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L.A. Noire (Xbox 360) artwork

L.A. Noire (Xbox 360) review

"What a big, overlong miscalculation L.A. Noire is. It has the ingredients of an engaging detective game but then hastily shoves them aside in favor of drama, and it has a tight script and the best motion capture work in the business, all to present a story that’s meandering, unfocused, and anticlimactic. L.A. Noire’s plot and gameplay both seem to exist to service the other, and neither works."

Never let it be said that I won’t look for every possible opportunity to bash Heavy Rain. I know it seems childish to repeatedly backlash over something I dislike being unwaveringly showered with praise, but if we’re living in a world where removing the gameplay from a game is considered “innovation,” then I’m proud to stand alone.

L.A. Noire bears quite a few things in common with Heavy Rain, starting with the fact that it’s a dark detective story folded into an adventure game and certainly not ending with its central villain having an obsession with origami cranes. The key difference is that it was developed by Rockstar, and thus includes all of the things that a Rockstar production usually entails: a sprawling sandbox environment, cover-based shootouts, high-speed car chases through the streets of the city, and long conversations with NPCs to fill the time as you drive from one marked location on your radar to the next. I’m in a bit of an awkward position here, though, because it’s these more traditional game-y bits that turn out to be the worst thing about L.A. Noire.

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Perhaps this is the most well-intentioned adventure title ever made – props to Rockstar for making a legitimate effort to elevate L.A. Noire to the status of an actual game – but that doesn’t make the shooting and fisticuffs any less clunky, nor does it make the hyper-scripted chase sequences any less predictable, nor does it prevent the tailing missions from evoking memories of the most boring moments in the Assassin’s Creed games. And it’s all thrown into a barren sandbox world that seems to have no reason to exist other than because this is a Rockstar game, and sandboxes are what they do. In fact, driving recklessly actually puts a black mark on your case ratings, and you can ask your partner to shuttle you from one location to the next and skip the ordeal entirely. So what’s the point?

What’s baffling about L.A. Noire as a sandbox game is that its story missions are presented in linear fashion, and as soon as you’ve finished one, you’re immediately advanced to the next. There’s never a moment when you’re not working on a major case, and your only incentives to diverge from the story’s path are to find and collect gold film reels (yawn) and to partake in street cases, all of which are bland and tiresome, and many of which can be completed in less than a minute. This is the best they could come up with? It’s obvious that a team of very talented artists put a lot of time, effort and affection into recreating 1940s-era Los Angeles from the ground up. And they did a spectacular job, but we’re never given a solid reason to even stop to admire the details, let alone explore the massive city they built. It’s such a waste.

So, obviously, L.A. Noire doesn’t work as your typical Rockstar title, though it seems to be filling that role out of obligation anyway. This is an adventure game at heart, and as flabbergasted as I am to find myself admitting this, it’s this aspect of L.A. Noire that shows the most promise. The campaign has us following Cole Phelps, a World War II veteran who’s now making his way through the ranks as an LAPD detective. Each case has us following leads through various locations and scouring crime scenes for clues. It’s very point-and-click in nature, with players examining every object in the vicinity as Cole keeps a detailed journal of suspects, places of interest, and items that may be of aid in the investigation.

L.A. Noire’s first mistake in this regard is that it’s too hand-holding. Musical cues will alert players when an object can be examined, or when an item holds significance, or when they’ve found all of the clues in the area, and Cole will flat-out tell us when the object we’re examining is irrelevant to the case. Some of these hints can be turned off, and I recommend you do so, because there’s an internal puzzle at the heart of L.A. Noire’s toughest cases, and it’s genuinely satisfying to put the pieces together with as little help as possible. What’s intriguing about the setting is that it asks us to play detective in a pre-technology world where nothing comes easy. When a suspect may have written something on a notepad, Cole shades over the top page with a pencil to unveil the most recent message. When he gets a license plate number, he reports it via pay phone and then waits for a sighting; when he’s notified that the car's been spotted, he needs to head to that location as soon as possible or the lead is lost for good.

Of course, L.A. Noire’s investigations are really just setup for the game’s true core: its interrogations. When interviewing suspects and people of interest, players are tasked with deciphering whether they’re being cooperative or deceitful. If you accuse them of lying, you need to root through your clues and present evidence to disprove whatever they’ve said. When you can’t back up your accusations, you can either choose to be trusting or doubtful of what they’re saying, based largely on their body language and facial expressions.

