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L.A. Noire (Xbox 360) artwork

L.A. Noire (Xbox 360) review


"What eventually passes for core gameplay in LA Noire is a bad guessing game in which you have to decide whether people are lying and which bits of evidence from your inventory confirm the lie. It's all very vague, and you'll feel like quite the schmuck when you're sure you've cornered a suspect, only to realize that the game's writer was on a different page. Not that it matters, which is a terrible thing to say about core gameplay."



The central mystery of LA Noire is this: am I playing a bloated adventure game or a barren open-world game? While crossing the city yet again or picking up another crumpled cigarette pack that has nothing to do with anything, I can't help but think of Abraham Lincoln's famous comment upon being served a dubious drink: "If this is coffee, please bring me some tea. But if this is tea, please bring me some coffee."

Since this is very much a Rockstar title (albeit one developed by a new studio in Australia), the natural expectation is that you're getting an open-world saga along the lines of Grand Theft Auto IV or Red Dead Redemption. That's certainly how it looks and plays, splayed out across Los Angeles in the immediate wake of World War II, populated by characters and plots and mini-missions and collectibles and quaintly historical city streets.



But as you start accumulating hours waiting for the gameplay to open up, no such thing happens. As you move from episode to episode, you'll see a lot of stale gameplay Rockstar has used since its early days, such as heavily scripted chase sequences where the car is going to go where it's going to go or the suspect is going to run where he's going to run, and you're essentially trailing along until the scripting is done. There is no sense of interacting with locations, or owning anything, or any sort of progressing gameplay. A crushing sense of inertness descends like night. Los Angeles is the city that never wakes up. It's enough to make you long for a call from Roman asking you to go bowling.

What a disappointing step backward for open worlds, particularly since Red Dead Redemption was such a huge step forward. That Old West featured a thriving gameplay economy consisting of flora, fauna, treasure, strangers, outlaws, weapons, mounts, and outfits. For all its faults, Red Dead Redemption showed that Rockstar was trying to make a world come alive with the sort of gameplay Saints Row had been doing all along. Rockstar was learning, adapting, progressing. But in LA Noire, the open world isn't an open world so much as a backdrop, like the propped up facades on a movie set.

For instance, one of the classic images from noir is the detective tailing someone, sitting on a shoeshine bench holding a newspaper in front of his face. Rockstar gets this. They know it could be an interesting gameplay mechanic, much like the crowds and benches in Assassin's Creed. But does it count as a gameplay mechanic if it happens only once and it's optional anyway, so you might as well miss it? It's as if someone at Rockstar saw a scene in an old movie and thought it would be cool to put it in the game, but without any consideration whether it would offer any meaningful gameplay. The entire world of LA Noire seems like it was designed that way.

At some point, you have to resign yourself to the fact that LA Noire is an old-school adventure game in an expensive graphics engine that affords you lots of room to move around to no effect. So LA Noire constantly pushes your nose into some tiny corner where you have to do the latter-day equivalent of pixel hunting around a crime scene. Move around a level waiting for the controller to vibrate. Then press a button so you can pick up clues to record them in your inventory. I mean, notebook. Welcome to Police Quest, circa 1987. Red herrings abound, but your character dutifully announces that they don't pertain to the case, at which point you wonder why they're even in the game. When I'm confronting the main bad guy, do I really need to pick up two champagne glasses in his kitchen and then announce that they're no good to me? Is this necessary to progress the storyline? The answer, according to LA Noire, is yes.



The trick of a good adventure game is economy. The difference between atmosphere and filler is subtle, but crucial. What matters and what doesn't, and how do you present these things without flat-out telling the player "this doesn't matter, but I'm going to make you look at it anyway because otherwise the game would be half as long"? For instance, there's a point in the game where you have to look up something in the Hall of Records. It's a fair bit of busywork, but it's a fascinating look at pre-computer research, obviously influenced by a similar scene in Chinatown. It establishes the setting of LA Noire and helps bring the world to life (before dumping you into an implausible gun battle).

But the Hall of Records scene is the exception. LA Noire is full of pointless filler like having to turn a matchbook to just the right angle so the game will register that you've seen the writing on the matchbook that you can already clearly read. Or making you watch an entire phone call to get the address for a location so it shows up in your inventory. I mean, notebook. Or driving to a location so you can get a cutscene of your car parking, at which point you have to walk your character up to a front door so you can get a cutscene of the person who lives in the house answering the door, at which point you have to walk your character into the house so you can get a cutscene of having a conversation with the person who let you in. Unlike the movies that influence it, LA Noire takes place in a world where editing hasn't been invented yet.

What eventually passes for core gameplay in LA Noire is a bad guessing game in which you have to decide whether people are lying and which bits of evidence from your inventory confirm the lie. It's all very vague, and you'll feel like quite the schmuck when you're sure you've cornered a suspect, only to realize that the game's writer was on a different page. Not that it matters, which is a terrible thing to say about core gameplay. LA Noire is a strictly linear story that will push you through its central plot, complete with scripted failures where you have to make a decision even though you know it's wrong. It grades you as you go, but still passes you through its predetermined solutions one at a time, regardless of what you do. LA Noire plays itself out. You're just turning the matchbooks and playing guessing games with the writers.

