In writing this review, I felt like I was being perhaps a little too informative at the expense of being less entertaining. Sure, I got my shots in on LA Noire with the drinking game - but aren't laughs what you're really after, dear reader? That's what my mom asks for whenever she calls, anyway. But ultimately, I decided LA Noire had enough interesting elements to chat about to satisfy my craving for more intellectual discourse. Is what you want a more tongue-in-cheek look at the title? I can arrange that. But until I'm told otherwise, I shall proceed as my heart tells me to - with overbearing paranoia and honeyed vitriol. LA Noire, have at thee!
I know I left some gameplay in here somewhere ...
LA Noire tells the tale of Cole Phelps, a Marine coming home from World War II's Pacific theater who works as a police officer in burgeoning 1947 Los Angeles. A mere patrolman when you first step into the game's tutorial, Cole thirsts to prove himself on LA's streets and become a detective. You advance through the ranks by solving cases - usually murders, but also a plethora of other domestic disasters. As Cole Phelps becomes a force within the city to be reckoned with, he - and the player - is introduced to a shady cast of characters, both those that make up Los Angeles's social elite, and the dregs of society. Cole's own past, and the Machiavellian machinations at work in the City of Angels, are revealed piecemeal through side stories, flashbacks, and dramatic confrontations as the game continues on.
"I'm only a rookie, ma'am. I have to use this chocolate badge until I prove I'm the real deal. Go on, take a bite."
Gameplay packages together a number of mechanics that a lot of gamers have probably seen before - but never before in this exact combination. The exact percentages of gameplay that you'll experience varies widely depending on how you play the game. As a Rockstar game (although not one that straight-up uses the RAGE engine - not to be confused with the game engine for the upcoming Rage id software title), there's a certain amount of freedom to run amuck - jump into a car, drive into civilians, park places where parking is generally frowned upon. There's not really a capacity for lawless violence in the sense that most Rockstar games are known for, primarily because unlike the protagonist of most Rockstar games, you're not a vigilante, anti-hero, or dildo-wielding homicidal maniac. (I was going to find a youtube video from GTA Vice City or San Andreas where you can break into a police station, get a dildo as a melee weapon, and rain hell down upon every fool you come across, but it turns out that popping "police station dildo" into Google Images is a pretty poor idea, especially considering my choice in SafeSearch settings.) No, Cole Phelps is a paragon of law, and that means you can't use your firearm willy-nilly except in the pursuit of justice. You're expected to behave like an upstanding citizen should, and so while the option for unadulterated carnage is definitely there, I preferred to play the straight man in this particular sandbox adventure. I stuck to the main plot and very rarely ventured off into the urban jungle of LA to pursue the plentiful side missions or exploration.
When you're not driving like maroon who's had one too many Stoli's, the primary gameplay boils down to three core types of mechanics: 1) Investigation, 2) Interrogation, and 3) Bullshit they make you do because it's a video game and they have to have more than two things that you can do. Bullshit can be broken down further into platforming, footchases, driving, and gunplay. Of these, platforming and driving can be regarded as welcome breaks from the action. The mechanics involved are nothing revolutionary, and certainly aren't on par with games that use those mechanics as major gameplay mechanics, but they're certainly passable and they're usually well staged in their particular environments.
Not pictured: Steampunk helicopters flying high above with woefully ineffective candlestick searchlights.
Footchases are equally well staged - both in terms of timing, and environment - but the "realistic" full stop and turn that the player avatar does whenever they want to change directions make these sequences more frustrating than they ought to be. They're fun as long as you realize that you're not controlling a human being during these sequences - you're actually controlling a Cole Phelps-shaped tank.
Gunplay is considerably more irritating. Gunfights, like platforming, happen more sporadically, but they happen at pivotal moments in the game and are usually very tense sequences. The bullets in this game are just as deadly as they were in Red Dead Redemption. I really appreciated the sense of lethality in Red Dead - essentially Call of Duty-style regeneration taken to the far extreme. Your health will regenerate, but you're dead after about two or three shots... or one, if it's close range. It kept the action moving while still maintaining a sense of urgency and desperation, especially when drastically outnumbered in Red Dead's open environments with plentiful cover. LA Noire takes the spirit of this kind of gameplay and hampers it badly with clunky shooting controls, narrow hallways and corridors, and a cover system that even Redfield would be embarrassed to use. As I mentioned, these fights often happen at the climax of a case or a series of cases, and as a result, it's really frustrating to end with such tepid gameplay - especially given the fun of what works up to it.