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That last part may have sounded a little ridiculous, since this is a video game, but hear me out. One of L.A. Noire’s most talked-about features is the implemented of something called “MotionScan” to capture the performances of its actors. I’m not sure how it works, but it succeeds where so many other video games have failed by confidently bounding over the Uncanny Valley and presenting us with character models that look and act like real people. As with all recent Rockstar games, L.A. Noire’s writing is excellent, and now we can enjoy it without being distracted by glassy eyes and nutcracker mouths. It’s incredible.

So L.A. Noire actually gets off to a solid start. Taking the time to conduct a thorough investigation holds its rewards when you’re able to verbally back a suspect into a corner, and the performances of the game’s surprisingly star-studded cast (John Noble!) shine through thanks to this crazy MotionScan sorcery.

And then the game slowly but steadily stumbles downhill. It starts when Cole is promoted to the Homicide desk. We’re tasked with investigating a succession of murders that are all clearly the work of a serial killer, based on the manner in which the victims are killed and their corpses defiled. But it would be slow and excruciating for a series of murder cases to go cold in the hunt for one guy, so instead, every individual case presents us with a handful of suspects. Conveniently, each behaves suspiciously, each frequently lies while being interviewed, and each is in possession of proof of guilt that, yeah, could very easily have been planted. And then Rockstar asks us to charge one of the suspects using our best judgment, even though they’re both obviously innocent and we’re just stalling until our inevitable confrontation with the real bad guy.

Boy, does that knowledge ever suck the satisfaction out of piecing together a puzzle and using quick words to outwit suspects. What’s even more maddening is that each case still has a “right” and “wrong” result, and getting a good rating for a case ultimately just comes down to guessing which of the suspects your superior would rather see locked up. At one point, I was forced to choose between charging the husband of a victim and a pedophile who was probably just in the wrong place at the wrong time. My partner pointed out that it’s the latter who really needs to be taken off the streets regardless of the investigation’s results, yet the husband had far more evidence weighing against him. An interesting moral dilemma, no? I picked the husband, and my captain chewed me out, dismissing the evidence (which included a blood-stained jacket, belonging to the victim, in the trunk of her husband’s car) as “happenstance.” Bam, two-out-of-five-star case rating.

And then, in the very next scene, the very same man reported that the DA “couldn’t be more happy” with the evidence and the motive. And this is all unfolding with the knowledge that the real killer is someone else entirely. God, Rockstar.

And so L.A. Noire has fallen into the same trap as Heavy Rain and nearly every other adventure game before it, in that it exists solely to tell a story. That, in this medium, is inexcusable. But the one thing Heavy Rain got right was that, for as slow and tiresome as it was, its deviously twisty plot almost made it worth the struggle. L.A. Noire, on the other hand, presents a number of interesting detective-game mechanics and introduces new means for conveying cinematics in a video game, and it’s all in service of a story that, frankly, isn’t very good.

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I’m trying to avoid outright spoilers here, but Cole’s pursuit of the serial killer couldn’t possibly end on a less satisfying note. After the bodies have piled up, we’re sent on a wild goose chase through Los Angeles as the perpetrator leaves riddles at major landmarks, accompanied by pieces of evidence taken from all of his murders (which – shock! horror! – all ended with Cole wrongly convicting someone). After running all over town for a good half hour, you’d think we’d be gearing up for a major reveal, something comparable to, say, the finale of Dexter’s first season. But no. The killer is just some NPC you talked to once, and the confrontation is just another chase scene followed by another gunfight. And then you kill him and the matter is dropped without the slightest explanation of his motives.

Why did he kill those people? Why did he strip them naked and write cryptic messages on their bodies with lipstick? Why did he leave Cole and his partner a series of clues leading to his location only to get angry when they show up and start waving around a shotgun? All of these questions go unanswered – unless I’m seriously missing something here – and even the matter of Cole wrongly charging innocent suspects is given the most ramshackle resolution you could imagine. And then the matter is dropped and L.A. Noire’s plot goes in a completely different direction.

So the game has a great concept, sacrifices it to tell a story, and the story isn’t all that good to begin with. Cole’s former comrades eventually play a major role in the plot, as does the fact that they saw some pretty sinister stuff while on duty in Japan, but Rockstar didn’t need to waste our time with so many flashbacks just to establish that. On the other hand, Cole’s personal issues take a major toll on his job late in the game, and this comes out of nowhere simply because his day-to-day life had been given the short shrift throughout. The fact that Cole has a wife and kids isn’t even mentioned until the second disc, and we don’t even see his wife until the third, when his personal problems are suddenly relevant to the plot.

