Editorial: L.A. Noire – A potentially great concept foiled by poor design

Please note that there are a few spoilers related to L.A. Noire found within Mike’s editorial this week. Read at your own risk!

L.A. Noire is an egregiously hollow experience. I’d like to say that it helps bridge the gap between gameplay and story, but it clearly does not do anything of the sort. I’d like to say the impressive facial animations instantly make you forget you’re playing a game, but they certainly do not. What the game tries to accomplish is in vain due to the poor choices made on the design side.

I’m not going to discuss the poor work environment, apparent lack of management on the team’s part, and the disbanding of Team Bondi in light of all of this. While I do believe the issues present can be pinned on these negative things, my goal is to not point blame, but say what’s wrong. So with that out of the way, here’s what cripples Team Bondi’s first and seemingly last game.

Innovation without life

The aspect of L.A. Noire that’s received top billing is its use of “MotionScan” technology to portray in-game characters with realistic facial animations. And, yes, it is impressive. It would be even more impressive if the game instead used a bunch of disembodied heads, because the body animations that accompany the former don’t hold up. “Don’t move!” Cole Phelps says with hesitance and the appropriate creases in his face, as he stiffly raises his firearm like a marionnette.

Mind you, the characters aren’t poorly acted. I was actually strapped to find a bad performance during my run through the game and can attest that it’s strikingly solid, all and all. The faces do over-emphasize certain emotions, but that’s due to the game’s interrogation system requiring its actors to employ exaggeration in their performance. Even the eyes are well done, and those tend to lack as much life as the homeless cat that refuses to stop leaving its droppings on my porch.

So the much touted faces and performances are indeed great, with only the stiff body animations dragging down the former two’s prowess.

An open world with little purpose

The setting, attire, and landmarks portrayed in the late 40’s of Los Angeles clearly were put together with thought and care. I found myself floored by just how convincing the period and location are throughout my play-through of the game. At least, from what I can tell. Perhaps liberties were taken to fit with what’s ripped from its inspiration L.A. Confidential (more on this later) and the fact that it’s a game that presents a heavily simplified version of police investigation, as even in the 40’s, detectives avoided handling evidence with their bare hands. Despite this, the world itself never falters. This doesn’t keep there from being a lack of life in the sandbox the developers went through the trouble of creating.

Throughout the game, players are given the opportunity to complete side missions. All of which end in a shootout with a suspect or suspects, if the game feels daring enough to mix up the usual formula. Exploring the city leads to unlocking landmarks and new vehicles, neither of which serve much of a purpose. Knowing the area will make one case easier due to the scavenger hunt it tasks for you later in the game, but it can be completed through trial and error. It’s disappointing that such a meticulously created sandbox lacks any purpose or life beyond what each case offers.

There are notable moments where you’re given the opportunity to return to places, and while that’s great, there isn’t much of a reason to explore, leaving its sandbox environment for naught.

A story riddled with problems in structure and logic

The plot of L.A. Noire plays like the first draft of a novel created by a 40’s enthusiast that took a shine to L.A. Confidential. In fact, let’s just say that L.A. Noire is the unfinished first draft of L.A. Confidential, because there are enough recurring elements between the two to prevent the similarities from being considered “coincidental.”

We play as Cole Phelps. It’s the late 40’s in Los Angeles and Phelps has worked his way up to being a police officer after serving his time in the military. We’re taken through four units (Traffic, Homicide, Vice, and Arson) within the department and assigned cases to reflect each. Players are given snippets of Cole’s memories from the war, as well as newspaper clippings to help tie everything together in an over-arching plot (more on this in a bit). L.A. Noire does its best to keep a focus on story over gameplay. This would be commendable if  the story didn’t find itself scrambled to bits by the lack of logic between the said narrative and gameplay.

For instance, the game (confusingly) shows us the silhouette, and even so far as the actual killer’s face, during cut-scenes that play at the start of each murder investigation. When we’re then presented the suspects, we can immediately tell that none of the potential perpetuators are guilty. So throughout a leg of the game, we (the player) are knowingly pinning suspects for murder we know they played no part in, and we’re aware of this because the developers tell us outright. So when we’re “punished” for picking the wrong perpetuators and then tasked at finding the “real” killer it comes at no surprise, and feels frustratingly like cheap padding.

A final act that’s poorly stitched into the framework of the plot (WARNING: Major spoilers ahead)

This isn’t the only time L.A. Noire unravels its narrative poorly. The newspaper clippings I mentioned take away any suspense or intrigue from the final act of the game, which ties into Cole Phelps’s time in the military as well as the Vice and Arson desks. This is where the game abruptly shifts gears. Cole Phelps is outed in an affair by his partner Roy Earle and it shatters his reputation, which covers up another scandal in the department.

It’s not much of a surprise that this occurs, as we’re fed exposition constantly that Roy Earle is a “bad apple.” He walks around with a list of people’s he’s bribing (wise fellow, eh?) and he shows up to knock Phelps off one of his investigations because of its interference with a known informant (corrupt cop “stuff,” it would seem). He slaps women, bends the law, and even eats babies (one of these is a lie). You know, the sort of cheap characterization tactics used to tell your audience that your character is blatantly a bad person without actually showing it.