What's ultimately most disappointing is that LA Noire is an effective homage to film noir even if it's a terrible game. The story itself, and specifically the way it unfolds across the last half, is smart, tense, and incredibly satisfying. One of the hallmarks of good noir is that everything is connected, but the first ten hours are pretty much swept under the rug for an odd mid-game reboot. But what follows is a tight and focused bit of noir, which hits all the right beats: fantastic character development, a wider plot, effective reveals, an unforgettable finale, and a gratifying resolution that ties the past to the present and the personal to the political. This is easily Rockstar's best ending. LA Noire isn't a very good game, but it's a story worth the telling.



The lead character, Cole Phelps, is one of the most fascinating videogame characters since, well, John Marston and Niko Bellic before him. Unfortunately, what these three characters have in common is that they're all compromised by bad gameplay. Phelps is presented as a haunted war hero who wants to do the right thing after experiencing the horrors of Okinawa. Yet he guns down fleeing suspects only because Rockstar can't think of anything better for him to do for side missions, which exist because otherwise you'd have nothing to do but examine cigarette packs, champagne glasses, pairs of pliers, and violins.

The character is also betrayed by some weirdly spotty storytelling when it comes to central information about his family life. His job is the subject of the gameplay and his experience in the war is a significant part of the plot, but his day-to-day life is all but ignored until it's necessary to bring into play for a convenient plot point. We see the ring on Cole's finger, we're told he has kids, and his relationship to a woman is constantly interrupted by fades to black. LA Noire isn't the least bit interested in this aspect of who he is. Here is yet another example of how Rockstar, the folks who left Bonnie at the side of the road in Red Dead Redemption, has no idea what to do with female characters. Come on, guys. This is half the world's population we're talking about. How about doing something with women other than using them as caulk?

A key part of making the writing work is Rockstar's revolutionary facial expression technology. With its cast of strong actors, whose performances are cannily captured without slipping into the Uncanny Valley, LA Noire presents drama where so many games have failed. We have now officially moved beyond creepy puppets and zombie stares. Here are actual performances. They're good. They're human, blinking and grimacing and grinning and glancing. Meeting a new character, even if he's just a shopkeeper or a witness or a stray lead, is like meeting another actor in a TV show. At one point late in the game, two characters who've been at odds finally encounter each other and have a Meaningful Conversation. And it works. It crackles. It's a moving moment, and it comes alive thanks to good actors, good writing, and these newly expressive character models. Bioware and Bethesda, you're on notice. This is how it's done.

At moments like this, it's clear Rockstar wants to make a movie, but they have no idea how to fit it into a game. LA Noire would have fared best if it had taken Heavy Rain's "damn the gameplay!" approach. Because I would have much rather brushed Cole Phelps' teeth than driven him once again across an expanse of shrug-worthy open-world filler to the next crime scene.

Rating: 5/10

tomchick's avatar
Freelance review by Tom Chick (May 19, 2011)

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fleinn posted May 20, 2011:

"The central mystery of LA Noire is this: am I playing a bloated adventure game or a barren open-world game?"

Thank you. Driving me mad to see all the reviews skirting around this.
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Masters posted May 20, 2011:

This review is not only thorough, but a pleasure to read.
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goatx3 posted May 20, 2011:

i had a feeling this game would turn out the exact way that you described it. nice review. i'll be skipping this one.
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joseph_valencia posted May 20, 2011:

The words flow nicely and the descriptions and criticisms of the game seem very credible. Great review.
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KaworuIIDX posted May 21, 2011:

Thank God I found your review, I thought it was just me who felt this way about the game, especially after reading tens of bloated and overrated reviews

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goatx3 posted May 21, 2011:

this review makes my heart sink. i couldn't even stand red dead redemption. that the author compares it favorably to la noire makes me sad. the concept had so much potential.
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PathoPhil posted May 24, 2011:

For the most part I agree with your review, but one important point has been ignored. I agree that the ending of the game made sense, but the way the writer arrived there did not. Starting with the bizarre affair with Elsa and ending with the gamer finishing out the game as Jack Kelso. Because of those two key plot devices, I think that it's fair to conclude that the story development did not make sense. Thus, it's hard to say that the story itself was enjoyable.
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Boberto posted May 25, 2011:

Wow, I don't know what game you were all playing, but your copy must've been vastly different than mine. What is up with this pre-conceived notion that the game has to fit nicely in a specific genre. Does it have to be a totally open world game? NO! Does it have to be a total adventure game? NO! Why can't it be a little of both. I swear everyone here has blinders on. If you went into this game expecting GTA 1940s, I can understand some of your frustration. But geez folks, judge the game for what it is, not what you thought it should have been.
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joseph_valencia posted May 25, 2011:

He did judge the game for what it is. Read again.
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Boberto posted May 26, 2011:

Nope, read it several times and he didn't, he keeps trying to compare it to either open world Rockstar games or advature games (Police Quest...seriously). Tom was trying so hard to lump this into a category that he overlooked key tennets to the game. He complains that you can't go into buildings or own property like GTA. Well, you can go into the buildings that matter and the character is a police detective, what the heck is he going to own?

