If you’re a regular listener of War Rocket Ajax, then you might remember that I’ve been promising a review of Rockstar’s L.A. Noire since it was released last May. Of course, if you’re a regular Ajax listener, you’re also probably aware that I tend to get around to these things well after everyone else does — I am, after all, the person who spent the last half of 2011 talking about the revolutionary gaming experience that was Fallout 3. Compared to that, this one’s coming in right on time.
But here’s the thing: I played L.A. Noire on the day it came out, and the fact that I’m still thinking about it months after I finished it is a testament to its greatest strength. It’s a memorable experience, mostly because of the sheer amount of style that it delivers. It’s a beautiful game that does a phenomenal job presenting that smoky, pulpy post-war era. Just like its predecessors — Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption — it’s one of those games where one of the most fun things you can do is just drive around in this environment, taking in the beauty that’s been recreated and seeing what’s out there to see. It’s the kind of thing that it’s easy to get lost in. I mean, I’d be lying if I said that one of the reasons I spent a truly ridiculous amount of money on nice pocket notebooks last year wasn’t seeing Cole Phelps jotting down notes and suspiciously photorealistic sketches of suspects in his notebook rekindled my interest in having one handy. There’s some genuinely great acting in there, too, particularly from Aaron Staton, who does a great job with Phelps. Even the soundtrack‘s great — I’m listening to it right now.
The problem is that all of those great, evocative things are stuck in a game with two massive, glaring, unforgivable flaws that turn it into one of the most frustrating and fundamentally broken video games ever released.
The first is a flaw in storytelling, and the reason that one gets top billing is that this is where this game should shine, especially coming off a triumph like Red Dead Redemption. The latter is probably my second-favorite game Rockstar’s done after Bully, because it manages to have a really amazing arc for the characters without making the player feel like they’re not involved. Obviously there’s a storyline set in stone, but you feel like an active participant, right up until the point where you realize where the story’s leading, and then it’s too late to stop. You could always turn it off, take the game out of the XBox and assume that John Marston goes on to have a happy life with his wife and son, but the game’s so good that you want to keep playing, and at that point you become complicit in making that tragedy happen. It’s a masterstroke that rivals any game out there in terms of storytelling. And even better, it didn’t stop the developers from taking it a completely balls-to-the-wall goofy direction with the Undead Nightmare expansion, either. They had fun with it.
The only problem is that it doesn’t really allow for one of the major selling points of the game, which is that it’s that all-important open world sandbox that allows you to dick around as much as you want, shooting deer or gathering sagebrush or riding horses through bandito encampments or whatever the hell else you want to do. Considering that Marston’s entire motivation in that game is that he wants to get back home to his family, that sort of puts you-the-player in direct conflict with the character you’re playing, which is a pretty interesting aspect to it that can be filed neatly under the heading of “well it’s a video game. It’s supposed to be fun.”
Still, I guess somebody saw something wrong with this, because in L.A. Noire, they’ve certainly solved that problem by making a game that doesn’t really give a fuck if you’re there to play it or not. The emphasis is, as I’ve said, on telling the story that Rockstar wanted to tell, going from point A to point B to point C in exactly the same manner that they’ve written back at the office. And you know what? That’s fine. Hell, that’s the way video games have worked for thirty years. Say what you want about the evolution of storytelling, but you know what happens in Mass Effect? You beat the Reapers. Doesn’t matter if you’re a Paragon or a Renegade or if you save the Destiny Ascension or what you did with the Rachni Queen or whether you tapped that Asari or what. Those actions have consequences, yes, but if you pull back far enough from that plot, “Commander Shepard beats the Reapers” is as written in stone as “Mario saves the Princess.”
The problem is that L.A. Noire makes you a passive participant. And not only that, but it underscores the fact that your actions as a player are insignificant by having a gigantic portion of the plot based around the fact that your actions as Cole Phelps are insignificant.
It happens at the climax of the homicide cases, when you discover that the person who’s actually been doing all these murders you’re investigating is the same guy that was behind the infamously unsolved Black Dahlia murder. So, since it was that guy who did all the murders, that means that everyone that you busted for the entirety of that section of the game, every thread of logic and piece of decisive evidence that you found, every hour you spent on all of those cases, was completely and totally irrelevant and wrong.
My standard argument against people who obsess over which stories “count” in comic books is that if you have fun reading the stories, then that’s the only thing that counts. In theory, you could apply that to games as well — moreso, in fact, since having fun is the only goal a game should aspire to. The problem is that the sense of accomplishment — which in L.A. Noire comes directly from using logic and deduction to solve the case — is integral to the fun. And that’s not even getting into the multiple occasions when it makes absolutely no sense for anyone else to be the guilty party, because the case is structured so that you come to the “correct” conclusion.
In other words, in a game built entirely on logic and deduction, it’s a twist that you have no chance whatsoever of figuring out, that according to the rules of the game itself also invalidates a massive chunk of what came before it. We in the writing profession have a word for a twist like that, and the word is “bullshit.” A friend of mine who works in the video game industry told me that’s where he just flat-out quit playing, and I don’t blame him. As much as I hate to use this term, if that’s not a massive fuck-you to the player, the person who by definition is supposed to take an active role in the game, then I don’t know what is.
