L.A. NOIRE / Rockstar / PC
L.A. Noire is a very interesting update of the classic PC adventure game. It's the sort of game I wish the old Police Quest games had been, really; an atmospheric, detail-oriented police procedural that also has passably decent action thrown into the mix. Unfortunately, it's also a collection of great ideas that don't coalesce well into a 20+ hour story campaign; it's also hampered by that $100 million dollar budget and seven-year development cycle. The legendary expense gave us the amazing facial motion capture - by far and away the best yet seen in gaming, coming astoundingly close to reality - and a beautiful rendition of 1940s L.A., but it also mandated that the game move an insane amount of copy to make its money back, and that means appealing to the Joe Dudebro dollar at the expense of complexity, depth and challenge. You're left with a game that's virtually challenge-free; there's almost no possible failure states whatsoever, which reduces the experience to simply going through the same motions over and over. That's OK toward the beginning, when the writing and characters are still fresh and engaging; when the writing starts to crumble about 10-15 hours in and you're still doing the same old shit you were doing in the first case, the whole thing kind of falls apart at the seams.

You play as Cole Phelps, decorated World War II veteran who comes home to L.A. and becomes a police officer at the end of the war. You step into his shoes to control him through the major cases of his career, as he rises through the LAPD ranks as their hand-picked "golden boy" detective. That bit of the plot is lifted straight from L.A. Confidential, as well as the Irish Brogue Captain that sets Cole on his way, but other than that the game stands on its own in terms of story, being more about Cole's character and his coming to grips with his war experiences than some sort of overarching systemic corruption.

Cases generally begin with you at the station, getting briefed on a crime and heading out to the crime scene. The game lets you drive around freely in a very detailed replica of 1940s downtown L.A., which plays and feels like GTA with the violence and mayhem toned down. Like GTA, the driving feels a bit leaden ... even more so here with all the boxy, clunky 1940s cars we have to deal with. GTA always worked in spite of the sometimes leaden driving, however, simply through little consequence for blatantly disregarding rules of the road, and it's the same story here. You drive a tank of a car that mysteriously seems to heal any damage it might take over time, and of course there will never be any cops chasing you. Any property damage you incur simply lowers your five-star rating at the end of each case. So driving is alright, even though you're saddled with shit cars; if you try to drive "properly" the game turns into L.A. Stop And Go Traffic Simulator and is a nightmare, but if you flip on the siren and just drive wherever you feel like it's passable. Your partner can also be made to drive you automatically, but only to the next destination in an investigation, and you have to bring the car to a complete stop and get out to swap positions with him if you're already toodling around.

Unfortunately, there's little reason to drive around other than see the sights. Unlike GTA, there's little in the way of secrets peppered around L.A.'s sprawl, and what there are are largely reserved for the game's "Streets" mode, a free-roam sequence that you unlock after completing each of the game's "desks" that you get promoted through. As you drive around, you get the occasional "street crime" side mission in the form of a radio dispatch you can choose to respond to; these appear to have been thrown in solely to pacify Joe Dudebro when he gets cranky from all the Talky Talky and the Thinky Thinky in the investigative work, as the "street crimes" are almost without exception either cover-based shooting sequences with a gang of armed thugs, or some form of car or foot chase. Aside from some sort of violent catharsis for the more mentally challenged of the audience, the purpose of these is to gain extra experience points, which eventually unlock new outfits, new car models (to look at in a separate menu), and give you Intuition points, which are kind of like a "lifeline" for the investigative sequences.

Investigations are interesting at first, but become much less so as every single one becomes the same routine, particularly once you reach the Homicide desk. Get a briefing from Broguey Captain, go out to crime scene, poke at some gross naked dead body for evidence, walk around and look at all the other evidence that's already been marked, then start interviewing people. The game has you simply walk around an area until you get a sound cue (and a vibration if using an Xbox 360 pad) indicating you're in range of something interesting. This basically reduces investigations to steering Cole over every inch of the area in question, checking every vibration that isn't an empty bottle or discarded cigarette pack. Apologists for the game will tell you that you can turn the sound/vibration cues off, but there's a problem with that they usually fail to mention; a lot of the game's evidence is hidden in trash bins, bushes or other closed containers, of which there's copious amounts around and you can't see in without pushing A next to them to investigate. So without any sort of cues, you're still going to be forced to rub up against every container and shrubbery in the joint and mash A just to make sure you didn't miss something important.