Tom complains that you have to analyze several items at a crime scene only to realize they aren't pertinent and feels it is more like other adventure games. Again, not totally an adventure game here either. It's a detective game, and dectectives need to analyze everything at a crime scene, it adds a level of detail that just isn't there in a lot of other games. The champagne glass example is ridiculous as you find out very early in the game if 2 items look the same, you don't need to analyze both of them. Plus, you have the option of slacking on the evidence collecting, it will just change the outcome of the game.

Some other complains I had about his review. Tom complains about the open world driving. Well, here's something he neglected to mention, you can have your partner drive which fast travels you to the destination thus negating a lot of the tediousness.

He saids that the interrogating is vague which is utterly false. The facial expressions tell you fairly clearly (for the most part) that the person is either lying or telling the truth. If they are lying, you simply need to determine if you have evidence to contradict the lie or if you simply doubt they're telling the truth. Not to mention that you accumulate points as you rank up giving you insight as to where clues are hidden, whether someone is telling a lie, etc.

Look, I don't totally disagree with Tom's review, he makes several valid points. But 5 out of 10 is a pretty harsh representation of what this game is. If you change (not lower) your expectations of what this game is supposed to be, you can appreciate for fulfilling a niche in gaming that has hardly, if ever, been scratched.
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True posted May 26, 2011:

I hate to admit it, but Bob actually made this game sound better than I had initially thought...

I say this with all seriousness, but you should write a review. I would love to see your take on it after that post.
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zigfried posted May 27, 2011:

I hate to admit it, but Bob actually made this game sound better than I had initially thought...

None of that actually sounded good to me. I mean, he offered his counterpoint to the review's text, but it was more like describing why specific passages were inaccurate, not explaining why any of that matters. For example, examining everything may very well be how a detective operates, but that doesn't really take away from the point that -- in a game -- that's kind of annoying. Tom described the feeling he got from the Hall of Records; with that in mind, I could understand why he enjoyed that moment of tedium. But as Tom explained, doing that for everything in the game would be tiresome. The champagne glass example may be ridiculous, but is examining objects actually fun or challenging?

And I've seen other people point out the "partner drive" option. Does that eliminate the driving cutscene, the parking cutscene, the walking the character up to the front door, and the door-opening cutscene? Wouldn't it have been better if the world were inherently interesting and worth driving through? That's the stuff I recall from Tom's review as being annoying -- not the driving itself. All those cutscenes would actually be more forgivable in an open-world game... ie, a game that was so packed and full of life that it felt "real". So when someone points out that it's not meant to be open-world (even though it's an open driving world) and you can fast-track past the driving part, that still doesn't make it sound good.

LA Noire's detractors say the world is empty, and LA Noire's supporters explain that the world is empty because it's not an open-world game and Tom Chick was evil for trying to compare it to open-world games. That's what I don't like about Tom's detractors -- they think that explaining why he's "wrong" is enough, but it really isn't. They need to explain why they think the game is fun. My expectations for the game don't match Tom's, but all of that stuff sounds awfully annoying to me too.

I challenge Boberto (or whoever) to write a review describing the things they liked about the game and explaining why those things are cool.

//Zig
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fleinn posted May 27, 2011:

..so very defensive we ended up being lately :p

I think what Tom meant in the review is that it's difficult to know if you're on the same page as the writers. It's a very common thing in rpgs - the dialogue people remember usually won't be the set pieces, but the parts where you really meant the dialogue-choice you had, and where the responses to it was something you thought was believable.

Same with the situations that break immersion. Suddenly people just sit in the chair doing nothing, while you can rummage around for a plot-sensitive clue, etc. Because you know that if you don't find the clue now, you can't question anyone about it later, etc.

L.A. Noire has a few of those. Either that you're doubting someone and Cole starts screaming they're lying without being provoked in any way. Or if you know they're lying - but the game won't let you use a clue in the way you think you can. Or the game just expects you to pick up on what Cole thinks - this is the same as writing a book, and then instead of writing an actual descriptive sentence, you go ahead and just about tell the reader that "you now know" such and such, without really explaining it. ..it's not good writing, and we get the narrative breakage that way.

I mean, there have been a few times I wish I could change the way the way the interrogation goes, but I'm just getting a game of "pick the right choice" - that in the end doesn't actually matter, and it ends in another chase and a cutscene. ..
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True posted May 27, 2011:

None of that actually sounded good to me.

The interrogation and reading people's reactions sounded kind of interesting, as did the evidence search. It kind of reminds me of Heavy Rain. Though I imagine it only works in small doses and from what you said it sounds more like it's constant.
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honestgamer posted June 11, 2011:

Testing.
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joseph_valencia posted June 11, 2011:

You passed.

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