Week 3 of the #52Games52Weeks Challenge and Sean is putting LA Noire under the microscope.
Game: LA Noire
Developer: Team Bondi
When we talk about really great story drive, open world games, Skyrim and Oblivion are indefinitely mentioned. Saints Row is probably brought up. Grand Theft Auto, Fallout, The Witcher, Far Cry, The Arkham Series, Just Cause and even Assassins Creed: Black Flag are often banded around as “the best” open world games. Some might even argue for Sleeping Dogs or (in Paul’s case, and Paul alone) Watch_Dogs. But what about LA Noire?
LA Noire released to almost unanimous critical acclaim, reaching a Metacritic score of 88%. Citing the games ground-breaking facial animation and character interaction, The Guardian gave the game a perfect score saying “Ever since it first worked out how to assemble pixels so that they resembled something more recognizable than aliens, the games industry has dreamed of creating one thing above all else – a game that is indistinguishable from a film, except that you can control the lead character. With L.A. Noire, it just might, finally, have found the embodiment of that particular holy grail”. High praise indeed and a statement I largely agree with. The game was also a commercial success. It topped the UK all format chart in its first week and set a new record for the fastest selling new IP which it held until the release of Watch_Dogs and according to NPD, LA Noire was the best-selling game in the US of the month of May 2011…
…but for some reason, LA Noire faded from people’s memories almost as quickly as it rose to meteoric success and for a few obvious reasons.
The first and most confusing reason is that LA Noire is an amazing Noir detective game but a terrible open world adventure when compared to its peers. Developers Team Bondi lovingly crafted a 1940’s version of Los Angeles, from buildings to bus routes and then filled it with… very little. Take a drive around LA Noire and you will get called to deal with crimes like bank heists or domestic disturbances, each of which act as one of the games 40 side quests – but these are as scripted as the main story cases. While other games in the open world genre sprinkle activities among its bustling streets (Street activities in Assassin’s Creed for example) to add flesh to the bones, LA Noire leaves its alley ways barren and its sidewalks silent – and what’s most odd about it is that even the game knows it and gives you the opportunity to skip the “filler”.
Bark an order at your partner to drive and he will take the wheel and a journey, no matter how far, will turn into a fade-to-black and then a cut scene of arriving at your destination. While other games (I’m looking at you GTA) pad out missions by having you spend 10 minutes driving from A to B to C, LA Noire is confident enough in its actual plot based content to allow you to skip the driving sections through the sparse LA streets altogether.
This, to me, is the crux of the split personality that LA Noire seems to suffer with. The actual content – the finding clues, the shoot outs, the deciphering of riddles, examining bodies and the overarching plot – is (baring a few caveats which I will get to in a second) excellent. It’s the open world aspect that seems out of place here. During my play through, I did very little driving. I let my partner be my chauffer and only took the wheel when it was absolutely necessary – and I loved it. I didn’t have to endure long drives adhering to the speed limits and avoiding crashes – I am a police officer after all. I just got the best 13 hours of LA Noire and none of the added bloat – but I can see why this part of the game exists and why, back in 2011, it probably needed too.
A few years ago, if a game was “linear” it was criticised for it. Open worlds were the “in thing” inspired by the Saints Row’s and GTA’s of the world. Back then, if you were to read “a Noire crime thriller” it wouldn’t have peaked as much interest as “an open world Noire crime thriller” and those 2 words were probably the reason why LA Noire sold so well in its first few weeks. If it was to be released today, where almost every game released by a major publisher has some “open world” or “procedural generation” aspect to it and there is an “open world fatigue” beginning to set in, LA Noire probably needn’t have lumbered itself with its largely empty open world at all.
Unnecessary bumph aside, I have one other gripe with LA Noire. A missed opportunity that stands out like a sore thumb – Phelps’ wife and children.
PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD
There is a single important moment in LA Noire that I think is handled poorly. It’s during the Ad Vice desk cases when Cole Phelps, the main character, is teamed up with crooked cop Roy Earle and his super-cop façade of starts to slip. Up until this point, Phelps has been the epitome of a straight up cop. “A Case man”, as he is so often described, he was the poster boy for the LAPD – but it all falls to pieces, for Phelps and the players perception of him.
Between some of the cases Cole Phelps had been solving, players are treated to flashback of the protagonist’s experiences on Okinawa during World War II. For the first half of the game, these showed Phelps as a first class solider – intelligent, obedient and brave. While chatting with colleagues, Phelps often says he “doesn’t want to talk about the War” and for good reason. He’s ashamed. During the war, he froze, the company he was commanding was wiped out and he just sat there until the fighting had finished. Led by Cole’s rival, Kelso, the remaining troops defeated the Japanese in the skirmish but it was Phelps that was awarded the Silver Star for his “bravery”. These flashbacks are perfectly paced and are slipped in to build our confidence of a protagonist that turns out to be deeply flawed. They cause the player to think “Hey, maybe Phelps isn’t the war hero I thought he was?” and the doubts start to creep in.
It’s the second blow of the one-two punch that LA Noire attempts to deliver that almost fails entirely – Phelps’ infidelity.
During his time on the Ad Vice desk, Phelps falls for a German lounge singer and P.O.I. in a case, Elsa Lichtmann. He sleeps with her. What a huge mistake. His crooked partner Roy Earle throws Phelps under the bus, making him the media scapegoat to cover up a prostitution scandal that is about to blow up on the Chief of Police.
During the first half of the game, Cole’s “Beautiful wife and 2 children” are mentioned in passing several times but it is at this point that we first meet Marie AKA Mrs. Phelps. She knows about Cole’s adultery. She’s is rightfully very pissed. She throws his suitcase on the lawn and… that’s it. What I imagine was supposed to be the final threads of Cole’s credibility snapping before our eyes is over in seconds and with so little emotion that it may as well have not happened at all.
LA Noire could have delivered a real “pull the rug from beneath us” moment here if it had spent a little more time introducing Phelps’ family earlier on and given us a glimpse into his family life. Not knowing anything about Marie or his children, of what he was throwing away from by sleeping with Elsa, meant that Cole’s fall from grace felt only half-baked.
This small gripe aside, LA Noire is a slow burner that tells a beautifully weaved and multi-layered story. There are story arcs within story arcs, all of which expand upon traditional Film Noire tropes. There is the crooked cop, on the take and in the pocket of the mob – Roy Earle. There’s the over-the-hill detective who is more interested in reaching the bottom of a whisky bottle than getting to the bottom of a mystery – Rusty Galloway. There is the gorgeous femme fatale, that treads the thin line between hero and villain – Elsa Lichtmann. There are a tonne of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats and almost everybody smokes. Even Phelps becomes a parody of the flawed hero. Switch on the black and white filter mode in the options, squint and you could be forgiven for thinking you are watching The Maltese Falcon or L.A. Confidential.
It’s also worth noting that even though LA Noire is nearly 5 years old, the visuals still stand up to today’s standards. The facial animation created using the then groundbreaking MotionScan, is some of the best I have ever seen. A suspects eyes and eye brows can give away a lie as much as what they say in LA Noire – everything is deliberate and somebody fidgeting or looking shifty isn’t because of poor animation. It’s because they are hiding something.
I missed LA Noire back in 2011. I picked it up in a 3 for £30 sale at GAME a few years back and it has sat on my shelf among the rest of my “pile of shame” ever since. I’m so pleased that I took the time to go back to it because this is a game I thoroughly enjoyed, even with its few flaws. With publishers Rockstar keeping tight lipped about a possible sequel (no news since 2013?) and developers Team Bondi working on their own game, Whore of the Orient, I won’t keep my hopes up for a sequel but if either of you are reading this, I would definitely buy LA Noire 2. Day one.
For first time visitors, Sean is attempting to complete 52 games in 52 weeks AKA the #52Games52Weeks challenge. You can catch up with all the games he plays using this feed or by clicking the link to previous weeks here: