Some Initial Thoughts On LA NOIRE

Join the early discussion about the fascinating new crime game.

Like many of you I sat down with LA Noire for a couple of hours yesterday. I haven’t finished the game, so I don’t think I can do any sort of a real review, but here are some initial thoughts and a place for you guys to discuss what your impressions of the game are.

I am in a weird place with LA Noire where I am semi-obsessed with it, really interested in playing it and yet not quite in love with it. The experience of playing LA Noire is fairly engrossing, and the world that is created feels real and expansive and detailed. But it’s also kind of serious in a way that feels distinctly non-Rockstar, and in a way that makes the game itself slightly less warm.

Also keeping me from quite loving the game is a feeling of disconnect that I have from the character I’m controlling. I don’t feel like I’m playing Cole Phelps, more like I’m rooting him on. I’ve long held the theory that the more artistically legitimate and narratively strong a video game is, the more it’s just an interactive movie; LA Noire really, really feels like an interactive movie. Maybe part of the issue is that Phelps is a particularly strong character, and I’m not allowed to decide how he acts.

I almost typed ‘problem’ instead of ‘issue’ there, but problem is totally the wrong word. I like the Phelps character, and I like the way the game portrays him and his backstory. Too many video game lead characters are ciphers because the impetus is to make the player feel like they’re inhabiting the character, but sometimes it’s nice to have a strong character who feels rounded and real.

The facial capture work in the game is stunning; watching some of the scenes in LA Noire makes me think that we are just a couple of years from really groundbreaking changes in character depiction in video games. The face work hasn’t quite gotten across the uncanny valley, but the effect is impressive and immersive nonetheless; again, I feel like I’m watching an interactive movie but this time because these characters feel like people, not like randomized features jammed together.

The gameplay is intriguing. It’s weird to play a game featuring a lot of dialogue where I actually have to listen to the dialogue; I’m pretty used to half zoning out during cut scenes, but in LA Noire the information is often key. What’s more, the way the information is delivered is also often key. I like the point and click nature of the investigations, although I think that there’s still some refinement to be made. I don’t think Team Bondi has quite found the perfect sweet spot, and the evidence gathering comes across as too easy and sort of boring. You just walk around, waiting for the controller to buzz and the music tells you when you’re all done. Of course the question is how else would you do it? There’s a balance to be struck between making the game too easy - and I think it’s slightly too easy right now - and making it impossible. Without the buzzing controller and music, you would spend hours upon hours picking through every crime scene. That might be accurate, but it’s not fun.

What I really love, and what again enforces the interactive movie concept, is the organic way that you interact with the world and other characters. Everything feels intuitive, and the way you’re given assignments feels natural, like how an assignment would be given to a detective. The game rarely feels like the story is stopping to let some video gamey shit go down; everything fits together perfectly. Honestly this could be my favorite part of the game, the way that it all just works.

Some of the game mechanics can frustrate. As a detective your job is to make the case; that can become frustrating, though, as you the player will sometimes be way ahead of you the Cole Phelps character. That’s another thing which distances you from the game. Still, it makes sense that you can’t accuse someone of using a knife to murder her husband until you have the proper evidence in hand; it’s like a game of Clue that way.

I’m at a point in the game where the meta story is just getting underway, so I can’t speak much about that. I assume it’s the usual corruption in the department/James Ellroy stuff that we’ve seen - and loved - so much. I’m okay with that. I’m actually okay just solving cases; I was bummed out when I was promoted to homicide and got a ‘six months later’ title card. I would have happily spent six months of game time solving random murders!

A couple of other thoughts: the sandbox aspect of the game feels tacked on, but not in an irritating way. I would have liked the game to decide if it wanted to be a linear narrative or a sandbox game, but it didn’t. That means you can be told to get someplace immediately and fuck around on the map forever and, as far as I can tell, it makes no difference.

I also find myself a little disappointed that so many of my cases end in variations on the suspect saying ‘Let me get my coat’ and the running for the window, with me chasing them down and often shooting them in the face. I estimate I’ve killed something like 50 people in the game so far (between cases and side missions, which are invariably shoot outs), which really would make even the LAPD of the 40s think twice about me. It’s possible that I’m just not getting the best outcome of cases, though; I don’t know how many different endings each case potentially has.

The game gives you an option to play in black and white, which is cute. A number of my friends feel like this is the only way to play the game, but I have found the black and white to be too light for my tastes; it feels like an old TV series rather than an old movie. But more than that living in Los Angeles the last few years has made me appreciate the city’s vibrant pallete, which the game recreates. We don’t get to see the 40s in color too often, so I’ve enjoyed playing the game in full color.

LA Noire is engrossing and enjoyable and compelling. I’m forcing myself to sit at the computer today rather than play it, which is always a good sign. But I haven’t quite fallen in love with it the way I did with Dragon Age or Red Dead Redemption. Still, a very, very good game is nothing to sneeze at, and I would be interested in seeing LA Noire start a franchise where Team Bondi and Rockstar finetune the investigation mechanics to get to that perfect spot where it’s manageable but doesn’t feel on rails.