What’s the Story?
L.A. Noire is set in 1947 in (surprisingly) Los Angeles. You play Cole Phelps, former WWII soldier now rookie cop who becomes detective and works the various departments, solving crimes by finding clues, interviewing suspects, and determining the truth to get his answers.
What’s the Problem?
Oh so many. I should probably start by saying that this is a good game, but that it squandered the potential to be a great game by still having so many niggling little issues that you have to concentrate as hard on seeing past them as you do on the story. It’s a perfect example of what Wasted Opportunities is for: when that extra little bit would have turned “okay” into “exceptional”.
Since it did so much right, and showed so much potential, there is a lot to say about it. And since it came on three discs (odd. It wasn’t that long), this review has been split into three: Story (this one), Action, and The Rest.
The biggest problem with L.A. Noire (as it seems to be with every Rockstar game, and it gets worse with each iteration) is that, from all appearances, Rockstar doesn’t want to make video games. They want to make big, splashy, dramatic movies. Usually those movies are a rehash of old clichés (especially in the GTA franchise of late), and here they’ve set their sights of 1940’s detective films.
Being that Rockstar wishes this were a film, you are treated/subjected to long cutscenes and very linear gameplay in the guise of an open-world game. So if you approach the game as if it were open-world, you find yourself disappointed when they constantly limit your choices.
This extends mostly to the gameplay section, which I’ll deal with in Review 3.
Cole starts off as a beat cop, walking the streets. This is a good way to introduce players to the mechanics of play and what they’re supposed to do, but it could have been more than just a tutorial. Instead, you’re very quickly promoted to detective, like that was what the game was about and they wanted to get you there as soon as possible.
That’s not always a bad thing, but usually such a promotion in a game would come with an associated benefit. There is none here. You don’t get any extra powers or special abilities (besides being able to wear a suit, I guess) for being a detective. Mostly the quick promotion makes it feel like they lost confidence and regretted starting you off as a beat cop and therefore rush you through to the “real game” and hope you don’t notice.
Another missed opportunity is the fact that everywhere you work, the cases are the same. Whether you’re a beat cop, an arson investigator, working vice, or in traffic, pretty much all the cases are homicides. It’s just that some you stumble across while on patrol, some are burned in their houses, some have drug overdoses, and some were found in their cars.
There’s nothing wrong with a homicide game, but that isn’t what Rockstar made. They made a game where you change departments. So why is every department the same? Did they not have the confidence to start you off on some petty cases, like domestic disputes, without them turning into murders? Or could they just not think of any police case that doesn’t involve people dying?
In any case, it means that the stakes are always the same: someone’s life is ended so you have to catch the killer.
But here’s the thing: it’s a game. If we want to play the next case after this one, we have to catch the killer. You don’t have to get our attention by upping the stakes, you get it by making each case different and interesting rather than the gorram same.
The Black Dahlia
“Oh dear, they’ve reached the homicide department. But we’ve been giving them homicide cases since they started as a beat cop. We can’t just give them the same thing again. Uh… um… There’s a serial killer!”
Ah yes, the Black Dahlia. Can anyone who played the game honestly tell me that they worked the homicide desk without seeing this coming from a mile away?
Don’t get me wrong; it’s a fine idea to have a serial killer, but when your serial killer started killing before Cole was working homicide, it means the other characters have to keep talking about him and reminding Cole of what happened before he arrived. Rather than if the Black Dahlia were Cole’s first case, the player would have to remember all the relevant facts.
Instead, we have heavy hinting by all the support cast constantly reminding us, “No, this can’t be the Black Dahlia. We arrested that guy. This is someone else.”
Bullshit. When five murderers in a row all wear size 8 shoes, have a piece of jewellery removed, and are bludgeoned with tyre irons then strangled with rope, I think even the dimmest detective would realise that they’re connected.
But none of the LAPD believe there might be a connection. Sigh.
Having established to every player of the game (but none of its detectives) that there’s a serial killer out there, the game nonetheless forces you – at the end of each investigation – to arrest someone. Sometimes on very flimsy evidence. You don’t have the option to arrest no one, even though Cole believes it’s the work of a serial killer and the player damn well knows it.
So, at the end of at least two cases, you are forced to arrest an innocent person, knowing full well that they’re innocent, because The Story demands it. Screw logic or any of that crap they’ve been trying to convince you this game is all about. Rockstar wrote a script and they’re sticking to it no matter what the player wants to do or how little sense they’re making.
The End of the Dahlia
Okay, so you have your serial killer. The other cops have accepted that it is a serial killer. How do you proceed? Do you have a couple more murders that all fit the same M.O. (possibly featuring a red herring case that isn’t done by the Dahlia)? Do you end this sequence by interviewing a series of suspects and pulling evidence from all the cases you’ve worked so far?
Do you program the game such that you could arrest him in case 2 if you have all the evidence, but if you’ve missed a trick along the way you can’t? That he gets away for now and he kills a couple more women before you have enough evidence to trap him with all your detectivey cleverness?
