Although the latter half of this review might seem to focus more on the negative, I just want to say that I bought LA Noire on day one and had a great time playing through the main storyline. It is a unique game and i'm very much in favour of seeing a sequel. Firstly, it is gorgeous to look at. Experienced in full technicolour it is visually reminiscent of Roman Polanski's Chinatown, while choosing to play in black and white puts you into the mindset of Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. Certainly a neat effect and one can genuinely appreciate the excellent lighting engine while playing in full-noir mode.
The soundtrack is thrillingly atmospheric and suits the mood of the game perfectly. If anything it has proved to me that more games need a jazz soundtrack.
LA Noire does a good job of tipping its fedora to other media set in the same time period. There is a character shared with 1997's LA Confidential, a few subtle references to Bioshock (look out for Matthew Ryan, who could be Andrew Ryan's far less capable brother), and the climax of the game is strikingly reminiscent of 1949 film noir classic The Third Man.
The game engine itself is as robust as ever. The explorable part of LA you're given is huge (and apparently very true to life), and the people look amazing. Seriously, the new motion capture technology is no less than revolutionary. Being able to make decisions based on the subtle actions of the characters is so much fun.
Unfortunately, what I really want to get into is what irked me about the game and why I probably won't bother with 100% completion or playing DLC.
HERE BE SPOILERS FROM NOW ON.
To get nitpicky point out of the way, loading felt far too frequent and too long. It seemed like every 5 minutes I was sitting staring at a poorly constructed loading screen waiting for the next scene to start. But what I really wanted to talk about was t he storyline.
I'm a huge fan of the storyline of LA Noire. It's expertly scripted and acted, and in my opinion the overarching main plot is one of the most interesting in gaming history. That said, the process by which you experience the story is distractingly convoluted.
The narrative develops across three intertwining devices (there is a fourth but it's a weird little thing and i'll get to it later). There's the main storyline that concentrates on you playing as Detective Cole. There are flashback sequences that give you insight into the character of Cole and his comrades-in-arms during World War II. And finally, you find newspapers strewn about LA that give you a villain's perspective on what's going on.
You spend the first quarter of the game as an LA cop in training. Remember that fourth storytelling device I mentioned? Well during your first forays into policing there's a Narrator doing a voice-over at the start of every case. The narration complements the Noir setting nicely and helps to set the tone for the cases. Then it disappears without warning, for no reason, and for the rest of the game. When I stopped hearing it I actually thought it might be a bug. Nope.
You start by solving unrelated crimes (many of which involve a horrifying amount of violence done to women) and learning the ropes. I enjoyed this, although Cole is an angry bastard. Choosing 'Doubt' or 'Lie' during interviews with witnesses and suspects almost always led to them being shouted at, poor buggers. Makes you wonder why anyone would try and be helpful. This is also the period where you start to realise that every case is going to unfold in a very similar fashion.
You are given a literal checklist of tasks to accomplish, places to visit, people to talk to, with very little room for deviation. Sure, you can drive around looking for side-missions as a distraction, but they're all pretty same-y and do nothing to advance the storyline.
Even though throughout the game you work for different police divisions (all of which are spoiled for you at the start of the game as they're all marked in your notepad), every crime that you investigate is handled in exactly the same way; walk around the crime scene waiting for your controller to vibrate, “investigate” clues that you find and talk to any witnesses that happen to be standing around. Then you work down the checklist (there's never an advantage to working the checklist in any way but from top-to-bottom) of places and people. Do a few interviews and you're done, case solved. Or so you think.
By the time you've been a Homicide cop for a while (disc 2), you've started to realise that there might be a serial killer at work here and that you've probably arrested people for crimes they didn't commit. This is where the dissonance begins. You as a player can see that you're questioning and arresting the wrong people, but you as a cop can't. This is mainly due to the fact that you've been given a crystal ball in the form of a newspaper that shows you what the criminals are getting up to, and it makes you feel like you're a rubbish cop for not cottoning on.
Why are we being shown what's happening from the villain's perspective? There's no mystery if we're shown what's behind the curtain. It's makes for a frustrating paradox where you know who the antagonists are and what they're doing, but you also don't at the same time. This means you're forced to stick to your investigative checklist until such time as the game decides you can act on information you were shown 4 hours ago. It is very frustrating.
By the time you're promoted into Vice, all of the storytelling devices (current investigations, flashbacks and newspapers) have started to come together and form the bulk of the narrative. You feel like it's building towards a big crescendo and you're waiting for that extra morsel of Cole's character development... you're doing more cases... waiting some more... then he has an affair.
Cole is an asshole. You're given very little reason to like the guy. During the first three quarters of the game you are made to think he's a dudley do-right, working by the book as the Golden Boy of the police force (the Army too, you see in flashbacks). Then suddenly he trundles off to have an affair with a club singer.
I uphold the letter of the law but FUCK YOU, SANCTITY OF MARRIAGE.
Not that you ever care about his wife and kids either. The only time you see his wife is when she's throwing Cole's belongings out onto the pavement. That's when it struck me – Cole has a house? I've been playing as this character for 10 hours, choosing what he can wear, which car he can drive, whereabouts in the huge swathe of LA he travels to, but I don't even know where he lives? It made me feel even more detached from him.
Shortly after Cole shacks up with the singer is when the story takes a turn that you don't see coming. Cole gets demoted to Arson and you start playing as a different character, a character who is a vast improvement over Cole, Jack Kelso. Kelso is a badass. At one point he rolls into a guy's office, shoots him in the leg and delivers a witty one-liner. He even seemed better at handling interviews than Cole did. It made me wish i'd played as Kelso the whole game.
Then there is the very end. There is a nice twist to it, it is a very naturalistic ending, but since there is so little reason to care about the main character, it just feels weak and empty. You end up with a deeper affection for every other character in the game, so to me, Cole's death was not a big loss
Obviously, if all the cases had been connected from the beginning it would have been rather silly, but I just wish Cole's character had the depth that I felt the other characters had. We are given glimpses of what happens to Cole during the war but still come away with the feeling that GTA IV's Nico Bellic character was more fleshed-out, and his backstory was never played out for us.
For me, the issue is more than just caring about a character on screen, it is about the construction of a complete story. Unfortunately, L.A. Noire does not do this particularly well, even though it excels in other areas.