daring only to commit to firing when you know precisely where and when the enemy will pop out Perhaps this is how police shootouts actually take place, but any commitment toward realism dissolves the first time you shoot a goon three times in the chest with a Browning Automatic Rifle to no ill effect.
There are other random eruptions of action gameplay that are thankfully rare enough that they don’t deserve to be covered in depth but still need to be mentioned-- for instance the game will randomly decide it wants to be a 3d platformer-- the stiffest, most unresponsive 3d platformer since the crate sequence in Half Life 1. There is a crane game section-- I’m not fucking kidding you, a crane game section-- that is thankfully short, but still bizarre and unnecessary to the point of resembling absurdest humor. There is a section where your character is chased by a bulldozer-- the resulting parkour gameplay resembles Mirror’s Edge if the main character had suffered a debilitating stroke.
The most frustrating aspect of these failed gameplay elements is that none of it matters. There is no hard game over for any action scene. If you fail the mission three times you’re given the option to skip the sequence entirely and go about with the story. Although this seems at the outset a forward-thinking move that removes gameplay roadblocks from non-gamers, I can’t help but think that this mechanic allowed Team Bondi to overlook playtesting entirely. What is the point spending money refining controls and animation if the sequence can just be skipped?
Back to my original question-- Is LA Noire like Resident Evil in that the game deserves a pass for its limited gameplay in light of other, less tangible elements? After all, despite appearances otherwise, LA Noire isn’t supposed to be an action game. It is an investigation game that sometimes erupts into random, frustrating action sequences that ultimately don’t matter.
I don’t know if I’m qualified to judge LA Noire as an investigative game. I don’t play a lot of adventure games; the gameplay elements don’t really appeal to me. I played through Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney once and found it enjoyable enough even if I often wished I was reading a manga based on the story instead. Evidence collection feels right, the game gives you a lot of tools to let you know if you’ve collected all of the relevant information in any given area.
I found the interrogation process hit-or-miss which is troublesome given the game’s emphasis on reading facial reactions. Often I was at a loss as to what evidence was relevant to the investigation, or confused as to why certain pieces of evidence were invalid. Determining if the suspect was lying or simply withholding truth seemed spotty and inconsistent. It was easy to tell if the client was telling the truth, but all too often I’d incorrectly select “doubt” instead of “you’re a lying sack of shit” without any real reason given as to why that was the wrong choice.
LA Noire’s story would probably be fine if given room to breathe. The bulk of the plot is crouched in the final act, and feels like an afterthought. There are hints as to the overarching story scattered about in newspaper clippings and flashbacks interspersed between chapters. But most of that story doesn’t impact anything in the first three quarters of the game. The main character feels schizophrenic and detached; he’s given no real motivation through much of the story and when the game finally decides to give him some characterization there’s little indication to his thought process.
I can’t really explain much of this without spoiling part of the story, but there’s an element to the game where the main character, in a moment of weakness, drops in on a lady friend. Unless you’ve payed attention to a single line of scripted dialog some hours previous, you’re not clued in that your character is a married man.
In typical videogame plot fashion, LA Noire introduces major antagonists only to have them taken out of the picture shortly after. The villain behind the Homicide chapter, for instance, toys with you through the entire act, only to finally reveal himself as a wholly unrelated minor character who is then dispatched in the very same building. There is a corrupt insurance company CEO who would have been a fantastic character in his own right if the game didn’t find it necessary to wrap up his little story arc inside of half an hour.
In fact, the best and most fully realized antagonist in the entire game is your Vice chapter partner, a genuinely unlikeable guy that probably deserves his own videogame, but also a character there’s no resolution with whatsoever.
That leaves us with atmosphere. This is where Resident Evil succeeded, even though it was a horrible videogame at least it genuinely creeped you out and provided some good scares. I think LA Noire succeeds in this as well, Postwar LA is huge and beautiful and was clearly a labor of love for Team Bondi. It is a pity there’s so little point in exploring it.
Does LA Noire work as a pioneering example of videogame noir? I believe so, and that’s why I think it is ultimately a game worth playing despite these limitations. The dialog and writing is outstanding, the setting haunting, if a bit underdone, and most every character who’s not the main character is realized and interesting. LA Noire is worth playing, it is just hard to recommend without reservation.
LA Noire does a lot of things we’re going to see in future videogames. The facial mapping is a revelation, and I honestly believe LA Noire will open the way to a full-sized retail adventure game renaissance or perhaps even an outright new genre. I just hope game developers take a look at the parts of LA Noire where there is an obvious need for improvement and not walk away thinking that an inconsequential world and bad gameplay elements can be overcome by outstanding atmosphere and Hollywood-level digital actors.
I want LA Noire to succeed. I want you to play it. Just perhaps not in this vision.