But why are we supposed to despise Roy Earle? What does he really do, besides point out Cole Phelps’s affair to his superiors (read: not frame)?  We really  can’t sympathize with Phelps, because he is willingly in an affair with a club singer that also happens to be a junkie with no reasonable explanation. His wife throws him out and he alludes to being with the person in question because he found consolidation in being able to discuss his  memories from the military with her. But we’re not given anything to build up to this moment. We see the flashbacks at certain points, but Phelps never shows that he’s “haunted” by them until he mentions it to his wife. It’s a plot point with potential that’s fumbled because of its execution.

As a soldier, Cole Phelps is a straight-edged prick that finds himself shot in the back by one of his own troops due to an awful situation he’s partially responsible for. By the end of the game he’s still a straight-edged prick, just less of one because of a moment at the end I’ll refrain from spoiling. Prior to the start of the game, he’s deemed despicable by his fellow troops, particularly by one named Jack Kelso, who we play as in the final act. Kelso actually seems like a far more interesting character and his presence just makes me regret playing as Phelps for a majority of L.A. Noire. Regardless, none of the characters are likable. By the time the credits role, we’re left with a mess with very little understanding or empathy.

The problem with L.A. Noire‘s narrative is its lack of consistency. It introduces ideas, abandons them, and then brings in other concepts that receive absolutely no spotlight prior to their arrival. I’d be more forgiving of this if the gameplay held up. It unfortunately does not.

A deeply flawed interrogation system

One of the most pressing flaws of L.A. Noire is its interrogation system. This being the crux of the game, as uncovering more information rests on interrogating the suspects and bystanders you encounter on each case. So for there to be a problem with it means that the core of the game is inherently problematic.

Interrogations work as follows. The player guides Cole Phelps through each segment that involves questioning based on a list of queries. Some of these queries are found through scanning scenes for evidence, while others are already present, regardless. Each query possesses a “blurb” that represents a point of interest. Picking one will trigger Phelps to pose the query. An answer is then given, followed by a reaction. Players then must decide between “Truth,” “Doubt,” and “Lie.” Truth means that the player believes the statement as sound, while “Lie” means that you know the person is being dishonest, which requires you to present evidence to back up your assertion.

The Doubt option is primarily where my contention rests. It’s exact in-game definition remains a mystery. “Doubt” means uncertainty or something being “questionable.” If I suspect what a person is saying is “doubtful,” aren’t I essentially accusing them of either A. withholding information or B. knowingly altering information? From what I can tell “doubt” means “lying without the presence of evidence to directly accuse” and it may as well have been labeled “Wild Card” by Team Bondi.

There’s no clear line that defines “Lie” and “Doubt” other than being required to present evidence for when you believe they’re outright lying. Furthermore, Phelps’s reaction is as unpredictable as a visit to a mental health facility. He could be understanding and subtle for one question and outrageously assertive and brash for another, as if the person in question mauled his dog, vandalized his mailbox, or perhaps just coughed in his general direction. Hence “Wild Card.”

The “Lie” option’s need for evidence is a game of questionable logic. “Well, the murder weapon could apply in this situation, but it was in fact the blood-stained gloves found right next to it. INTERROGATION OVER!” it would say to me. Only, if I did mess up, the game would sloppily try to contrive other options for me to finish the case. If all means have been exhausted, it would zip-line me through with no regard for what had been established. It’s a matter of splitting hairs and trying to guess what logic the developer’s had in mind rather than employing actual logic, much like the adventure games of yesterday.

An  experience on rails

A good game teaches the player everything they can do gradually throughout its initial tutorial phase, then steps back and observes. It’ll then occasionally intervene when it notices a major concern and step back once more when the issue resolves itself. L.A. Noire offers a suitable tutorial, but then never lets go of the hand of the player, with the exception being its hit or miss interrogation system. And even then, it never holds the player to much of anything.

The obligatory driving bits and the gunplay segments handle poorly. The former can be skipped if the player fails enough and the latter can be handled by the non-controllable partners Phelps teams up with. Scanning for evidence boils down to wandering around a crime scene until the music queues, which inform you of whether a crime scene is clean or not, stop. And you can decide to skip over the process and “pass” the case. So the game doesn’t even hold you to performing those tasks correctly and lets you skim on by, because it plays by the “everyone is a winner” philosophy.

You can run over every civilian, miss every clue, and screw up every interrogation and still somehow manage to blunder through to the next case. The only punishment being a low grade of performance and perhaps missing out on a new vehicle or piece of attire for Phelps. It’s a half-baked attempt to keep the player moving in what’s akin to a sight-seeing tour rather than a fully interactive experience.

Once you realize nothing particularly matters, the point of playing the game is lost. I only stuck around to see whether Cole Phelps actually receives a redeeming moment (and what becomes of Jack Kelso), and he does. Just one, though, and it is quickly pushed aside by a lackluster ending. Much in the same way my  morning starts with a good cup of coffee and leads into me stepping in what the vagabond cat leaves behind on my porch. Try affixing a rating to that sentiment.