(This review contains a few L.A. Noire spoilers and slightly more adult humor than normal. If you are below the age of forty, do not read it. Instead, go to a more family-friendly web site.)
I played a lot of L.A. Noire recently. I got about twenty hours in, had a decent amount of fun, and realized that my parental, old-person life doesn't really encourage playing long games any more. Which is worrying, as that is the sort of game I write. Whenever I look at my work and go, "I have no interest in playing games like this," I get to worry. But that's another story.
L.A. Noire is a fairly fun and reasonably innovative game, published by Rockstar Games and developed by Team Bondi, a bunch of Australians. It's a combination of investigation and interrogation mechanics that have appeared in adventure games in the past, combined with the gigantic open world setting of Rockstar games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead: Redemption. It's seemed like Rock Star has been trying to see in recent years how much you can stretch this format and still make a good game (e.g. Bully, Red Dead: Redemption). L.A. Noire may be on the outside edge of how far you can push this.
There was a bunch of things I liked and a bunch of places that were rough. I always feel bad mocking those who tried to push the envelope, but hey, they're huge and sell millions of copies, so they can survive my little blog.
You play a detective in late forties Los Angeles, who, if I recall correctly, has a name. Something virile, like Blake Manfulness. His voice and motion capture were done by Ken Cosgrove, Accounts.
You are told to investigate crimes. You go places and search for clues. Then you interrogate subjects and persons of interest. You have to pay very close attention to what these people say, how they say it, and what facial expressions they show (the facial animation software being the big breakout feature of this game), and, when they lie or hedge the truth, confront them. Then, when the case is solved and someone is arrested, you get a star rating to determine how well you did. So that's the game.
I'm a natural target for this sort of thing. I am a huge sucker for a police procedural. Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets is one of my all-time favorite books, and, in the manner of all fans of The Wire, I am really annoying when talking about The Wire.
So, for me, the clue-hunting and interrogation were very much the fun of the game. When I was interrogating people, I found I was really concentrating and thinking. When I put a few clues together and caught some rat bastard in a lie, I really felt that my brain power enabled me to do something cool, and that's something that I rarely experience in games these days. So that part of the game was awesome. I didn't even really mind the fact that you can't ever actually lose a mission or let the suspect get away.
But, alas, there are also lots of driving, chasing, shooting, and sneaking sequences straight out of Grand Theft Auto. They are, you know, fine. But very rote and familiar, not the sort of thing I want to spent tens of hours doing anymore. Also, while their enormous rendition of Los Angeles is lavish and awesome, there are very few things you can actually do in it. When playing Red Dead: Redemption, I was constantly being distracted by cool stuff to do. But here, apart from a fixed set of side quests, L.A. seemed a little dry. And if you can't let off steam by going on a rampaging, horrifying kill spree before being gunned down in the street by tanks like the rabid dog you are, what's the point of playing a Rockstar game?
And, double alas, the farther you get into the game, the less important the questioning becomes. The game ends not with an awesome Prime Suspect-style battle of wits between detective and suspect, but just another gunfight. In a sewer. I've been a gamer for a long time. I'm tired of gunfights in sewers.
So there is ambivalence here. I admire Rockstar greatly for spending a ton of money to make a big game that's not a sequel and actually tries to do new things. That is hugely to their credit, and there's plenty of good stuff here. I just wish they'd taken the cool stuff that works and concentrated it into a much shorter game.
A few other thoughts ...
This game is really for adults. Even by Rockstar standards. After working on the murder cases, all I wanted was for one of the dead women to have some clothes on, for God's sake. Though their pubic hair rendering engine is first rate.
Along these lines, L.A. Noire contains more checking for semen than any video game I have ever played. This is entirely to their credit. Also, the game played much faster once I went into settings and mapped Check For Semen to the right trigger.
We should take a moment to remember the lost. After L.A. Noire came out, there were allegations that Team Bondi pushed its employees to long stretches of hundred-hour weeks to make this game. Based on the standards of the industry and the obvious amount of work in this game, I entirely believe it. This sort of crap is why I am determined to stay an indie developer as long as possible. I have children. I'd like to, you know, see them.
L.A. Noire is guilty of my current least-favorite writing flaw: Having one mission completely nullify all of the story elements of the several missions before it. You see, int he part of the game where you are a homicide detective, you have six cases. In the first five, you investigate murdered women and arrest a perpetrator. In the sixth case, following a series of tedious puzzle-solving and climbing sequences, you learn that the previous five men you arrested are all innocent and the murders were committed by some crazy guy that you shoot in a tunnel or something.
If there is any flaw that really bugs me about this game, it's that it says, "You can be a badass detective and investigate crimes and outwit criminals." And then it makes you spend a huge swath of the middle game arresting the wrong guys for crime after crime. What a waste. It shows a lack of respect for the player and the premise.
But still. It's something different. It's ambitious. It's had decent sales. Everyone involved deserves applause for making this thing, and I'm really glad it didn't tank. At this point, we gamers have to take all the innovation we can get.