And it dovetails nicely with the second major flaw, which is in the gameplay. The core mechanic of L.A. Noire is the interrogation, in which you talk to people and have to suss out the truth by determining whether they’re telling the truth, contradicting them with evidence whenever you spot a lie. Do well enough, and you advance to the next piece of the game, where you gather more clues, interview the next suspect or witness, and repeat ’til the end of the game. Well, sort of, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
It’s a similar system — and by “similar” I mean “virtually identical” — to the system in the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney games. For me, that’s not a problem at all. I absolutely love the Phoenix Wright games, even though they violate almost everything I said above about making the player an active participant. They’re barely even really games — they read like comic books that just happen to be on your Nintendo DS instead of on paper. There’s nominal involvement from the player, in that you’re the one who has to poke around on a screen to find clues and figure out which people are lying to you, but overall, that stuff is just treated as the hassle you have to go through in order to get to the next piece of the story. For me, there’s no question. I love that game. The characters, the stories, even the translation, everything is so appealing that I’m happy to jump through whatever hoops I need to in order to get to the next bit. Of course, the flipside to that is that if you don’t care about Phoenix Wright and his psychic ghost-channeling samurai-loving gluttonous assistant, it quickly becomes the most pointless game in the world.
There are only two major differences between the Ace Attorney and L.A. Noire systems, and one of them is that Ace Attorney is a lot more forgiving and intuitive. As you hear testimony in those games, you’re given the option to press a particular point for more information, which often changes testimony and provides you with the contradiction you need to exploit. Most of the time this is just another button to push, but if you already spot the contradiction before pressing, you can skip straight to it. Also, you have a set number of chances (the ol’ fashioned life bar) to get things wrong. If you screw up, you can get another chance, and it actually adds nicely to the drama, when the crucial moment in a trial is represented by one chance to present evidence, with a wrong move wiping out your entire bar.
In L.A. Noire, you only have one chance at every question, and to make matters worse, you have to make a choice after every statement from the witness. You’ve got three options: Truth, Doubt, or Lie, and that second one is where it all falls apart for me. It basically means “I don’t believe you but I don’t have the evidence to prove it,” but the line between whether someone’s fibbing or lying is so fine as to be almost undetectable most of the time. The game is built around software that recognizes and displays the facial “tells” when someone’s lying — the instruction manual has a great moment where it says that you-the-player have already been training your whole life to recognize when people are lying to you — but the system that you use to call someone on their lies is counterintuitive as all hell. If you doubt someone, doesn’t it also imply that you think they’re lying? But instead of saying something like “I don’t think you’re being honest with me,” a misplaced “Doubt” choice will send Cole Phelps launching into some insane leap of logic that usually stops just short of claiming that the girl who runs the grocery store is a secret werewolf.
And because you’ve only got one shot at each, and because the storyline is the clear focus, it’s a game that’ll send you running to GameFaqs every time. I said when it came out that I imagine the intent was to actually capture the frustration of being a cop who knows someone’s lying to him when you just can’t prove it, but maybe making the video game as frustrating as real life isn’t the best way to have a good time.
But all that, I can deal with. After all, if you can get past “Doubt” and “Lie” as words that actually mean things and just see them as two options that have different tells, which you can usually figure out logically from the evidence you’re given, it works. Well, most of the time. And sometimes it works and then the game tells you that you were wrong anyway, ha ha. The problem is that this mechanic, the core of the game, is completely abandoned at the most crucial moments in favor of L.A. Noire suddenly trying to turn itself into its more famous cousins. Instead of investigating your way to the bad guy behind a crime, you’re suddenly playing Grand Theft Auto 1943, dealing with these big set pieces where you’re having a shootout like it’s Saints Row 2.
And again, that’s fine. Or at least, it would be if they’d set out to actually make that game instead of the one they ended up with. I mean, I would play the hell out of Grand Theft Auto 1943 starring Aaron Staton, but when four missions from that game are bolted onto the corpse of an Ace Attorney game that’s had all the comedy drained out of it, the end result just doesn’t work.
The perfect example — and the one that pissed me off to no end even after I made it through that Black Dahlia bullshit — was the game’s final level. I’m a firm believer that the final level of a game should be a culmination of everything that game has been up to that point. I’m a big Mega Man fan, and that’s a game that does this to a literal extreme, where you actually do have to use every single weapon you get throughout the game in order to beat the last levels, and even a game with RPG style leveling-up rewards you for putting the time in. It’s actually one of the huge flaws of Mass Effect, in that it just comes down to you standing there shooting Saren in the face until he dies, just like you’ve done with every other enemy that you’ve comes across in that game. The sequel does it a lot better– you’re still standing there shooting at something, but there are consequences derived directly from the time you’ve put into earning your crew’s loyalty, and whether you made the right decisions sending them off to their jobs, and it’s one of the things that makes that game so emotionally resonant.
In short, in order for a game to deliver that sense of triumph, you need to feel like you’ve learned something, like you didn’t waste all that time while you were, you know, wasting your time. So if the core mechanic of L.A. Noire is the investigation aspect, if the thing they used to sell us on that game was the idea that we’d be able to look at someone’s face and tell if they were lying, if the victory you experience comes from having that crucial piece of evidence to nail that murdering / thieving / arsoning criminal bastard to the wall, even if it brings you down in the process, that is what the game should build to.
Instead, a dude who is not Cole Phelps runs through a sewer with a fucking flamethrower like it’s Castle Fucking Wolfenstein.
In exchange for dealing with the one thing that makes it unique, it rewards you with utter nonsense that feels like it was cut from every other game Rockstar makes that’s not about competitive table tennis. In the months that I’ve spent turning over this review in my head, it’s gone from being something I thought was flawed but fun to what was without question the most disappointing game of the past year. The fact is, this is a game that feels like it doesn’t want you to play it. So don’t.