Why I Think L.A. Noire Sucked in Pretty Much Every Way
Posted on Thursday, July 26 2012 @ 13:39:36 Eastern
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Seeing L.A. Noire on sale about 20 times during the Steam sale, and reading Jonathan Leack's manifesto entry on how he bought it (for the second time) really brought up a sore spot in my history of playing video games: L.A. Noire. It's like reminding me about that movie, Inception. Coming from the same man who made Momento, which I highly enjoyed, and having a very unique premise, my expectations for Inception were high. There I was, sitting in the theater, expecting some kind of high quality psychological thriller, only to be betrayed by a mediocre action flick. And it was that kind of feeling of being let down that pervaded my experience with L.A. Noire. Now this feeling has stewed within me for long enough, and I must share it.
The premise was certainly good: roleplay as a cop in late '40s L.A., adventure game-style puzzles, complex interrogation system. So good, in fact, that I actually bought the game new, which is really rare for me, as I consider 60 dollars too much for just about any game. Little did I know that I would be trading the game in once I beat it, something I had not done in nearly a decade.
I found the first problem to be the open-world nature of the game. Open-worlds are what make a game like GTA great, but there are a number of reasons why it just doesn't work here. First, consider GTAIV. Now that game was certainly not great by virtue of the 10 hours of tutorial missions it had or any of the (rather mundane) missions in general. The beauty was in the small things: accidentally running through a toll booth and ending up in a police chase across the city, crashing into a concrete pole and flying out the windshield, and so on. The city in that game was rather alive, reacting to all the chaos caused by the player-character.
Now consider L.A. Noire. There is no time in that game that the player-character is not on a mission, which makes for a poor indication on what is a good time to go out and explore or do side-quests. Additionally the city is simply too massive: After a few hours, I just couldn't handle all the driving and had to just get out and make my partner drive, even to the start of side-missions, which invariably appear as far away from you as possible.
But the most crippling aspect of the open-world is that there isn't anything to do in it. GTAIV has you play as a borderline sociopath, gives you a multitude of weapons, cars, and innocent pedestrians, and lets you figure out what to do. L.A. Noire has you play as a cop, which leaves all the murdering and and car theft rather out of mind. But there is nothing to replace it. At least GTAIV had some car thief NPCs and such. I would have been estatic to be driving along in L.A. Noire and suddenly spot a purse-snatcher or car-jacker that I could chase down and arrest. But in the end, the game would have been mostly the same if the developers chose to only render the inside of a couple of suburban houses.
Then come the mini-games, although technically nearly all the gameplay could be described as mini-games. I wonder if the people who created the clue-finding part of the game realized they had just made a 3D pixel-hunting mini-game. While the first several cases are rather straightforward in this regard, the last few had me just pulling my hair out (the game was too new to look this **** up), unable to leave the crime scene until I found that last piece of the puzzle. Walking up and down the crime scene, checking every spot several times is just boring and frustrating.
The other mini-games that made up the totality of L.A. Noire were just as bad. The chase scenes on foot and in cars were interesting at first, but there wasn't a whole lot of variation to be had on chasing a person through a suburb or trying to keep up with a car until it crashed. The most fun was guessing whether a car chase would end by the suspect getting totalled by a trolley or a delivery truck.
The cover-based shooting really didn't help, either. While it was rather rare in most of the game, this was the same combat that I had more than enough of in GTAIV, and it came across as rather strange whenever it was shoehorned into gameplay: Taking down a crazed gunman or criminal was somewhat believable, but parts of the game have you gun down dozens upon dozens of people, and it seems rather psychotic when Phelps can do such a superhuman feat so casually. And anyone that needs me to justify the statement that the extremely long stalking mini-game, where the goal is to walk slowly and pray the cover mechanics don't put you on the wrong side of a wall, was completely awful is simply beyond any argument I can give.
These mini-games used sparingly wouldn't have been terrible, but the main story already has more than enough of them, and once I found that the side-missions were essentially just more shooting and foot/car chases, I lost my will to even bother with them.
And then came the adventure-game puzzles. Tell me, which was your favorite puzzle? The one where you tap your finger on the military shipment ledger, or perhaps the one where you tap on the company employee assignment ledger, or even the one where you tap on the hotel guest ledger? (I remember that last one mostly because I had forgotten at that point why I was looking at it, or even what I was looking for.) Okay, okay, not all the puzzles involved ledgers, but there was not a single puzzle in the game that gave me anything comparable to the satisfaction I'd get from figuring out some twisted adventure game logic from an old adventure game.
