17 Apr 2012
posted by delb2k
There comes a point in LA Noire where everything falls neatly into place. The criminal is squirming in the interview room, shifting uneasily as a barrage of proof is plastered in front of him, revealing their misdemeanours and guilt. At this point the player feels all powerful, the epitome of the hard nosed cop sticking it to the man and keeping the streets safe for its citizens. Common sentiments would then suggest there is everything else and for every euphoric collaring there is a bout of investigative indifference where confusion and bluster creates a sense of abstraction. As a byword for disappointment, LA Noire could arguably have the award sewn up and in the bag before anything else gets a look-in, but taking a step back reveals that while the game suffered from a complication of creative intent and grandiose desires, a fact that ultimately affected many areas of the title, the core is still a fascinating achievement.
The intent was to create a story that was as much about individual cases as it was about an over-arching narrative that encompassed everything that had gone before, alongside everything that was still to come. To create a world of bent cops and dirty deals mixed with the collapse of the main protagonist not just as an officer but as a husband and a father. In many ways one of the biggest ironies of the game was the reflection of the downfall of Cole, which in turn mirrored the downfall of the player’s investment in the title. Part of its trouble came as regards to the tools the storytellers had at their disposal: a mixture of cut-scenes, case solving and scripted dialogue sequences were all of the tools that the player had to understand the continuing world around him but by being so disparate and fractured, it failed to build up a cohesive narrative to provide a compulsive thread to latch onto. The other problem was the connection to Cole himself; a relationship that struggled to find the right way to develop and bind with the player due to the very small amounts of time the developers spent on developing the central character.
Arguably, the cases are where the most damage was seen to happen. Cole Phelps as a caricature is everything the stereotypical cop should be. Hard and abrasive, taking no notice of position or power in an effort to get to the truth. But the biggest problem is that during case investigation, the evidence, the dialogue and the steps to the truth become inherently personal to the player.
One person’s Phelps will be always be different to another’s. Where one can see a connection another cannot; where one would respond in a coaxing or supportive tone of voice another would be barking and threatening. By letting the player investigate, it promoted a belief they were Cole and at every point that the avatar on-screen failed to respond in the way the player expected, a disconnect began to grow. Cole Phelps is in truth a film character suffering from being in a game. There is little or no choice over the actions that can be carried out but by becoming an interactive experience there is a belief that what is being shown on screen is a reflection of the person with the joypad in hand, or that said person can apply their own personality onto events.
To take that further, the resolution of any case should never have felt like an inevitability, instead empowering the player into becoming an integral part of the story arc. If they do not feel that it is true, or in keeping with the expectations set up, the rest of the game suffers as the interest starts to disappear and the more the illusion dissipates. This breakdown leads to the player simply removing themselves from the action on-screen and looking at what is happening with no care as to any future consequences; the avatar in front of them turning into a tool of progression instead of something to become emotionally invested in.
The title’s very strict approach to convention also became an issue. The overall process of any case rarely deviated from: investigate, question and progress into either a set piece finale or a suspect being charged. Some questions provided responses that could be easily rebuffed with the evidence but most failed to pass across the right information to identify the clue until a questioning choice had been made by the player, leading to a greater sense of luck as opposed to skill. Not that this is the first game to have suffered from this. The Phoenix Wright series was equally as guilty, and suffered far less backlash from this feature, but was never as ambitious in its aims or wanted to convey as complex a story.
Examining this, the question has to be asked: is there any other way? Cases by their own nature demand a lot of time and effort looking for evidence and interrogating people. While it is true that at times evidence – that is not deemed correct by the game can be argued by the player – we have to remember that we are an avatar and, like it or not, limited to how that avatar perceives the information in front of him. While in real life evidence can be twisted in its digital form it can be nothing other than absolute. By granting a freedom to investigate the trade-off is that there has to be an acceptance that not every connection that could be made can be made, and a further acknowledgment that sometimes what we can’t see is a solution that the evidence does actually point to. Like real investigations the most obvious evidence is sometimes the hardest to see. Other times there is tenuousness and stretching of believability, what the game will see as legitimate evidence the player could never imagine being used in our own court system.
This is the central crux of the failure of this title to endear support much after launch. With a lack of the immersion and logic system that players struggled to grasp, it led to the other negative aspects being reinforced tenfold. What is forgotten is when the right cases do come along they can provide moments of suspense, intrigue and satisfaction. Some of the early vice cases are real standouts: the initial investigation into a morphine distribution racquet between dealers, suppliers and distributors which leads to packs of ice with the drug frozen inside hits nearly every note perfectly, threading big plot revelations with exciting action scenes. The act of investigating and putting together the correct story from both the clues and dialogue is still a supremely satisfying moment when it arrives, re-enforced when the perpetrator is collared and damned with the evidence present. Gaming has always struggled to reward intelligence more than the visceral thrill of combat and this manages to do that, and do it far more regularly than many more titles similar to it.
The attention to detail throughout the world is truly outstanding. The city itself is a set that may be devoid of content but high on setting, providing a recognizable backdrop to the acts of violence on show. Some may complain that providing an open world without any content is a waste but it never seems that way. It is there to provide a stage to the action, a flavour and immersion into a city and a reminder of a world outside of each murder scene or overdose. It never forces the player to live in it but likewise allows those that want to dive in every opportunity to explore the recreation. Despite the criminal horrors on show the city still moves on, the cars still travel and it’s residents carry out their daily lives.
To fault the team’s ambition would also be churlish; this is a game that did everything it could to allow the player to actually play. No case could be failed, game-over conditions were rare (unless Cole was knocked out or shot) and like any case in real life failure to catch a criminal does not mean that the next case does not come around. While player performance was measured it was never blocked and at times the chewing out by your superior was almost worth performing badly for.
The overall reach and complexity of the story is both praiseworthy but flawed. Throughout the game the amount of layering and foreshadowing of story moments and revelations suggests more than is actually delivered. The black dahlia murders begin promisingly; the threads that tie each of them together cleverly designed and executed in a fantastic finale. The concentration on an encompassing plot for the final half of the title is also a tremendous tale that suffers from two distinct issues that ultimately make the last set piece feel flat; the quick and unexpected failure of Cole as a man and the overall pacing that created a lot of resolutions and surprises in a short amount of time.
Cole is perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of this. The meta-story is strong enough in itself to survive without castigating the main character as a cheat and coward, unable to keep himself away from the local nightclub singer. The game never truly provides any indication that this is going to happen bar a few lines during travel moments within cases and the occasional cut-scene. That relationship fails to show any true growth, instead running from 0 – 100 within a short space of time and leaving the player as betrayed as Cole’s family.
Depressingly, it is these mis-steps that remain in the mind; the over-egging and over ambition which should never be held back but also tempered with an understanding of what can be achieved. LA Noire is almost quintessentially Rockstar. A high concept created with memorable characters that you never play while being saddled with one that no one wants to be by the end of the game. The overall idea of the title may not be original but it has never been attempted on this scale; a fact that ends up being a problem that it struggles to really get to grips with. The legacy that will be left is one of technological innovations paired with incredibly basic mechanics; the old and new coming together in a way that is as infuriating as it is compelling. It’s not perfect – not by any stretch – but it sets another bar and creates a new landmark on the road of progress. For that at least it deserves an immense amount of credit, and appreciation, from the community.