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What’s the Story?

Cole Phelps, badge twelve-forty-seven, is an LA cop in 1947. He solves crimes. You, the player, are allowed to watch this via cutscene and, occasionally, contribute.

 

What’s the problem?

The Role of the Player

Okay, basically, just click this link. They can explain it much better than I can, if you can spare the five minutes (make time).

It seems LA Noire doesn’t really respect video games as a medium. Where previous Rockstar titles have been open world – giving the player a wide canvas and letting them run wild – LA Noire restricts their moves at every stage and delivers all of its most important information via cutscenes. That works fine for films and TV, but for interactive media it’s when the player turns off their brain.

In interactive media, important information can be learned by the player during play, which makes them part of the discovery and learning process. Cutscenes make them a bystander, a viewer, rather than a part of the creative act. Just… just click the link above, really. Those guys explain it way better than I can.

The Illusion of Choice

LA Noire tries to have it both ways, trying to make it seem like you can do more than you can. For example, rather than just cutting from crime scene to crime scene, you drive the intervening distance through the streets of LA. That would be nifty if there were anything to do there, or if you got some feeling for the streets, but mostly it’s just following the blip on your radar (without the handy line telling you the best way to get there).

Anyway, since you are in control of a motor vehicle, you can be a bit of a jerk (especially once you realise that all of the other drivers are). However, you can’t actually be a jerk. Sure, you can drive down the footpath, but 95% of the pedestrians hear you coming and leap out of the way just in time. Even the ones you hit don’t die. They just get up and walk away.

Sure, I COULD drive on the road, but it's much less dangerous on the sidewalk.

Here’s a lesson on gamers, Rockstar: if you give me pedestrians, I will try to run them over. If you don’t want me to run over pedestrians, don’t give me that option. But don’t make it look like you did and then hide it.

It’s like the fact that you can’t get your gun out whenever you want to. You can’t choose whether you shoot the pesky perp who’s trying to fisticuff you. You are forced to perform the actions the game wants you to.  Like a film that you get to wander from scene to scene.

 

Side Missions

On the offchance that you play a side mission (which, though fun, are usually across the other side of the city, so it takes longer to drive there and back than it does to complete the mission. Not really worth the effort, really.

Why not have the calls only come through if you’re within a one-or-two minute drive? Why, when you’re working in Hollywood, do cases in Wiltshire and further away still pop up? It’s not like, if you’re working in Hollywood, you have any business being in Wiltshire. Surely once you move precincts, the game could ditch any unplayed side missions in the previous district.

Oh, dammit, get back here! I didn't drive for ten minutes just to chase you for another five!

Also annoying is that if you fail a side mission (say, because you accidentally shot the hostage instead of the hostage-taker at the mission’s conclusion), you can’t just push one button and try again. You are put in your car a half-block away and drive to the mission start, where you get to watch the cutscene again (you can skip it, though) and restart from the beginning.

And what’s wrong with checkpoints, Rockstar?

 

Main Missions

When you finish one main story mission or case, the game immediately brings up the titles for the next one.

Pictured: the name of the case which you'll have forgotten by the time you load the game tomorrow.

There’s nothing between missions (except maybe a cutscene of Cole at the Blue Room). No break. No chance for you to knock off a few side missions before you’re thrust into another hour-long case.

Perhaps it’s intended to make the player play on, but it’s still a trick. It means you can’t take a break at a convenient moment; you have to save and exit during a case. Hopefully they didn’t put anything you need to remember in that cutscene, because when you come back to it tomorrow, you won’t.

Pictured: the Blue Room. Again.

Right here was a great opportunity to expand Cole’s world. Have us drive to the Blue Room, or to his house at the end of the day. Show us that wife and kid he supposedly has and we’re supposed to care about. Or show us why Cole likes Miss Germany. For most of the game, he seems like a creepy stalker, constantly going to her club and watching her. And then we find out he’s sleeping with her. Again, any indication of a relationship wasn’t displayed clearly enough until right when Rockstar needed it.

