There are, like, two or three games in history I can positively recommend based solely on storytelling alone. L.A. Noire is one of them. Playing this game is very much like watching the most stylishly entertaining 1940s crime drama you’ve ever seen. This game bends over backwards to make you forget you’re holding a controller, and the few concessions it makes for that whole pesky “gameplay” thing are made only grudgingly. I’ve just finished playing the final case, and still rolling my brain around whether the game works or not. I have very vivid recollection of times where the innovative interrogations worked beautifully, and times where they seemed to be unplayably broken.
So let’s see if I can’t sort through some of those feelings.
Let’s get this out of the way right quick: yes, this game has action challenges. You have to drive and shoot and chase and punch, but only in the most superficial ways imaginable. These challenges never rose to more than even a trivial level of difficulty, and it was clear they only existed as a means to pace out the storyline. To that end, I really think they worked. This comes as a great relief to me, because I like exploring and figuring things out but am notoriously bad at, say, aiming a gun. The game lets you skip past these challenges if you really suck at them, but unless they’re determined to fail I can’t imagine any player out there will actually need that safety net.
The rest of the game is about gathering evidence, putting a story together, and catching suspects and witnesses in their lies. To that end… I think the game was terrible. And wonderful. And never any spot in between.
The big selling point of L.A. Noire, of course, was the revolutionary face capture technology they used to bring their actors to life. The idea is you’re supposed to watch your suspect’s face as he talks, and work out from his demeanor and facial ticks whether or not he’s feeding you a line of bull. Your interaction with the game is limited to waiting for the suspect to say something, then picking “Truth”, “Doubt” or “Lie” in response to that statement.
Right off the bat you can sort of see the main problem with the system: your three options have no consistency to them. “Truth” and “Lie” both describe the statement itself; that is, you are judging whether the statement is true or false. “Doubt”, on the other hand, describes a reaction to the statement. Does the game want you to try and judge the truth value of the statement? Or does it want you to react to it? What it wants actually varies from interrogation to interrogation, and there are cases where the “correct” option doesn’t make sense until after you’ve made it.
There are major problems with all three of these options.
“Lie” was actually the easiest to get consistently right. You’re only supposed to use “Lie” when the suspect has made a statement that directly contradicts some evidence you already know. When you pick “Lie” you are then prompted to confront the suspect with said evidence, thereby catching them in their lie. I seldom got these wrong, but when I did it was usually because I was trying to use a piece of evidence in a way the game didn’t expect. For example, when I was grilling a local drug runner about a stash of morphine in his office (which was literally in a box ten feet away from us), and he told me he “had nothing to do with that”, I thought for sure confronting him with the morphine would get me somewhere. But — whoops! — no, it turns out that particular stash was only useful for nailing the supplier, not the distributor — and that’s not what I thought I was grilling the guy about. It’s my understanding that the Phoenix Wright games have a lot of this.
“Truth” is supposed to be used whenever you feel the suspect is being honest with you. What you’re not told, however, is how broadly you are supposed to interpret the suspect’s statement, to determine whether it’s true. Very rarely are you told something you already know; it wouldn’t be much of an interrogation if that was the case. So you have to try and read the suspect’s face, while also keeping in mind the evidence you’ve found so far and how the suspect fits in with it. The problem I kept running into was this: I could never tell whether the game wanted me to judge the statement immediately preceding the “Truth/Doubt/Lie” prompt, or whether it wanted me to judge each prompt based on the conversation as a whole. In one interrogation I asked the guy whether he had access to a certain tool at his job. He said yes, he uses them all the time. In evidence I had already seen that particular tool, stamped with the logo of the company the man worked for. My conclusion was that the guy was being honest with me, so I picked “Truth”. That turned out to be wrong. Even after replaying that conversation a couple times, I still don’t know why.
“Doubt” gave me the most trouble, I think. As far as I can tell, “Doubt” is a catch-all for “anything that doesn’t fit into ‘Truth’ or ‘Lie’.” Maybe you can use it when you don’t feel the suspect is being entirely truthful with you. Or when you feel the suspect is lying, but have nothing that can prove it. Or when you think the suspect is being evasive or otherwise stonewalling you. It feels like the designers didn’t have a really firm idea about how this particular option would fit into the system, and it shows. This caused a lot of unnecessary grief as I was fat-thumbing my way through the interrogations.
It’s easy to confuse “Truth” and “Doubt”, because there are times when you have to use “Doubt” against a lie of omission. (That is, the suspect hasn’t lied yet, but you suspect he’s about to.) And it’s easy to confuse “Lie” and “Doubt”, because you can never be 100% sure the game is going to interpret the evidence in the same way you have.
“Doubt” is even worse than that, though. If you pick “Doubt”, and you’re right, the conversation usually progresses by having our intrepid hero push very gently against the suspect’s statement. “So you’ve never fired a gun before in your life?” “Are you sure you’ve never met the victim?” “Do you really expect me to believe that?” If you’re wrong, though, he launches directly into a vicious accusation. I recall interrogating some lowlife fry cook, and thought I could coax something out of him by picking “Doubt”. Imagine my surprise when, instead of merely doubting the poor guy, I immediately accused him of being some kind of drug lord kingpin mastermind son of a bitch, personally responsible for the manufacture, sale, distribution and cover-up of all drug activity everywhere in the world forever.
It’s kind of a thin line there, really.
And that’s really the big problem with the “Doubt” option. In police work, when you’re running down lowlives and leaning on witnesses, don’t you always want to be projecting an aura of doubt? L.A. Noire doesn’t seem to think so, and that was a big disconnect for me.
There are two more serious problems with the investigative side of the game. For one, the game doesn’t always want you to make your decisions based on the evidence alone. Sometimes, when faced with two suspects, you’re supposed to charge the guy based on nebulous things like police politics or how good it will look in the headlines. This kind of puts a damper on the whole “gather evidence” and “get the truth out of people” aspects of the game because, in the end, evidence and truth don’t always matter.
And finally — and this is at least a smidge of a spoiler — some of our cases are linked. There is the occasional over-arcing plot running through a series of cases, connecting them in logical ways. This means, of course, there are individual cases for which no solution is correct, given the evidence you’re shown and the options you have available.
These two things make for an excellent cop story, but a pretty lousy playing experience.
Oh, and I thought the ending was really unfulfilling. So there’s that.
Really, this game just exhibits the same rough spots as a lot of Rockstar’s ventures: it feels way too big for its britches. The writing is phenomenal and the story — both the individual cases and the overbearing narrative that ties it all together — is exquisite. What it feels like, though, is that the game designers were handed the script and told, “Here’s the story. Figure out how to let the player play it.” When you take a cohesive dialogue and chop it up to be redistributed amongst several menu options, the seams are going to show. Mass Effect had buckets of this. It’s a really, really hard a problem to solve, and I don’t think L.A. Noire did very much to advance the sort of gameplay on display here.
It’s still a fine example, though, and I hope someone learns from its mistakes and uses that knowledge to make The Next Thing.