This all just comes to show what a big, overlong miscalculation L.A. Noire is. It has the ingredients of an engaging detective game but then hastily shoves them aside in favor of drama, and it has a tight script and the best motion capture work in the business, all to present a story that’s meandering, unfocused, and anticlimactic. L.A. Noire’s plot and gameplay both seem to exist to service the other, and neither works.

Yet for everything I hate about L.A. Noire, I’m still inclined to kinda-sorta recommend it, if only because it presents a promising direction for this genre. Heavy Rain had a good story, yet it had no excuse for existing other than to tell that story, even if it had to waste my time with boring quick-time events and mundane activities just to qualify – at least by some standards – as a video game. L.A. Noire would have worked better as a series of unrelated cases, as I’d have loved to see the game’s detective mechanics truly blossom without the pressure of having to stick to the rails of a consistent story. Quantic Dream should take note: L.A. Noire may fail as a game, but at least it tries to be one.

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (June 11, 2011)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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If you enjoyed this L.A. Noire review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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zippdementia posted June 12, 2011:

Yeah, if you ARE going to make a game like Heavy Rain, it can't be an actual game... I thought that was established a while back. I was pretty surprised when Rockstar said that was pretty much what they were doing.
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Suskie posted June 12, 2011:

I can't tell if you're being serious.
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zippdementia posted June 12, 2011:

I am being serious. While I love Heavy Rain, I would argue that the entire adventure genre barely counts as "games." They are stories told in an interactive format. I enjoy that, but I wouldn't try to mix that genre with a game system. One of Longest Journey 2's biggest failings was in its attempt to do that.
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zigfried posted June 12, 2011:

I think someone needs to play more adventure games!

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jerec posted June 12, 2011:
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zippdementia posted June 12, 2011:

I've played tons of adventure games. My favorites are in the style of the classic walk around, interact, and listen to/read great dialogue, like Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Longest Journey, Sam and Max, etc.

I was less enamored with, for instance, Psychonauts because the platforming really didn't work as well as it should have and there was a lot of pointless running around that dragged things on ad naseum... when I just wanted to get to the next story bit!
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honestgamer posted June 12, 2011:

That's the problem with your typical adventure game. Usually, they're quite imaginitive. When you're in the mood for a story, you're in the mood for a story and not so much a game. If a game immerses you in a story--whether because it's mysterious or fantastic or just hilarious--you don't want to be interrupted constantly by gameplay. You're in it for the story and gameplay just gets in the way. If gameplay does pull you out of the experience, it had better be really good so that you don't mind the detour. Menu diving doesn't count as "really good," nor do tedious driving sequences or faulty platforming segments. So really, the graphic adventure (and recent expansions on tha) might be considered fundamentally flawed. That doesn't mean that there aren't good ones, or that they're not worth playing, just that it's an easy genre to get wrong with or without even worrying about innovation and pushing the envelope (concerns that Rockstar and Team Bondi likely had in mind when developing L.A. Noire).
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zigfried posted June 12, 2011:

Although I can appreciate a good story (Eve Burst Error!), that's not why I play adventure games. The appeal of Space Quest and Maniac Mansion and Full Throttle wasn't in the reading or watching, but in the doing. As with any game, interaction is a good thing. Story is secondary... or maybe even tertiary. Audiovisuals are important too, after all.

When a developer thinks plot is more important than mood, they're almost certainly destined to fail.

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fleinn posted June 13, 2011:

Uh.. I thought the entire point with any game was to tell a story. The success of it being dependent on how much the studios would manage to integrate the game-mechanics into the narrative, in order to immerse the player.

..I mean, that's what you have even in Zelda and Mario, or FF - even though they're completely and absolutely games only, they try to invest you in the characters. The jump for Mario with the hand pushing up (that seems to be a higher jump the harder you push the button on the NES-controller), the sticky physics with the turning and the braking.

If it just was something that happened on the screen that paid off in virtual coins if you timed the button-presses right -- none of us would spend any time on this, I think. On games, I mean.

Seriously, though.. I think the problem with L.A. Noire is how it doesn't really make the game's mechanics part of the story. It's just something to do while you get to the next cutscene. I.e., there's a chase, there's a shooting, and it doesn't really seem to factor in what you're doing, or why you did it - or give you any choices, etc. So it plays like those terrible interactive films that were made a while back. You don't have any choices, but you get all the game-y features to fiddle around with.

..and obviously I think Heavy Rain was the opposite of that, and a very good game. And that Mass Effect also was a successful game where it let your character interact in the story. But enough about that..
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Masters posted June 13, 2011:

Uh.. I thought the entire point with any game was to tell a story. The success of it being dependent on how much the studios would manage to integrate the game-mechanics into the narrative, in order to immerse the player.