Or are you Rockstar Games? In which case, the Black Dahlia leaves you a note to his current whereabouts, then seems surprised when you turn up. Furthermore, he wants to kill you; but not so bad that he hides or anything like that. No, he stands up the front, shouts at you, then draws a shotgun, shoots, misses, and runs away like a bitch.
Yep. Rather than outsmart the Dahlia, you finish his series of cases by chasing him around and occasionally firing a single shot at him before he flees again.
Wow. That’s a truly terrifying bad guy, right there. Did you see the way he failed to even harm me? Or the way he ran off with his tail between his legs?
That, right there, is a Wasted Opportunity.
Sections of the game flash back to World War Two and show Cole and his buddies throughout their tour of duty. This comes into the story at a couple of moments and isn’t a bad idea.
What is a bad idea is that these sections are black and white and the screen goes all wavy. This, combined with the fact that everyone is white and clean-shaven, makes it almost impossible to tell one character from another in these sections. Nonetheless, the game expects you to remember who they all are, what they mean to each other, and so on.
No deal. You brought in too many characters we’d never seen before, who didn’t relate to our current story, and we can’t remember their faces or names. Fail.
Oh, and are these sections necessary? Not really. They could have had one character say, “Oh, you were in my unit in Okinawa.” That’s all the backstory I remember from them.
That said, they do show a different side to Cole than we see in the game, but that really makes it a weakness. We should see the best and worst of Cole in the game, not in cutscenes. That’s what would draw the player in.
They do the same thing with newspapers, hinting at a vast conspiracy as we follow around a doctor and his young pupil. But who are they? How do they relate to our story? Well, you’ll be halfway through the second disc of the game before you find out. I hope you like sitting there and seeing things that don’t seem related to the game you’re playing, because Rockstar sure likes to show them to you!
Also, we encounter this conspiracy first-hand later on. So now the player knows more than Cole about what’s going on.
It’s 1947. Why? Sure, the cars look nice and the city has older buildings in it and everyone is dressed up all formal, but… is there a reason? By setting it so far in the past it means no one has personal radios or mobile phones, so to get additional information you get to sit through this exchange:
“Operator. How can I help you?”
“Operator, get me R and I.”
“Putting you through now.”
“Phelps, badge twelve-forty-seven.”
“How can I help, detective?”
If that doesn’t seem long, try listening to it dozens of times. It gets tedious. Especially since most of the time one of the suspects could have just told you the address or information you needed.
That said, the ending does come into the game’s climax (if that’s what you call it. It comes at the end of the game, so I guess it’s supposed to be the climax), but not enough to warrant the annoyance of that telephone operator.
You have a bunch over the course of the game, but they have one thing in common: they’re pointless. They criticise your driving (reasons to be explained in Review 3) so much that, whenever I could, I’d drive off.
Then the blue dot telling you where they are stays on your radar forever. Reminding you to go and pick them up because they’re your partner and you’re supposed to care about them.
But when you arrive at a crime scene, guess what? The game just puts them into your car, as if they’d been there the whole time! So why the hell would I put up with their bitching?
There are so many cutscenes and interviews in this game that I wonder why they didn’t just film them all. That would save us there slightly-weird faces (excellent lip-synching, though).
Cole doesn’t think the way I do, which compromises how I interview a witness. You see, every witness statement you have to declare to be either Truth, Doubt, or Lie. You use Lie if you have evidence that they’re lying about the subject; Doubt if you think they’re lying but don’t have proof.
Well, sometimes I pick Lie and Cole starts his question doubting the veracity of their statements. But he won’t be basing his reasoning on anything like mine. I might have thought “Ah ha! You were at that house, because I found your toothbrush. Lie.” At which point Cole says, “Spit it out, scumbag. I think you drove him to the murder scene.”
We’re not told much about the character we’re playing. I’d think that that might be so he can be a blank slate for the gamer to project himself onto, except that he’s such a boy scout all the time that no one really likes him (the player included).
Also, apparently he’s married. He wears a wedding band – I spotted that – but he never mentions his wife or daughter until two-thirds through the game. You know, right after we’re told that Cole is having an affair and I wonder why I’m supposed to care.
Why should I care that the character I’m playing cheated on a wife I wasn’t even sure he had (I suspected she’d died during the war and he was just wearing the ring still)? If you want me to care about Cole’s relationship with his wife, you have to show me said wife before the scene where she’s throwing suitcases full of my stuff onto the front lawn.
If you want me to care about Cole, you can’t make him an adulterer for reasons unknown with a woman I’ve only briefly glimpsed in a cutscene. You have to make me (as the player) want him to cheat on his wife (which means you have to show me his wife), and then give me the satisfaction of driving Cole over to her house and making it a reality. If you give me all this in a cutscene (alongside a cutscene of Cole from the war, probably) it’s not engaging at all. You’ve taken all the “interactive” out of “interactive entertainment”. And since you’re not really showing me the relationship between Cole and anyone else, you’ve also taken out the “entertainment”.
What’s the Problem with the Action in L.A. Noire?