Oh, good! A lifeless, featureless corridor! Where better to use a mechanic that's not the core mechanic of the game to close a major mission?
Before talking about the primary gameplay of the title, it's worth noting that LA Noire permits you to completely and utterly skip the "action" sequences of the game, if that's what you're into. Whether this is an ingenious option that allows non-action-gamers the opportunity to better enjoy the title, or a cunningly passive way of admitting that the developers knew they'd made some sequences that were obnoxious or unengaging and didn't mind if you totally skipped them - I don't know. Odds are good that it's probably a little bit of both. But it's there, and the game will prompt you if you want to use it if you fail a given sequence enough times.
The primary mechanics, happily, are much more engrossing. Dialogue trees and scene examinations are staples of the adventure game genre, and they're represented in impressive fashion here. Cole regularly arrives at the scene of the crime - both in progress, and after the fact - and has to put the pieces together to figure out what happened and what his next lead is. Searching the area and uncovering clues is helped by audio cues and insights from your partner. Once you've got a suspect, or a witness, or even just some random character that looks peculiar and is proximate to the crime, you can quiz them on their involvement, calling them out on their statements either with doubt or outright accusation of falsehood. The facial animation touted by the game comes to full force during these sequences, giving the player visual clues to help them figure out if the target is really being truthful.
"This guy looks like a real creep." "That's your reflection, Phelps."
These mechanics are especially engaging because the game allows the player to succeed and fail at these sequences as they like, and the game continues right along. I personally closed a pair of cases back to back completely incorrectly, much to the chagrin of Phelps and his current partner. The game kept a-movin', feeding me a new mystery to solve after I'd had the Chief scream at me for the better part of an hour.
The world of 1947 Los Angeles is filled with faces and falsehoods, but the entire package works primarily because it's wrapped together in a consistent style. Is it accurate? I don't know - I'm not up to snuff on my late 40s aesthetics. But it has the ring of authenticity, and all of the pieces work well together - the outfits, the lingo, the music, the voice acting (some of the best I've heard in a game), the architecture, and technology and the way that the player is forced to rely upon it in an old-fashioned way (asking your partner for step-by-step directions, calling the operator for more information, not having access to Wikipedia and beepers to help you solve cases.) All of these things come together to present a world that's not one that we're frequently asked to visit, and like the obvious comparison of AMC's Mad Men, it's fascinating not merely for its antiquity but because it's not really all that far off from the world that you and I live in today.
Los Angeles, 1947. Not as much acid rain, but still filthy in its own way.
LA Noire captivates me not merely because it's an entertaining - if flawed - experience. I'm more profoundly struck by the trends that LA Noire represents. I don't mean to attribute any kind of messianic status to Cole Phelps's adventure. As a Rockstar title, it wrestles with Vice City for a #3 most enjoyable experience, but doesn't come close to dislodging either Red Dead Redemption or San Andreas from the top spots. No, what really gets my attention is the way that LA Noire succeeds as a game that can be well-regarded by both the gaming public and the non-gaming public. LA Noire is one of the most watchable titles I've ever seen - even the slower, sometimes pedantic examinations and investigations are made entertaining by the variety of 1940s personalities that you run across. Much of what makes the game fun becomes overwrought by the final third of the game's ~20 hour plotline, which is also about the time that the story's hidden twists and wiles untangle themselves for somberly realistic, unspectacular, decidedly "noir" finale.
LA Noire follows down a path that Heavy Rain walked down not long ago. It's not a great game, but it's a game that hints at greatness. It's a game that tries to bring a legitimate "gamer" experience to a wider audience without excessively dumbing down or removing mechanics, and I hope that we continue to see more games like it.