L. A. Noire, the new crime epic from Rockstar Games and Australian developers Team Bondi, is an absolute triumph of style, tone, and period authenticity. Team Bondi’s research was exhaustive and went far beyond watching 1940s films and leafing through a book or two about the costume and architecture of the period. The tiniest details matter- the stitching inside a ladies’ hat, the chrome trim of a Buick or Chrysler, the typesetting of signs and ephemera, and the razor-sharp tailoring of the menswear. There is a sense of veracity in this game unlike anything I’ve ever seen. More than a few times I’ve stopped to admire how accurately the game depicts a mosaic-tiled countertop or an elaborate wallpaper pattern true to the period’s style.
The game’s technical qualities are simply dazzling. The graphics rarely register anywhere below outstanding. A time and place rich with mahogany, honey, and golden sunshine tones is captured by the meticulously coded light and shadow. The much-heralded Motion Scan technology is a significant step forward not only in modeling the intricate, subtle motions of the human face, but also in enabling live actors to impart a real sense of performance and emotion to their virtual counterparts. The music is also impeccable, with a sumptuous original score mixed with tasteful jazz needle drops. It’s an effortlessly beautiful, seductive feast for the eyes and ears.
The intellect is tickled as well. Although the main narrative line takes far too long to get underway due to what amounts to a ten hour prologue, it is a very complex and intricate plot unlike anything attempted in a video game before. And it’s not complicated in that silly, nonsensical way that a JRPG might be- it’s about human relationships, adult situations, and real-world issues. There are numerous forgettable characters and throwaway revelations that are either later refuted or brushed aside and major plot points and relationships are often understated or muddled. But stick around for the last half of the game because it turns into a slow-burning, compelling crime yarn involving police corruption, greed in high places, and the emotional aftermath suffered by veterans of World War II. It’s heady, high-minded stuff far removed from the typical space marine melodrama and funny elf-talk in which video games usually traffic. It’s undoubtedly refreshing to see a video game that attempts to speak the language of Hammett, Chandler, Thompson, and Spillane for a change.
Unfortunately, all of the above occurs in an absolutely awful video game that stands among the worst that I have played this year. Criticized strictly within its medium- and not as an “interactive adventure”, ersatz movie, or any other contextual excuse- L.A. Noire is a failure entirely bereft of meaningful gameplay and void of foundational cause-and-effect mechanics. Of course, it’s easy for its supporters to defend the game on the grounds that it’s not another first-person shooter. It’s also clear that there is a hunger for games with new settings and more mature themes and this title slides right into that demand. But the fact that the game isn’t like other popular games or that it has an underused setting isn’t enough evidence to declare it “great”. Much like last year’s Red Dead Redemption, its success rides on its atmospheric novelty and the “Rockstar Presents” printed on the cover.
The grand theft auto (called “commandeering” here), reckless driving, property damage, terrible gunplay, collectibles, and strained “edginess” remind you of who’s footing the bill for this expensive production. But the core problems with L. A. Noire are evident within the first couple of hours of play and they are rather unlike the categorical issues in Rockstar’s previous titles. There’s never been a shortage of play in their games, regardless of how inane or trite the activities may be. But you don’t even really play this game, you do it. And what you do is so repetitive that it almost feels like the 21 cases comprising the main story are some kind of endurance trial. The celebrated investigations that form the primary activity of the game all follow almost exactly the same pattern of 21st century 3D pixel hunting for clues, looking at mailboxes or ledgers for familiar names, and calling into the station to get an address to find the next location. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes here- a controller shake and music cue lets you know when there’s something to look at, which might turn out to be nothing worth picking up at all. The effect is that the game comes across like a very expensive and exceptionally well-written version of one of those budget-class casual murder-mystery games.
The redundant activity becomes grueling over the course of the game, but at least it’s better than what happens when Team Bondi decides to at least pretend that there’s a game to be played here. Simple, minigame-style fistfights and awkward gun battles are atrocious, but what are even worse are the endless foot and car chases that occur during investigations. You come to expect it- the perp is going to bolt. Not only is he going to bolt, he’s going to monkey up a drain pipe and run across the rooftops or it’s going to end up in another punch-out or a shooting. This happens over and over again, and by the fifth time I was rolling my eyes. Car chases do come in two varieties though, the “get close so I can shoot his tires out” one and the “trail the car ahead without being spotted” one. When Red Dead Redemption’s writers ran out of story, they threw in a Gatling gun massacre to keep things moving. L. A. Noire’s writers do this with chases and clumsy action sequences that are incongruous with the genre the game is supposed to represent.
