Does L.A. Noire live up to it’s name and encapsulate everything about film noir and pulp fiction? As a film noir junkie, I have some opinions.
Rockstar’s L.A. Noire is enjoyable yet fairly disappointing. The premise and gameplay, at least conceptually, are brilliant, as is the motion-capture technology used to film the actors. However, there are some key flaws that keep L.A. Noire from becoming the revolutionary, groundbreaking, genius game that it should be.
Flaw #1 – Cole Phelps is robotic, boring and overreacts to everything.
I don’t have a problem with the fact that Phelps is kind of a prick and a “by-the-books” tool. I do, however, take issue with the fact that he’s so predictable and dull. Furthermore, his reactions during the questioning phases can be a bit too over-the-top and irrational (his browbeating of the girl in the hospital bed is a perfect example).
One of the key components of any good noir story is the gradual slide to paranoia and insanity that the protagonist experiences throughout the story. Rockstar set up the story to reflect this common theme (war veteran returns home, becomes an all-star detective, life goes down the shitter, etc.), but their hero, more or less, fails to react accordingly. Phelps remains fairly static throughout the entire game and doesn’t become a more “rounded” character. Perhaps this is because of his “strictly business” nature, or it’s because of (a more likely scenario) poor character development and his lack of personality. Sure, Phelps has his moments, but these moments don’t seem to be very honest. The other characters in the game are fine (for the most part), and represent the kinds of characters featured in most noir films and pulp novels: the crooked cop, the tough-as-nails chief of police, the femme fatale, etc. Too bad the most important character in the game was not written in a similar fashion, and is a mindless automaton instead.
Flaw #2 – The game feels more like a parody than something that embraces the spirit of film noir.
While most of the storytelling and dialogue are good, there are some moments when I feel like I’m playing a noir spoof instead of an homage to one of the greatest, and most important, film genres (or style or movement, depending upon which asshole you’re asking) ever made. Examples:
- The mise-en-scène wasn’t used effectively to encapsulate character emotions or the central themes of the story, which is perhaps the most important aspect of film noir.
- Some of the dialogue, while Chandler-esque, is a bit out of place and is more fit for a Grand Theft Auto game.
- Some of the characters are more “noir” than “noir” – they act like people that are obsessed with noir tropes but have neither seen a noir film nor read a pulp novel.
- The cases are most certainly inspired by the pulps, but many of them serve as a distraction from the main plot and are merely filler.
Flaw #3 – The action sequences aren’t well done and take away from the game’s strengths.
I’m not saying that action shouldn’t be in L.A. Noire (it should), I’m just of the opinion that it could have been much better. Rockstar isn’t known for their great controls, but they have gotten better over the years (Bully, Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption). For whatever reason, though, the controls in L.A. Noire take awhile to get used to, and even then they can still be a burden. Cole Phelps, for example, moves stiffer than his personality, and all of the cars drive like they’re on roller skates. The shooting mechanics are all right, but trying to chase somebody down can be a righteous pain the ass (read: movie set stage), especially when shooting them is necessary.
Perhaps the most obnoxious, and unnecessary, action sequence in the game is when Phelps has to climb up the outside of a building in order to find a clue. If Phelps moved in a more fluid manner this wouldn’t be an issue, but instead Phelps needs to be directed very slowly up the building and even has to maintain his balance in some areas otherwise it’s back to square one.
If anything, the action in the game is essentially a frustrating obstacle one most overcome in order to get to the good stuff. Catherine is very similar to L.A. Noire in this respect but, unlike L.A. Noire, the gameplay is difficult for the right reasons as it’s addictive fun that doesn’t feature clunky controls.
Flaw #4 – The final case is a huge letdown compared to the intense moments in earlier cases.
(Mild spoilers ahead): Questioning witnesses and perps is where L.A. Noire truly shines, even if Phelps’s reactions aren’t realistic at times. And, despite the awkward controls, some of the chase sequences and the more action-packed cases are pretty damn enjoyable. However, the final case takes all of the impressive moments found throughout the game and drops a smelly, corn-filled brick on them. One would think that the final case would involve a lot of difficult questioning and puzzles. Sadly, this doesn’t happen. Instead, we’re treated to a predictable, lackluster chase and final showdown. The game kind of makes up for that with an interesting epilogue, but it’s still not very satisfying. To the writers’ credit, however, they did stick with the common story elements that are prevalent in film noir and pulp novels.
I’ll admit, the second flaw was a bit nit picky. However, if Rockstar truly was trying to breathe new life into noir, they missed the mark in some important areas. L.A. Noire isn’t a must-own title, and gamers aren’t going to get a true noir experience, but the positive aspects of L.A. Noire (art design, voice-acting, soundtrack, atmosphere, the recreation of 1940s Los Angeles) certainly make it worth checking out. For a better noir experience, however, stick to the great films like Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Sleep. 6.5/10
My next post, which should be up this Sunday, will be about grading systems for reviewing games and why I’ve decided to implement one, at least for now. Now, here are some pin-up girls.