But the player is the main character. We need to invest in him, even if we don’t like him. You can’t surprise us with his actions or have him do things we don’t expect because we – the player – are Cole more often than he is. We dictate whether he drives down the footpath or into the path of oncoming vehicles, or whether he obeys every road rule. He is a jerk or a saint because of us. So when he does something we don’t anticipate, it feels like Cole is betraying us – us who have put so much of ourselves into creating him.

Meh; just click on the link at the top of the page already.

 

Driving

It seems that no one in LA knows that the fastest way to travel is by going straight at lights. Every car turns at every corner, which means that if you want to drive straight ahead, arseholes ram you at every intersection.

After a while you learn to anticipate and steer around them, but you shouldn’t have to. It shouldn’t be quicker and easier to drive along the footpath than the road.

Driving in a straight line will cause you to fail the LA driving test.

 

The City

is three times the size it needs to  be, so it takes ages to get anywhere. Compound that with the fact that, unlike GTA, there is no fun to be had stealing other cars and the pedestrians are all psychic immortals, and you have a useless driving experience.

The city is huge. Also long and thin, so you have further to drive per square mile of map created.

 

Commandeer

You are never without a car. You can always commandeer one. But there’s no point commandeering anything that’s not a cop car or you won’t have the police radio and won’t hear about the side missions.

When you start with the best car in the game, what’s the point in getting any other?

That said, I recommend stealing a fire truck. There’s still a siren, but it’s big and heavy enough that you can bulldoze through any pesky cars that turn in your path without losing any speed!

Pictured: the shit.

 

Cop Cars

So you’re a cop, which means you don’t have to steal cars. Less fun, but fair enough. Except that late in the game you’re not a cop.

Shock horror!

Does this mean you now have to use your wits? Take care of your car? Steal parked cars or threaten their owners?

Nope.

"Excuse me, officer. Get out." "Sure thing, complete stranger!"

Want a police car? Best way is to gentle ram one so the driver stops and gets out. He doesn’t arrest you or anything, he just inspects the damage. You then climb into the open driver’s side door, mutter something like “I need this car”, and the police officer in the passenger seat climbs out for you.

What the hell? Why are the cops not arresting me for running a red light and crashing into them head-on? Why are they so willing to just hand over a cop car to someone who isn’t a cop?

Probably because they hoped no one would ask such awkward questions, because such questions break their half-constructed world.

 

Investigating Crimes

The main problem with this game (most likely picked up by every reviewer who played it) is that the investigations revolve around being able to tell whether a suspect is telling the Truth, a Lie, or whether you should Doubt their statement. Doubt and Lie are the same thing, but with Lie you have to prove their lying by bringing forth a piece of evidence.

But sometimes the witness hasn’t said anything that even could be a Lie or a Doubt, but they’re clearly shifty (the game is pretty obvious about whether you should select Truth). So you use an Intuition point, removing Doubt from your options. They’re lying then. But what evidence are you supposed to use? Unless Cole asks a question so leading that it’s basically the Pied Piper, you end up selecting one at random.

Pictured: vaguely where Cole might take the conversation, if he feels like it.

 

Selecting Items

takes too damned long. Pulling out your notebook or selecting evidence takes three times as long as it should. The animations probably looked fine when they were being watched by the development team, but when you have to sit through them fifty times a case, they eat up your time.

Selecting which item to pick up should happen as fast as the player can think what they want to look at.

Okay, you've finally picked it up. That's a start.

And once you have something in your hand, sometimes it can be opened, or has information on one side, so you have to rotate it in every possible direction before you can put it down. The whole process takes too long.

Other times items aren’t related at all, and Cole says this but continues holding them. Putting in non-related items isn’t a bad idea, but the instant Cole mutters “I don’t see how this is connected”, he should put it down.

This evidence problem is compounded by the fact that you have no cursor, just Cole’s hand. So if you want to know which objects you can touch, you have to move his hand in all possible directions which, thanks to Cole’s lazy arm, takes forever. Oh, and if you push A before Cole has finished moving his arm, nothing happens. So you are forced to wait for his arm to come to a complete stop before you are permitted to perform one more action.