The less said about the tightrope walking, balance boards, crudely canned platforming, and mazes in one of the investigations, the better. It’s clear that even Team Bondi knew how much inconsequential filler they were padding their design with and even the driving sequences can be passed over if you don’t particularly feel like taking a Sunday drive to the next location. If you fail three times in any of the minigames, then you have the option of skipping the problematic section with no penalty to the investigation.
It’s not like the investigations themselves really matter. Failure is not possible. The much-ballyhooed interrogations seem compelling at first, with Cole able to adopt three different postures to react to the person-of-interest’s body language and responses. It quickly becomes apparent however that the actual outcomes of these Q&A sessions are negligible, regardless of how well the dialogue is written. It is irrelevant what you as the player think or have surmised from evidence- it’s all dictated to you by the script with some branching, none of which impacts the ultimate resolution of the cases or core narrative, although sometimes the wrong guy gets locked up. Much like in the Phoenix Wright games, accusations of dishonesty have to be backed up with evidence gathered during the investigation. So you’ll accuse some old lady or a kid of lying and they’ll basically respond with a completely unrealistic “yeah, you wanna prove that, cop?” attitude while you flip through a notebook to try to pick incriminating evidence from a list.
A meaningless XP and leveling system coupled with a star rating at the end of the case might convince you that you’ve made a difference. But there are no elements that actually allow the player to attempt to deduce a conclusion, solve a mystery, or connect disparate points of evidence. The player isn’t trusted enough to be allowed to be smart. Every interrogation is a by-the-list, processional affair that stops just short of automated. In a later homicide investigation, a potentially interesting turn of events finds Phelps deciphering bits of Shelley poetry to find locations on the map. I thought I might get to do some actual detective work until I saw that all the points were already marked on the map and I just had to choose to go to them in the right order. This is a game without emergent play, consequences, or resonant decisions.
Which is fine, but don’t try to tell me that this is an “open world” game if it’s as on-rails as an old school Sierra adventure game. The sandbox format is absolutely wrong for the game because the freedom and promise of exploration is waylaid by the complete emptiness of Los Angeles- there’s just nothing to do there, other than random acts to increase those pointless Rockstar statistics that track everything in the game. Sure, there’s some 40-odd “street crimes” you can pursue as side quests but- you guessed it- they’re mostly chases and shootouts. The vast, travelable map of Los Angeles is shockingly empty unless you indulge in filler content. Nothing’s shaking up at Hollywood and Vine. There’s only one story in this naked city, the rest of the content is simply padding to support a large, mostly empty map.
Team Bondi should have focused completely on the main story and not on meeting the epic expectations and lack of structure that come with a game released under the Rockstar aegis. This story could have been told- and told more strongly with more resonant characters and richer subtexts- in an eight to ten hour, focused adventure game. A great crime film could do it in a hundred and twenty minutes because there’s no obligation to pad out those extra 18 hours with meaningless filler. There’s a reason that Chinatown doesn’t feature nearly a full day’s worth of footage showing Jake Gittes driving around town, picking up every cigarette butt he comes across, brawling, getting into numerous gun battles, or trying to find hidden cars to steal. The game fails ultimately because it lacks the kind of rigorous editorial focus it needed. It loses sight of the stronger narrative it could be capable of in a tighter format. It’s clear that there is more story to tell than what’s on the screen as evidenced by major plot points being relegated to collectible newspaper headlines and barely addressed but crucial relationships. So why then is so much of the game spent in mindless, empty gameplay instead of plot development or meaningful interactions? L.A. Noire winds up much like the body of Elizabeth Short, the “Black Dahlia”- a star-struck, Hollywood-bound victim, fragmented, scattered, and divided over too much ground.
This is a terrible video game, yet I absolutely think that anyone interested in the future of storytelling and immersion should play it and take notes. It’s a very complex and intricately scripted experience with an incredible atmosphere, even if sloppy in its pacing and at odds with its needless open world format and simplistic, casual-friendly gameplay. There are definitely frontiers being explored here in terms of performance, humanizing digital characters, and the kinds of real-world, human stories video games can tell. The game’s ultra-detailed, unprecedented production is likely as good as anything else we’ll see this console generation. But there still needs to be a video game here for it to be completely successful or worthy of the praise that is being heaped upon it, which tends to ignore the more egregious failures of this game within its medium. It’s this year’s Heavy Rain, complete with origami and a similar resentful contempt of the core values of the video games.