Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Team Bondi/Rockstar Games
Release Date: 11/14/2017 (XONE/PS4/Switch) 05/17/2011 (X360/PS3) 11/08/2011 (PC)
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America loves to romanticize the police. Despite the political environment, we are in, the only way we can really satisfy our lust for crime and murder mysteries is to put ourselves in the shoes of the police. L.A. Noire is set in an almost historically accurate 1940s Los Angeles right after WWII ended. You play as war veteran/detective Cole Phelps in solving a drug mystery and many murder mysteries within.
The game starts out like any typical open-world game by slowly introducing gameplay elements to you before opening the world up. You are Cole as a beat cop who is called to a murder scene. You chase down a suspect, investigate some clues in an alley, and you’re so good at what you do that you magically get promoted to a traffic detective. L.A. Noire has a few core elements and it mostly sticks to these throughout the game ad nauseum. The first element is crime-solving. This is done by picking up various objects in an area, examining them, and moving on. This sounds interesting in theory but 90% of all objects in this game are completely useless and really don’t need to be picked up and examined. There are maybe one or two objects that are puzzle boxes and a couple of documents that require you to tap on certain information. It’s cool the first time you do all of this, but after that, it’s boring and feels pointless. Make the objects I’m holding more interesting or allow Cole to do more than twirl them around.
The next core element is interrogations and this implements Team Bondi’s groundbreaking motion capture technology that actually makes facial animations life-like but in a creepy uncanny valley type of way. Sure, you see neck muscles move, eyebrows twitch, and it all looks nice, but on hardware that couldn’t run the engine very well, these realistic life-like faces look odd on low textured and poly counted characters. The whole point of an investigation is to use these facial expressions to determine whether someone is lying or telling the truth and it never works as intended. There is no set to tell that the game gives you to look for, and it always becomes a guessing game or a crapshoot. Most of the time the logic never makes sense based on what the game wants or its hyper-specific. A certain question may seem like selecting Good Cop would be a good idea because that’s what your guts tell you, but instead, you were to accuse the suspect and pick a piece of evidence that you never would have guessed. The interrogations are an awful guessing game and I never felt engaged like the developers wanted.
The next part of L.A. Noire is exploring and gunplay. Firefights are mundane and feel pretty lifeless. There are a cover system and the weapons shoot, but they all feel the same and there’s no feedback or satisfaction from firing these WWII-era weapons. Each firefight is a whack-a-mole style shooting gallery of enemies popping their heads above cover. When you’re not shooting you’re chasing people or driving around. Driving is one of the worst parts of the game as compared to Rockstar’s other offerings, it feels stiff, slow, and lifeless, and I had no fun driving around the city. Sure, Los Angeles looks pretty good with some great landmarks, but having a piece of a fence bring my car to a complete stop is nonsense. I can ram through a fire hydrant, but a wooden fence will stop my car dead in its tracks. The driving is inconsistent and even car chases are no fun.
There are 40 side missions called “Streets of LA” but these are just various car chases, shooting galleries, or on-foot chases and repeat and become stale and annoying. Thankfully there’s a fast travel system that allows your partner to drive to the next destination to skip all the boring driving. I understand this is a realistic game, but Mafia did it much better. There are 95 different cars in the game, but they honestly all drive the same and it just becomes no fun after the first hour of the game is over. There are other side objectives like finding hidden badges, all the landmarks, and trophies but why bother? Anything outside of the story cases is just completely boring and stiff, there’s a layer of polish that’s seriously missing.
Lastly, we come to the story and characters. Nearly every character is completely unlikeable in the sense that they are just plain boring. Cole Phelps is a goodie-two-shoes who can do no wrong and has zero character flaws which make him very unlikable. His partners on the four desks you work on are also just as poorly written. I hated them, but not because they were written so well that I wanted to hate them. They were just so average and too Mary Sue. One partner was just a lazy asshole cop and never budged from that stereotype, another was just corrupt, and the issue is that there was no development. No back story to any of these characters and Phelps’ flashbacks to WWII did nothing to make you care for him as he acted just as stubborn and perfect as he did as a cop. For the game being a noire there is zero character build-up or any reason to care. The overarching story doesn’t actually pick up speed until the last few cases, as each and every case drones on and on and is exactly the same as the last just in different orders. I never once felt interested or attached to any one case. Give me fewer cases and build up the victims within so I can feel like the boring twists are worthwhile.
And that’s where I conclude with L.A. Noire. It’s just “okay”. Each of the many cases feels rudimentary in the end and mundane and I felt like I was just checking off boxes (literally) and had no reason to care for the first or last murder case. The driving is painfully stiff and slow and despite 1940s Los Angeles looking nice it’s stale and boring with nothing going on inside. You can’t even shop for clothes or go buy weapons. It’s just a giant hub world to get from point A to B. Streets of L.A. side missions are just randomized gameplay loops of chasing, shooting, and driving with neither of the three is particularly interesting in their own right. So, is L.A. Noire worth playing? Sure, it’s a fun game and some of the cases are decent and I did want to see what happened to Phelps in the end, but just barely. After getting so far in the game I felt like I had to finish it hoping it would pick up in the next case. The game plays and looks great on Switch, but has performance issues and bugs that required game restarts. The framerate can dip into single digits in certain spots, but it’s still very playable.