The L.A. Noire Journal: Day 1

It was my birthday last week, and I requested and received the only game out right now that I thought might be worth owning rather than merely giving a rent.

L.A. Noire is being heralded as a shining star for Rockstar, a blend of incredible technology and unique gameplay that’s different than anything we’ve seen before. Deciding to see for myself if these claims are true, I’ve set out to beat the game over the course of the next X amount of days, reverting back to my old “journal” style installments as I do so. You may remember these from some longer titles I’ve reviewed in the past, and it’s actually my favorite way to talk about games as your experience with them often changes as you go.

It’s the end of day one, I’m a few hours in and already 7 missions through the 21 that make up the story. The game is one of three discs, but with only 21 total missions, I’m wondering if they start to get longer, or if they just need a ton of space for all the dialogue and cutscenes in the game. I’m guessing the latter.

You play as Cole Phelps, the exact opposite of a traditional Rockstar hero like Niko Belic. Phelps is a war hero turned cop who is determined to be the only honest officer in 1940s LA. He wants to rise in the ranks of the police force, and to do so he has to get promoted through the departments. I believe there are three; traffic, vice and homicide. I just finished up my final traffic case, and have now made it into homicide where I expect things to get hairier.

“I think this might be a clue.”

The game is more or less split in two. There’s the typical drive, run and shoot aspects we’ve found in any Grand Theft Auto title, and there are the far slower paced segments that differentiate the game from those that have come before it. These sequences have Cole inspecting crime scenes or places of interest, looking for clues to connect the dots on the case. They also have him interviewing witnesses and interrogating suspects where you have to tell if they’re lying to you or not.

How one might do that is a valid question. Video game graphics have been getting better, but hardly any in-game renderings are detailed enough where you can actually tell someone’s lying by their facial expression. But here lies the technological breakthrough that is the core of this entire game.

Rockstar has developed a new facial recognition and capture technology similar to that used in Avatar. But it works for video game characters, creating realistic expressions never before seen in a game. It works so well, the actors playing and voicing the parts are often easily recognizable, or at least placeable, especially of course Aaron Staton, the Mad Men supporting cast member turned hero cop in this game.

The technology really is truly astounding, and I hope to see it in not only future Rockstar titles, as I’m sure we will, but also in ALL video games, as it would really move the medium forward by leaps and bounds.

The effect is both breathtaking and bonechilling.

Too often though, L.A. Noire seems to me like a tech demo, and less of an actual game. The sequences where Cole sifts through random items to find clues can be tedious. You don’t feel smart if you discover something useful, you feel lucky, and you’ll drive yourself crazy looking for that one last clue that a musical cue tells you is still there as you pick up the same pieces of useless crap over and over again.

Equally tedious is the interview process. When talking to Persons of Interest (POIs), you have three options, truth, doubt or lie. Truth is obvious, you believe they are being straightfoward with you, but it’s often the wrong answer. Doubt is you saying you know they’re lying, but don’t have hard evidence to back it up. Lie you must have something on hand that you can actually use to prove they’re in the wrong.

Sometimes this is fun, like when you catch them in a really obvious falsehood, but most of the time, you’ll want to reach for your power button so you can reload and try again. I did that at first, but it got old quickly as I missed things time and time again and I just gave up.

Each character is supposed to have “tells” that give them away. I found this relatively easy to detect at the beginning of the game (people look straight = true, people look away = lying), but even with the minute facial expressions the game can capture, it can often be hard to guess correctly as you can’t always tell what expression each character is actually exhibiting. Was that a polite smile or a hint of a sneer? An eye roll or a blink? And the problem is, you only have one go at each person for the most part, and by the time you figure them out, you’ve already missed half your questions. It can be particularly hard to distinguish between when you’re supposed to say lie or doubt, as both have them telling falsehoods, and sometimes you won’t realize that A) you have evidence you could have used against them or B) you DON’T have evidence you NEED to use against them when they’re lying.

“I ain’t sayin’ another word.” I want to punch you…so badly.

Stranger still, even failing miserably in both evidence gathering or interviewing seems to have very little effect on the outcome of the case. As long as you find a few very basic clues or get a few fundamental admissions, you’ll see the end of the case, and the only difference is the path you take to get there, and what ranking you get at the end, a stat that I don’t think has any real meaning.

The action portions of the game are meant to balance out these dialog and inspection sequences, but so far at least, they’re the most barebones sorts of missions I’ve ever seen from Rockstar. There’s cover, you hide behind it, you shoot at people who pop up, sometimes you run cars off the road or chase people, but it all feels like stripped down versions of missions you’ve done in previous Rockstar games. There’s not even a gun select option, as you’re stuck with whatever you’re holding, one gun at a time. There’s no ammo counter, hell, I don’t even think there’s a reload button. I get that they’re going for realism, but it just feels incredibly stripped down compared to past titles.

