L.A. Noire Review

The perpetrator had just gunned down a woman in front of me and fled immediately. I gave chase, following him through the streets as he ducked between buildings, trying to escape. I trained my gun on him to fire a warning shot but couldn't get a bead on him long enough. He dodged into a fenced area, grabbed a woman, and held her hostage, threatening to kill her. 

A prompt popped up telling me to subdue the man before he harmed the hostage. I wanted to take him in, so I decided to try to be non-fatal, and shot him in the foot.  Instead of dropping down or giving up, he backed away, and told me it was my fault as he shot the poor woman dead. A screen faded in telling me I had failed the mission. It reloaded back to the start of the chase. 

I repeated it, trying again, trying to shoot the gun out of his hand, trying to stop him before he reached the woman, trying everything I could to avoid what started seeming like it was going to be my last option. But there was nothing else I could do about it – he grabbed her again, and a single shot to his head ended the whole ordeal. Detective Phelps, the playable character, received a commendation and was well on his way to a promotion for this case that I personally felt I had failed. 

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I feel this anecdote shows both the ambitions and the downfalls of L.A. Noire, a monument to ambition essentially forgotten. This game had a feeling like the gameplay, and the technology behind it, were supposed to be a step into the future – a big evolution in how animation in games could work beyond simple motion capture to drive new kinds of interaction. Instead the company was liquidated, the technology never used again, and if memory serves, the leftovers of Team Bondi wound up being sold to a company owned by George Miller, where they then got to work on Happy Feet 2

L.A. Noire is a cop fantasy that sells itself on the chance for the player to be a cop and take down crime through good, old-fashioned and open-ended gumshoe detective work. In reality, it's a very binary game that feels far too limiting in what's available to to do at any moment. Let's go back to that anecdote. A man comes in and threatens a woman with a gun in front of two police officers, but I'm given no opportunity to step in and de-escalate the situation, like any good cop would do. The victim exists to be shamed as a manipulative woman cheating on her husband. She exists to be killed. We leave her body behind and she's never mentioned again, a digital corpse sacrificed along the way. 

The man takes off running, leading you into one of those bad chase sequences that were all the rage circa 2011. You know the ones, where the target arbitrarily manages to run way faster than the main character (in this case, a cop and trained Marine). And when you get too close to them, instead of stopping the chase then and there, the target puts on a sudden burst of speed that often breaks their animation. Can't catch them until the game lets you catch them! 

For most of the game, you can't just pull your gun out. It doesn't even let you – nothing happens if you hit the button, even during chase sequences. But for some reason THIS is the chase sequence you use the gun to fire a warning shot. It's not the best mechanic - it feels really, really gamey as you hold the reticule over the person running long enough for a cutscene to mark the end of the chase. Just shooting at the person, or getting a near miss, doesn't do it. Nor does shooting them in the leg to try and hobble them. If you kill them here you fail the mission – despite the fact that if you can't get the warning shot off, you'll have to kill them anyways in the next scene. 

You really shouldn't have to kill the guy, but the developers just never bothered to put in anything beyond that. It's one of those things were you can see them just not thinking that non-fatal should even be an option. You shoot to kill, never to wound, never to take them alive. Despite telling you it's a game about interrogation and On The Ground detective work and unlocking clues to find the Truth, it doesn't allow what should be the ultimate goal of these cases: taking the suspect in alive. 

At the end of this case as I played it, both people involved in the murder were dead and that was the best ending. 

Look, I know this is pretty pie in the sky "Oh, this is what policemen SHOULD be" thinking. A parade of black bodies litter the public consciousness now in a way that's a stark reminder that the real world doesn't really work like that. But L.A. Noire is a fantasy. Cole Phelps is an ambitious weenie who does everything by the book. The fact that I can't simply take a suspect in feels at odds with the character and the world he lives in. Instead, the game only gives you the option of brutality and rewards you for it. 

And it's a problem that persists throughout all of L.A. Noire. You're trapped in the system that it creates without any chance to explore. You can only tackle the cases given to you and how the game tells you to, and while I've seen some argue that that's the point (as in this excellent Waypoint piece), for me it just felt limiting and frustrating.  

It does make L.A. Noire a game about getting the perp, any perp that seems like the right one, but it doesn't do much to actually examine this idea. It's only at the homicide desk that it really gets its due, with the captain of the desk taking up the mantle of a righteous avenger looking to get any collar he can. However, like with a lot of Rockstar games the presentation feels like they watched a bunch of movies and said "let's take these ideas and then recreate them, not re-examine them." The influences are obvious and everywhere, but it feels like a collection of other people's ideas, and not so much a cohesive examination of its own. You are trapped in a system, but it felt to me more like an arbitrary, mechanical limitation, not something put in as a way of shining how corruption, desire for approval, and optics can curtail you into making the wrong choices just because they look better to the public or a superior. 

The much-touted face tech makes a return, of course, looking a little rough, at least in the Switch version, but still getting the job done. It's a little janky around the edges, as with a lot of the graphical aspects of this version. I noticed a couple of times the framerate on just the faces would stutter, as if it was running into weird compression issues, and the fidelity isn't as high as it is on some of the big boy console versions. I wonder if some of that was just issues with having to cut back to save space (this game is so big you actually HAVE to buy an SD card for your Switch to download it) while also dealing with the Switch's more limited power. I remember when I bought this on the 360, it came on four discs just because of this.  

If you buy the physical version, you're still required to go online and download a 14GB patch. That's less than ideal, but odds are, it's something we'll be seeing on the Switch quite a bit for these larger games. Cartridges! 

Interrogations are a little more hit and miss, but changing out the original prompts to "Good Cop/Bad Cop/Accuse" makes it easier to understand what you're going to be doing with each button, which I appreciate. It makes it easier to understand what you're about to say to these people before you do, so you're not so surprised when Cole goes from "I'm sorry for your loss" to "I WILL SLAM YOUR HEAD INTO A DOOR IF I DON'T GET THE TRUTH." 

Running on the Switch also brings with it some really intense framerate issues, especially in some of the on-foot chases, and there's a lot of fade-in going on as well. As you drive around, the texture pop is noticeable, and the point you get to before something starts to fade in also feels a little close. I haven't run into any huge glitches, but you get the feeling that it's already kind of a miracle they could get this thing to run on the system. 

So with all of these problems, limitations, frustrations that I listed out... with all of that going on, why do I keep going back and playing this? Because it's still such a unique thing. This game's an artifact in a similar way as something like, say, Dragon's Lair or Majestic – an exercise in a game driven by technology that then never really gets used again, but serves as a fascinating snapshot into someone's idea of how to push and evolve game narrative. While we've seen a return of quick time events, and the rise of the ARG as legit parts of some games, the types of interaction and motion capture they did here were never revisited. Even though the company claimed they also had a method of full-body performance capture that could offer the same fidelity to a full performer, they never got a chance to. As far as I know, the company no longer exists, and who knows where the tech went. It feels like a relic that we will go back to and go "wow remember this crazy tech?" 

Maybe it's too early to really say if we've seen the last of this sort of thing, but if anything I feel games like The Walking Dead (arriving a mere year later!) sort of came and ate its lunch. It proved that we could have these kinds of choice-and-interaction heavy experiences without that high level of tech, or that kind of facial animation. While we have advanced these kinds of adventure games, it's not quite in the way that L.A. Noire envisioned.  

On top of that though, it's just a lot of fun to solve a mystery still. It's INCREDIBLY satisfying to find all of the clues and present them at the right time, start putting the pieces together in your head while the game teases them out. The writing in this game is near uniformly great, save a case here or there. The world itself is also incredibly well realized – it's like going back in time, almost. And the crimes are just so varied – you may be working the arson desk, but that doesn't mean everything you're doing is just about the fires. Los Angeles is a town on the grow, and corruption runs deep. 

And so does full frontal nudity! The fun part of this being on the Switch was when I was in the damn airport looking at a woman's naked, bloody, written-on corpse so just be careful with where you play this. Also, content warning for that sort of things. You go through both the homicide and vice desks here, but even traffic still deals with rape and abuse. 

This L.A. Noire remaster is more than worth revisiting, even if it is lousy with issues that just start to seem more apparent with time. It's the definition of flawed ambition, shooting for the stars and never quite reaching it. It's rare to find a game like this that is willing to be so simple and down-to-earth, about a cop with a wife (who's never even threatened or fridged!) just doing the work. Hopefully Rockstar's remastering of it is a suggestion that they're on their way to starting the franchise back up – it may still be enjoyable, but there's a lot that could be improved.