There’s a lot to like and admire about Rockstar and Team Bondi’s (go you little Aussie developer, you!) latest game, LA Noire. It’s a sprawling crime epic set in post-WW2 Los Angeles, packed with a cast of characters that have walked straight out of a James Ellroy novel. It has a facial animation system that pretty much buries the uncanny valley, and allows for nuanced character interaction of an unsurpassed nature. There’s at least 20 hours of solid gaming here, too, and much more if take your time. But.
There’s always a but, these days, but LA Noire’s exceptions are pretty serious. We’re not talking about bugs or graphics flaws, either – though these are present – but rather deep issues with the game itself.
Assault and battery
The noir genre is, at its heart, a starkly violent place. It’s a world of betrayal and sharply delineated gender roles, where the emotions run high and shadows hold corruption and danger. LA Noire gets a lot of that right; you play as returned soldier Cole Phelps, and you follow his rise through the LAPD from beat cop to detective. Along the way you solve murders, street crimes and arson.
And you leave a lot of bodies in your path, both those you’ve killed yourself, and those you’d tried to avenge.
On paper, it’s not so different to other Rockstar titles, like GTA or Red Dead Redemption. But in a lot of ways, those games hold to the noir feel much better than LA Noire. They’re tales of bad men trying to do right, and if they can put away some bad men as they go, so much the better. In LA Noire, however, Phelps seems far more of a cipher – we see a lot of flashbacks to his time in the Marine Corp, but these really don’t fill in much more about character’s motivations, or even his true self. It’s easy to imprint on John Marsden, and even to make him ‘your own’ character, in a way, but Phelps... Phelps is a cold fish, at times quite unlikeable. There’s simply too much distance between the player and character.
A lot of this comes down to a conscious design decision. LA Noire is really more of an interactive movie, a game that harks back to point and click adventure games more than its open world brethren (hell, you can’t even go into free roam in LA in the main game – when you complete a case you cut to the start of the next one). You’ll spend almost as much time watching Phelps as controlling him, and it’s in a lot of these sequences that the game seems to put up roadblocks between the game and the player. We not only watch Phelps make poor decisions that we have no control over (like allowing someone to draw a gun and shoot a suspect), but we also watch him silently take part in some brutally misogynist behaviour.
The heart of the game, however, is the detailed questioning of witnesses and suspects. Without the stunning facial animation technology Team Bondi has developed, this would be impossible – you can read the bunching of muscles, the tell-tale flicks of the eyes, and a myriad other subtle tells to discover lies and inconsistencies.
When it works it’s great, but it can also be supremely frustrating when you, the player, discover an inconsistency that the game doesn’t let you make use of. Even more glaring, is the way Phelps tends to vacillate between emotional states as he takes different tacks – one moment he might be quietly respectful, then another threatening someone with a beating. It’s like he’s both alarmingly bipolar and borderline autistic.
Despite all these flaws, LA Noire’s still undeniably a great achievement. It’s dark, mature and researched almost to a flaw. That it’s not perfect is almost a symptom of the game’s ambition, but it doesn’t change the fact the game is a largely erratic affair. There are moments of brilliance, but also ones where you’ll want to put the controller down and take a long break.