If anything, the interrogation feature has earned the lion's share of praise for the game. I call it a load of ****. While the face-scanning tech was certainly cool, I found it rather bewildering. The first problem inherent in the system is that all the characters are played by actors, so really there was a limit to how well they can simulate the whole lying/sorta lying/truth thing. Or maybe I just sucked at it (although I did okay, actually). Regardless, my problem with the system wasn't about the quality of the actors; it is that the system had absolutely no flow to it.
Now, I'm sure any person who played the game figured out early on that the 'doubt' button meant something like "doubt that this person isn't really a Nazi in hiding" button, and was shocked to witness the things Phelps was saying. But, invariably, you would just go back to your little dialogue menu and ask the next question.
After L.A. Noire, I played Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and the dialogue sequences in that game were really very good. The character Adam talks to gives one of three speeches (all to the same effect), and you pick the appropriate response according to their personality and train of thought, with the goal of gradually breaking down their resistance and getting your way. The mechanic was even simpler than in L.A. Noire, but it had one great advantage: Although each little speech was self-contained, the overall sequence of speeches actually had a flow to it, and in the end the exchange sounded like a well-choreographed conversation, like you might find in a movie.
L.A. Noire's pick-a-question menu has no depth to it: There is no gradual breakdown of a person's mental defenses and getting the information you need. Alternating between civil questioning and wild accusations just looks ridiculous. And do we really need the game to play music to show that you picked the wrong choice? And even write a little 'X' by the question just to reinforce the idea that we suck? I would be pretty impressed if a character managed to send me after a red herring or something because I mistakenly believed them, but that is unlikely to happen when I instantly know I picked the wrong choice.
Also, twisted adventure game logic, ahoy! I don't understand why the game gives you a number of clues that are very similar, and yet is very specific in what clues work for the lying mechanic. There was one part where I accused a man of selling drugs, and to reinforce the point, showed him the giant stash of drugs I just found in his office. He just gave some generic "you are wrong" response, and I was treated to another round of "you are wrong" music and "you are wrong" X-ing in the notebook. WTF. And the interrogation mechanic is especially awkward when Phelps is accusing someone of a crime you (the player) knows they didn't commit, which the game has you do rather frequently thanks to structure of the story.
Speaking of the story, it sucks. This part has spoilers, but if you haven't played the game, then I doubt you'd even know what I've been talking about so far. The single most distinguishing feature in any crime drama show is the ratio of character development to crime-solving. Law and Order has a very low ratio, NCIS has a very high ratio, Law and Order: SVU is in the middle of those two. At the beginning of the game, I figured that L.A. Noire was really leaning towards the Law and Order side. Sure, it mentions like once or twice that Phelps was married, but it isn't like it shows him getting up in the morning or playing with his kids or anything.
Of course I should have known something was going on with all that Pacific Theater nonsense, but I really couldn't interpret anything from it that I didn't already know. What was the point? That Phelps was a by-the-book do-gooder in a world that requires more flexibility? Yeah, I already figured that out about half an hour in. Of course, I'm hardly good at divining meaning from such things.
But the game makes one of the major moments of the game out to be Phelps sleeping with that German lady, which was pretty random, although somewhat foreshadowed. How on Earth could anyone understand Phelps' motivations in doing that? He goes through the entire game talking only about cases, and never lets us in on any details about his life or dreams or ideals or any such things. So all that scene did for me was make me realize that I didn't know Cole Phelps, and the game doesn't really give us much opportunity to figure him out, unless you can tell something about his personality from the way he picks up empty beer bottles. From that point on, the game was less about role-playing a cop and more about fighting Cole Phelps for control over the actions of the player-character.
The story arcs also left me rather divided. While I was pretty interested in the whole figuring out a major conspiracy starting from a minor investigation, and the whole serial killing thing, the rigid mission structure completely ruined it. I don't understand why every mission needed to end up with someone going to jail, despite the fact that anyone playing the game would have already figured out two cases ago that it is all some serial killer, and that the evidence really doesn't fit the suspect of the week. It takes a lot of balls for a game to insult the player for picking the wrong man for a crime, despite the fact that it was a choice between two obviously wrong men, and no option to charge neither. And so there I am, looking at that total case count looming over me, just wondering how many cases I'll have to waste on obvious set-ups before the game is finally satisfied that it can reveal the truth that players grasped hours ago.
And that is everything there is to L.A. Noire. Flawed open-world, mini-games that approach Assassin's Creed 1 levels of repetition, bizarre and immersion breaking conversation mechanics, and a rather silly story crippled by the rigidity of the game's structure. I did think the ending super-evil plot was pretty clever (though the bad guys probably shouldn't have made a movie about it, and left it at that movie set), so I guess the game didn't suck in every way. Damn.
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