The interrogations are perhaps the sharpest and most direct illustration of how the game's massive budget and cutting-edge tech both giveth and taketh away. As mentioned before, they give amazing facial animation - by far and away the best seen to this point. But because this aspect alone cost tens of millions of dollars (that have to come out of a significant amount of Joe Dudebro wallets), the "tells" that you look for to catch out lies in people's faces have zero subtelty at all. They are either staring straight ahead when they tell the truth, or shifting and jittering around in some unnatural way to let you know they are lying or witholding something. The only difficulty comes from a technical error - Team Bondi initially wrote the three responses as Coax, Force and Lie, and did all their dialogue and voice acting with those choices in mind. But apparently late in development, long after everything was set into place, some Marketroid apparently decided that those options were too confusing for Joe Dudebro ("Dude, what's a "coax"? Is that like a Coke?") and shifted them to Truth, Doubt and Lie instead. So when you choose to Doubt a statement - when you don't accept it as the truth, but don't have any direct evidence on hand to disprove it at the moment - you're actually still picking Force, and Phelps' over-the-top, sometimes psychotic responses reflect that. I actually found this unintentionally entertaining a lot of the time, and didn't think it was that big of a gameplay problem. More of a problem is that the game does the Phoenix Wright thing of not so much testing your agency in putting things together on your own, as it does how well you're following its sometimes baffling internal logic at the moment. You can have put things together on your own early on, but there's no way to go directly at the solution; you have to follow the linear breadcrumb trail left for you, and really you're figuring out how the designer wants you to get to the solution rather than the actual solution itself. You also never get a chance to come back to a point in a different way - make the wrong choice once and that avenue of inquiry is cut off forever, for no rational reason. But even if you do screw up an interrogation, it doesn't seem to matter. There's one case that stands out as a perfect example of all this - a woman gets murdered, and the husband later gets caught burning bloody evidence that appears to be from the crime scene. But a known pedophile who was near her the night before she was killed also gets caught in possession of evidence. Both look potentially good for it, but you don't have an airtight case against either. You eventually get both down to the precinct and have them in separate interview rooms. I interviewed both but decided to charge neither at the time; I wanted to go see if there was a forensics report matching the blood on the items to the dead woman, for starters, and I was also considering going back and accusing the pedo just because he's a pedo, but the game unexpectedly took that as choosing to let them both go free. Then, as the husband is walking out, this guy shows up out of nowhere and is like "THAT'S THE GUY!" and suddenly everything is made right after a parkour/car chase. The fucked thing is, turns out I was right and it's neither of them; you just have to pick one to accuse for the hell of it, and apparently it doesn't matter which. Even if you make the "wrong" choice, some deus-ex-machina contrivance comes along to set you back on the rails right away. The only "failures" really come from dying in one of the game's sometimes clumsy action sequences, but even those you just start right over again from a checkpoint.

Less of the Chest High Walls and Simplified Ass Creed 1 Parkour would have improved the game, as would more agency in putting a case together, but neither of those things sinks the game on its own. The strength of everything else that's done right - the facial animation, the atmosphere, the setting and aesthetic, the characters, the dialogue - is enough to compensate. At least, until the midway point, when every case seems to play out just like the previous, and the writing gradually descends into contrived disappointing silliness. I guess a big part of this is that the main character is, unfortunately, one of the worst and least interesting of the cast; as the story gradually zooms more in on him and his personal demons, it actually becomes less interesting to follow, because we've spent the whole previous 15 hours or so knowing very little about him and being given no particular reason to care what happens to him beyond the fact that we've been plonked into his shoes.

One last thing to complain about - a lot of startup bullshit. This is with the Steam version of the game. You get the usual insistence on installing Direct X and whatever even if you already have it. But then the game decided it was missing "Social Club" files and refused to start up. A fix on the Steam forums suggested you had to run the game from a desktop icon directly rather than going into your game inventory ... nonsensical, but it was the easiest fix so I tried it first, and it actually worked. But then the game decides to patch and restart again. Finally, it runs, and appears to be getting to the title menu ... nope, you have to sign up for Rockstar Social Club first. Or at least, it tries to make it appear that way - the "use local profile" that lets you evade having to have a Social Club account is hidden two screens farther on in a tiny text line at the bottom of the screen. After all that crap the game booted and ran just fine from then on, exception of a couple of "out of memory" crash-outs when I'd been playing for a couple hours at a stretch. But goddamn was that a lot of nonsense to get it going. Plus it also apparently has GameShield DRM running in the background.
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