It’s even worse with corpses. Because sometimes you can look at their torsos, sometimes not. Sometimes you can look in both their coat pockets, sometimes not. And to find out, you’re moving Cole’s pointing finger around the person and pressing A and seeing if anything happens.

I was looking for clues! Really! I wasn't moving his mouth like a ventriloquist's dummy!

 

Worth Playing?

Given the length of this ramble, it may come as a surprise that LA Noire is actually a pretty good game. They tried something new, and did well at it, but it’s like they forgot to play-test or polish the thing, so many things that should have been groundbreaking and amazing were merely okay and what should have been intuitive was awkward.

 

What’s the Solution?

Turn it into a private eye game.

Start as a cop to learn the ropes. Make the city smaller so you get a real feel for its districts and streets. Walk around as a beat cop, starting on smaller crimes or domestic disturbances and using your conversational skills to calm down situations rather than just accuse people.

Make the city into a character rather than a backdrop. There’s too many streets (and districts) in LA Noire that you never need to go down. Have crimes that occur all over the map from one central police station (but since you’re on the beat that’s not always where you start the mission from).

Be the golden boy for a while, solve some crimes, walk the beat, be promoted to traffic cop and actually, you know, deal with traffic crimes like speeding or running red lights – crimes that you could spot on your way to other places (spontaneous crimes, that is, rather than big long missions). Give the drivers better AI so they don’t all drive slowly and turn every corner and change lanes into your path.

At the end of each major case, clock off and drive home to your wife and family, or your mistress, or stay and do overtime (drive around in a car solving the on-the-spot and radio crimes) or whatever. Return to the police station when you want to start a new case.

Be promoted again (you’re developing quite a rapport with your one commander (rather than the four or so you go through in LA Noire)).

Be able to fail a case by accusing the wrong person, or having insufficient evidence. Be actually punished for this (rather than being told you are punished in a cutscene and then in the next cutscene being told “How did you like that month on traffic duty? Now that you’re back to arson, I expect better of you than last case”) and have to do a day or two of beat-work again.

Be promoted to the homicide desk. Be the only one who believes it was a serial killer but rather than disagreeing strongly and then doing nothing about it, be fired because you looked into it on your own or something. Open a private eye office and solve the serial killer case to show how good you are.

This would also solve the problem of the player having the best car in the game at his beck-and-call. If you want a police car, you’re not entitled to it. Do you steal it (and risk the police chasing you) or make do with your beat-up private-eye’s car?

Clarify the evidence problem. What you can and can’t touch should be as obvious in a game as it is in real life. Use a shine or glint if you don’t want to go as far as a dot or icon, but let the player know what they can interact with.

And make those interactions faster. Don’t make me wait for the animation of Cole pointing at an object before I can push “A” to select it. If I push A before his hand is there, he should immediately pick it up when he gets there. Although, preferably Cole’s arm should move as fast as the player can think. After all, the point isn’t to make us watch Cole slowly pick up an item, it’s to see if that item is relevant. If it isn’t, he should put it down. If it is, he should realise the important point and leave us (the players) to figure out how to use that information.

Finally, I’d eliminate the Truth/Lie/Doubt thing and replace it with a conversation wheel like in Mass Effect so you can see what Cole is going to ask. I’d give the Truth and Doubt options on one side of the wheel, with three potential Lie options on the other (so you do still have to do some sleuthing; and if you haven’t found key evidence then the correct Lie option wouldn’t be among the three), but the main point is that you can read what Cole means by each option so you don’t have to guess where he will take the interview.

If nothing else, you’re a private eye! Your character doesn’t have to be a goody-two-shoes in every cutscene. You get to wear a trenchcoat! You could handle cases that start off being minor but turn big, or others that seem big but end up small. But they’re not all homicides!

I think a private eye game would include all the best bits of LA Noire (solving crimes, investigating, determining whether people are lying, etc) with the best of old-school GTA games (shades-of-grey morality, (possibly) stealing cars, police chases, being a loner (that is, not having to put up with a partner yapping at you), guns and girls and trenchcoats).

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