I’m going to save some stuff for next time, but my overall impression thus far is that the technology is very cool, and though the fundamental idea behind the game seems innovative, it’s not actually very fun in practice. Looking for clues and getting right answers seems like a lot more luck than skill, and there doesn’t seem to be that great of a punishment or reward for succeeding or failing in those aspects of the game.

Perhaps this will change as I progress, and that’s why we have more journals to go.

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  1. Very interesting game. I agree that it is slow at parts but I can’t help but feel like this is the type of game I dreamed of when I was a kid playing point-and-click- PC adventure games.

    PS – There is a reload button, I believe it is the same as in GTA IV.

  2. Wow… I can’t believed you actually think Rockstar developed the game. And you didn’t mention Team Bondi once. You call yourself a gamer?

  3. I’m about halfway through the game and it’s kinda hit or miss so far. Some cases are real fun and others are bland and boring. I know I may be comparing apples to oranges here, but Heavy Rain is way, way better than this game will ever be. If you look at it in the “trying for realism” department, Heavy Rain runs laps over L.A. Noire.

  4. I’m also diving into this game and I’ve experienced the same kinds of issues as you. The pacing issue is lessened a little bit if you start skipping the driving aspect by letting your partner drive, but if you do that you’ll miss out on the street crimes, which are fun, though very easy. Still, my girlfriend likes to watch this game, but its not the same kind of leap forward as Heavy Rain was, which, I hope, is the direction these “thoughtful”, clue-based (read: less action-oriented) games are going. Oh, and on your points…

    1) The missions do get longer and more complex. I just finished one on the fourth desk where I had three suspects, two of which I was able to get to the station to interrogate and only one of which I could charge… I really had a hard time deciding who to charge. Unless I’m really kicking ass at this game, I’m not getting any indication of when I charge the wrong guy, which is kind of annoying.

    2) On the case book (select button, I think), you should be able to see that there are four desks from which you work…. won’t spoil the type of the crime that the fourth desk revolves around, but they’re… umm… explosive.

    3) Who cares about the Team Bondi/Rockstar distinction that much?

    4) Be sure to keep the cool looking DLC in mind when pacing your entries. Definitely want to try the Reefer Madness type DLC. (also, hat tip to Rockstar/Bondi (once again, who cares?) for using that DLC-pass that allows you to get all of the DLC at a bulk-rate of $10. Good stuff.

    Keep it up, but don’t get worn out. Skyrim is around the corner…ish.

  5. just beat L.A. Noire. I am very impressed, great voice acting and a nice change of pace from the usual open world games. No competition, blows Heavy Rain out of the water…

  6. I’ve just made the Vice desk and I still do not really know how I feel about this game. It does a very good job of making you feel like you are in control of your character with really few buttons and actions. When you think about it you realize that the game controls pretty much everything. Also, they don’t really set you up to succeed. They never really tell you how to successfully interrogate someone, they do give you vague hints. And like the reviewer, even after going online and getting tips, I still felt it was very hit or miss and misleading. I guess what I do know, is that it’s a good change of pace for an hour or so (the length of a case) and I usually wan’t to jump back on and see whats next.

  7. I beat the game after a 5 day marathon of playing. I’d guess it took me about 30 hours in total, maybe more, plus the new DLC cases that have been released that will probably consume an additional amount of my time. L.A. Noire is definitely one of the best games of 2011, hands down.

    Also, there are five desks, not three: Patrol, Traffic, Homicide, Vice, and Arson.

  8. Wow. are you not skilled at puzzles? it is not that hard of a game. i bet you didn’t pay that much attention. the game requires you to immerse yourself and give as much attention as you can.

  9. You clearly wanted this game to be something else. Try to set that aside and maybe you’ll be able to enjoy it for the masterpiece it is. Worked for me.

  10. I agree with Charlie. You wanted this to be something else.

    The game is a masterpiece and mold-breaking (which, let’s be honest, the gaming world needs badly) in so many aspects.

    I kind of expected people to hate the game for what it is. Crime fighting is a puzzle game.

    Yet, too many people hate games for either being repetitive to some degree or not telling you the absolute right answer on the spot so you can pretend to be the Michael Jordan at whatever it is you’re doing. In real life, everything is routine and repetitive and you aren’t Michael Jordan.

    Just play it and have fun. If you’re going to analyze the game’s very mechanics about how it will arrive at different outcomes and paths will change then you’ll have your answers but very little enjoyment. I mean, people were slamming GTA IV because a small tree would total the car. Okay — move on then or don’t play it. Go play Mortal Kombat.

    This is true of every single masterpiece of gaming ever made.

  11. Just answering the above, there are tons of “Let’s Play” videos on Youtube. They’re all just videos of someone playing the game, usually while narrating. Some of them are really fun, but others are just ehhh.

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