This is backwards.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted June 13, 2011:

I agree with Marc. Early games pushed the story to the side and were all about gameplay. The only narrative you got was a brief backstory in the instruction manual and your imagination. They added more plot over time, from a few short lines of dialogue somewhere in the game to full animated cutscenes. It feels more like they've integrated narrative into gameplay rather than the other way around.
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Suskie posted June 13, 2011:

Uh.. I thought the entire point with any game was to tell a story.

Any game? Even Tetris?

What I meant -- and I may edit the review to clarify -- was that a game should never treat gameplay as an obligation. That's what I hated about Heavy Rain. If the guys at Quantic Dream want to make a movie, and they should make a movie and stop wasting my time with a bunch of quick-time events that aren't fun and only exist so Heavy Rain could be released as a PS3 game instead of a three-part miniseries. What I respect about L.A. Noire was that it at least made an effort, and even if the action sequences were repetitive and tiresome, they were still a hell of a lot more fun than Simon Says.
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zippdementia posted June 13, 2011:

We essentially agree with each other, but in a different way. I thought Heavy Rain's sequences were comparable to other adventure games, where the interaction has to do with, as Jason says, menu manipulation and choosing what to say to someone. I had no problem with the interactivity in Heavy Rain and thought it was well used, as per my review of the game. But I am not surprised that it won't appeal to everyone. Adventure games have never appealed to as wide an audience as one might expect. Not that they aren't popular, but they've never had that mainstream attention that FPS, platformers, RPGs, and action games got.
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overdrive posted June 13, 2011:

I agree with Marc. Early games pushed the story to the side and were all about gameplay. The only narrative you got was a brief backstory in the instruction manual and your imagination. They added more plot over time, from a few short lines of dialogue somewhere in the game to full animated cutscenes. It feels more like they've integrated narrative into gameplay rather than the other way around.

Yeah. Back in the Nintendo days, I can't think of how many games I played where the back of the box and instruction book provided more story than anything in the actual game. And before that, it was a rarity (or computer text adventure) when a game integrated story into gameplay. Unless I was missing all the Shakesperian tragedy in those ghosts chasing Pac-Man to stop him from eating all those dots and pieces of fruit. Which is a positive...I'm dense like that.
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fleinn posted June 13, 2011:

<em>Any game? Even Tetris?</em>

Sure. You build things, there's structure, there's speed and thinking. That's what made Tetris Worlds awesome, while any amount of clones suck. Because it challenged you to think while you were playing, instead of just offering you a bunch of stuff to do (and where the payoff is exclusively a higher score).

But yeah.. I think we essentially agree with each other as well. I like Heavy Rain because it tells a story on your terms. With interjections much more often than any game so far has even attempted and, you know, failed at. There's non-linear writing here that is so well done that you don't actually notice it when the story has a branch. They have branches in the middle of a scene, for example, where you just move on. That is an achievement, even if it doesn't suck in every player.

(It's also at least one technical reason why it's a ps3 exclusive - the animation splines that are reproduced in real time depending on what you do is difficult to make look good and natural when you need to play a spline to pre-determined points all the time. So actually having it be completely dynamic in many cases, instead of being a set of quick-time events, takes processing power.. not wanting to start some huge discussion, or anything, but there's a reason why there's canned animation on the roof-top chases in L.A. Noire - that's the only way to do it, unless you can let the spline play back and forth, have multiple states the animation can end up on depending on the environment or nearby models, etc. That's.. one of the ways it involves you. Instead of pushing a button, then looking at the results in a cutscene, you end up looking at what the characters are doing, and then nudging them in the directions you want as the events happen. Choreographing the scene to some extent the way you want it to.. I'm sure that's part of the appeal some of us see here, at least :p Obviously I also think the story is good as well, and interesting and all kinds of things, and that helps, of course).

And L.A. Noire is more of an open-world game with a large story and good attempts for adventure gaming with the clues and so on, no..? And I mean, it's not like it couldn't have been made so that it felt less segmented. See that in some of the sequences - when you follow the blood-trail, for example. It's like everything is being nested up - you're going to find something here that turns everything upside down, and you do -- but it's not really connected that well to the rest of the game somehow. You expect "filmatic" direction for how the next few events are set up, but then it sort of keeps having the same setup in parts from start to finish, etc.

Seems to me, anyway..
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zippdementia posted June 14, 2011:

I think you've made a good point, Fleinn. I hadn't considered the technical side of making those branching moments work.

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