It’s certainly a great game, but is it a good game?
Pretty much, yeah. I definitely have my criticisms and the fact that I’m going to tease them out into about 1,000 words or so might seem to outweigh the face that I really love this game so just as a quick way of prefacing this post…
This is a fantastic game made with great craftsmanship and care and you should purchase it.
I’m not going to pussyfoot around this, I still love Ace Attorney games. I don’t enjoy them in spite of the fact that they marry the traditionally unrelated fields of Japanese high-tension courtroom drama with Shinto mythology, don’t worry. I enjoy them precisely because they marry Japanese high-tension courtroom drama with Shinto mythology. I tell you, there’s nothing better to help get the old mental juices flowing than when your dead mentor reincarnates herself in the body of her 16 year old sister to give you advice on how to prove that Mr. Fukushima couldn’t have been guilty of tipping over the used-panty dispensing machine.
Naturally, I was sceptical of a game which purported to be a police procedural but featured no elements of wacky spiritualism or panty theft. “You’re not in Kansas anymore,boy” I told myself. Then I reminded myself to write that down because it was a hilarious pop-culture nod on my part. But somehow, LA Noire managed to reel me in hook, line and…what’s that? Oh, it’s the sinker.
You play as Cole Phelps, a detective in the seedy den of corruption that is 1950s Los Angeles. Tinseltown. The Big Cheese. The City of Dreams. The City of Nightmares. Tinseltown again. Now I’m not familiar with the mechanics of a police department, particularly one set in the seedy den of corruption that is 1950s Los Angeles, but I have read extensively from the work of esteemed scientist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins uses the metaphor of the ‘wolf-pack’ to describe human social hierarchies. You begin as a traffic cop, the lowest rung of the ladder leading to the peak of the wolf pack mountain. As you gradually increase your standing in the community by ritually defeating fellow wolves (the wolves metaphor here can mean anything from solving cases to chasing down fleeing suspects) you move up a notch in the wolf pack belt; from traffic to homicide to vice. And then to Arson.
The characterisation is really nicely done in a lot of instances. Cole is driven by a desperate need to prove himself which is mixed with a strange earnestness, the like of which I’m told I lack. As more of his backstory is revealed in monochrome flashbacks to ‘The War’ and his motivations become more clearly understood, he moves from being a wholly unlikeable character to an entirely tolerable unlikeable character. This is definitely intentional. If its not definitely intentional it still works very well if you assume its the first thing.
The interrogation scenes, in which you try to split the coconut of an interogatee’s brain (coconuts here representing the dark and seedy secrets which everyone in the seedy den of corruption that is 1950s Los Angeles is hiding just out of reach) lose a little something in their concessions to game logic. Witness makes statement, player either classifies it as truthful, doubtful or a lie. To assist with what is essentially a filing minigame, the actors playing the interogatees have all been facially-emotionally imprisoned in a tecnique that is as beautifully scary as it is potentially offensive to Islam. A lot of nodes, dials and diodes have been twisted in front of a large green sheet to recreate the range of emotions which someone might express in the seedy den of corruption that is 1950s Los Angeles. In LA Noire’s world, that ranges from looking you dead in the eye with the fixity of a serial killer (choose truth), looking at the ground (choose doubt) and rolling their eyes, stamping their feet and curling their lips to show discomfort ( in which case you choose lie). I kid, of course, the representations of the actors are often really subtle and hard to read. It’s in these circumstances where the interrogations are at their best, where I became most invested in the outcome of each question, trying to figure out what a character’s mannerisms and tells represented. It’s a shame that in most circumstances, the right way to choose is signposted by knowable and repetitive mannerisms. “Act more doubtful” the casting director would shout, as the actor dutifully looked at their shoes and bit their lip slightly.
Another thing which irked and indeed annoyed me was that you never really know what Phelps is going to say when you press that button. A doubt can range from an eyebrow-raising “Are you sure about that, Mrs. Patterson?” to something along the lines of “Listen you lying little motherfucker, I want answers! I don’t care if you’re twelve years old, your mommy is dead and I’ve got a case to solve”
The writing itself is never particularly exceptional, but that’s possibly not a bad thing that the writer didn’t feel the need to make every line quotable and deliciously noir-esque-ish. When it’s good, its memeorable without feeling overdone and the period references aren’t as shoehorned in as they might have been. I thank whoever wrote this game that Phelps doesn’t spout lines like “This is like something out of the pulps!” anytime something the slightest bit untoward happens. As a game based heavily on noir, I can’t really see how they could have better balanced homage and the necessity to write something original, that feels somewhat authentic and not based on a 21st century reimagining of the seedy den of corruption that is 1950s Los Angeles.
The idea of giving the cases an overarching plotline can often detract from the gameplay. It’s a problem that afflicts much of the later game and by the Arson desk, the players actions have little to no appreciable impact on how the story plays out. The need to tell a bitter tale of deception and redemption in the seedy den of corruption that is 1950s Los Angeles clearly cannot have interference on the part of the player.
Lastly, it’s annoying that in the glamerous confines of the seedy den of corruption that is 1950s Los Angeles, the entirety of the last level is set in a sewer.
It’s definitely an excellent game though, weigh this final paragraph more heavily than the rest. It’s got that earnest confidence typical of Rockstar games: historically accurate, well researched, devoid of self conscious parody. Not to jump into the terrible quagmire of debate that concerns whether or not games should be taken seriously but a natural starting point, before one talks about high concepts of ludology is simply to tell a story simply and well. LA Noire does this. Red Dead Redemption does this. GTA IV does not do this, but it certainly tries. People liked Red Dead Redemption because it was readily apparent that it was a beautiful game. People like LA Noire because it readily presents an interesting concept. It’s a great game, the best kind of game. Unpretentious, accessible and intricate.