By Alec Meer on November 8th, 2011 at 5:48 pm.
L.A. Noire: The Complete Edition, so named due to the PC version of Rockstar’s vintage crime opus containing all the DLC from the get-go, launched on Steam not minutes ago in the US, though Brits must wait the traditional three extra days. Retailers, you’re bad people. Still: I’ve been playing it over the last few days, so here is An Opinion.
There’s a slight element of redundancy to writing this, isn’t there? If you have even the slightest interest in Rockstar’s detective-’em-up, you’ll surely have read some kind of review of it in the long months since its May release on console. Whatever I’m about to tell you, you probably already know. Like that’s going to stop me from droning on about, of course.
L.A. Noire is two distinct games. One is a much more limited take on the traditional Rockstar open urban world/ third person driving/shooting game, but set in the 40s, with angry policemen removed (you are the angry policeman here) and cars that struggle to top 60 miles an hour. Early 20th century LA is a beautiful, richly-detailed place – everything from newsstand vendors to smokey divebars recreated with painstaking detail.
Which is why the game breaks my heart: there’s almost no point to any of that visually luxurious stuff, apart from the two or three locations in each mission that contain anything you can actually do. You can roam and roam and roam, and treaty those squinty eyes of yours to all manner of reassuringly vintage sights, but apart from sitting on a chair, ineffectually trying a doorhandle, cheerlessly finding a rare car on engaging in one of the mercifully infrequent and always perfunctory random gunfights, some 95% of it serves no purpose beyond lavish scenery. I don’t especially want a 40s-set open world game (we’ve already had Mafia and the Godfather, for better or worse respectively), but I’m bewildered that the late Team Bondi and Rockstar went to see much trouble for so little purpose. Is it just to flesh out what might otherwise feel a little thin? Was it a case of featureset eyes too big for the crunchtime stomach? Who knows, but the result is a well-stocked but behind-glass-cases museum tour that you ignore most of in favour of rushing to the occasional exhibit with a button to push.
And those buttons? Well, they’re a sort of point and click adventure: scouring a crime scene for evidence, then picking the right conversation options and items to implicate a suspect. The pre-release hype for the game made much of its use of mo-capped facial expressions to ascertain a perp’s state of mind and thus potential guilt, and certainly the face animations are pretty much the most lifelike the universe of flashing pixels has ever bestowed upon us. Alas, their true purpose is to make the unanimously well-performed dialogue all the more magnetic, rather than to create a game truly about reading human nature. Crimes are solved and suspects arrested based on a curious and maddeningly inflexible internal, invisible logic, most overtly displayed in the simple believe/doubt/accuse interrogation minigame.
You might know damn well that you’ve got the evidence to convict that wife-murdering brute, but if you present it in the wrong order or accuse a suspect of lying when they’re entirely obviously lying or you don’t pick the precise object necessary to prove it, then your character (stoic WW2 veteran and fast-promoted hero cop Cole Phelps) acts upon your errant dialogue choice by transforming into a shouting nutter and his suspect immediately becoming a taciturn know-it-all in response. Most cases can be muddled through even despite picking multiple wrong options, but both the flow of plot and suspense and the gentle but overtly artificial focus on Achievement-hunting perfection requires you to be a laborious completionist then gamble your efforts on what’s often little more than a guessing game. Some cases, particularly the longer ones which allow more scope for messing it up then pulling it back, as well as offer a fascinating undertone in the grand discrepancy between moral guilt and legal guilt, achieve greater coherency, and it’s for those that you should most certainly investigate this strange, confused but undeniably smart creature.
LA Noire is definitely onto something in its face-reading sleuthing, but it’s not at all adaptive to player variance, and the key-in-lock nature of the interrogation dialogues is at odds with the easy, muddle-it-out and roam around tone of the crimescene snooping and the Sunday drives to your various destinations. For all that, the game tends to summon a fine degree of urgency and tension, thanks to those remarkable, subtly human faces and a raft of excellent performances. You’ll recognise plenty of the actors, primarily from Mad Men, and the big-faced fellow who plays laid-back Ken Cosgrove steps up from bit-part to starring role as Phelps with absolute aplomb. Plot-wise, it’s grown-up, buttoned-down, dark and strange, with a quiet pull that escalates to greater, more inter-connected intrigue as the spider-web linking several of the major cases moves into focus, but prone to weird dramatic spikes and apparent non-sequiturs designed to foreshadow future events but often introduced incoherently. The awkward marionette bodies, looking as they do to be almost separate entities from the amazing faces, don’t help – but don’t let that undersell what a giant step forward this is for game-people in the ol’fizzog regard.
PC-wise, there’s very little new to report. No performance problems I encountered, the mandatory requirement for (mercifully in-game only, no external app this time) Rockstar Social Club is fleetingly annoying, the mouse works in the menus… Getting all the DLC in the meta-box rather than doled out expensively over successive months is helpful, even if the new, standalone cases feel too abstracted from the main game (cf Deus Ex: The Missing Link), but it means a fuller package and more chances to play ‘spot the Mad Men supporting actors.’ The controls don’t feel quite right, primarily because a gamepad rumble function was so fundamental to sniffing out clue locations: driving and the clunksome shooting are fine on the good old mouse and keyboard, comparable to GTA IV, but I did default to a pad in the end for the rumble alone. Of course, real men turn off all the clue prompts and just use their eyeballs, but I’m scarcely a real man.
The PC build looks better than the console build without looking dramatically better, primarily due to those clumsy wooden bodies, but it’s that pointless city that benefits the most. More detail, more draw distance, more brief satisfaction in soaking it all up before moping that there’s nothing to do except drive to the next crime scene, where at least you’ll lose yourself in diligently sniffing at abandoned cigarette packs and gruesomely investigating glassy-eyed bodies for clues. LA Noire is more than capable of being mesmeric, but I wish they’d ditched the pretence of open-world and poured those resources into fleshing out the unrelenting logic system instead.
So: I like it, and at times I like it a lot, but it feels too often like it started exploring wonderful ideas then slammed the door on developing them further for expediency’s sake. The delayed release doesn’t help: in May, the quiet climate meant LA Noire’s ingeniousness and appealingly dark-vintage tone stood out a mile, but with all the biggies launching in recent and coming weeks it oddly comes off feeling like a small game now. It’s not Rockstar’s strongest hour, but it is perhaps their most ambitious – and thus is one to check out, especially for the faces, dialogue and the rare chance to see a multi-million dollar budget spent on an adventure game, of all things.
LA Noire is a stylish and exceptionally clever game, but unfortunately most of that cleverness is trapped within its own head: a mad professor who becomes exasperated at his faithful assistant’s endless incorrect guesses, but who never thinks to explain how his crazy mind really works.