L.A. NOIRE has done something I thought impossible: it has made me look back at the time I've spent with HEAVY RAIN and miss it.
Because regardless of David Cage's pretensions of being a filmmaker and his hard-on for himself, HEAVY RAIN was a game. You could make choices that deeply affected the storyline. Sure, the storyline was a piece of shit floating in an ocean of piss squirted from Hitler's dick, but there was still a degree of control over where in the ocean of piss the piece of shit would float. You could get any of the four playable characters killed at various points during the narrative -- and I think the only reason I didn't was in the hope that there would be another scenario later on in which I could kill them in a more painful way.
When it comes to narrative, L.A. NOIRE kicks HEAVY RAIN's ass until incandescent meat is dripping from its buttocks, but at the end of the day I finished HEAVY RAIN and I find myself currently unable to muster the patience to finish L.A. NOIRE.
First of all: having a much better narrative than HEAVY RAIN does not mean you have a good narrative. It does not even mean you have a bad narrative. It simply means your narrative is somewhere above brain-killingly fucking awful.
L.A. NOIRE has a disjointed narrative. It starts with a narrator, who soon disappears completely. Then we start getting flashbacks of protagonist Cole Phelps in the Second World War, which happened underwater in a sewage pond judging by the video filter they use to indicate to us dipshits that it's a flashback. Without it I guess we'd just all ask ourselves why Cole suddenly put on a soldier's uniform to solve his next case, and why he needs so many similarly uniformed partners to help him figure out who's dropping mortars on them.
Then there's the morphine subplot. Every time Cole picks up a newspaper, the player gets access to a scene involving a plot Cole has no knowledge of, but now we do. In a detective game, it's kind of not a good idea to let us know more than the detective we're playing. This is completely lost on the developers: in the prologue to every case, we see the felony we're about to investigate being carried out. Obscure camera angles or not, I could still see the suspect's general appearance and the weapon he used, which helped me figure out an important plot twist about two cases before Cole did.
And are any of these disjointed plots well-written? The dialogue certainly is, but writer/director Brendan McNamara goes out of his way to try and mislead the player. At one point, the game asks us to convict one of two suspects -- both of which have a knowledge of how to use ropes, wear size eight shoes and own green coveralls with the letters HM stencilled on them. By coincidence.
Here's the gameplay in L.A. NOIRE: get assigned a case - drive to location - hit about ten cars and nearly run over a dozen pedestrians because the controls are shit - cutscene - pick up every object until music stops playing - cutscene - interrogate whoever's on the scene - cutscene - walk ten steps - cutscene - let your partner drive you to new location - cutscene - shoot/pursue someone - cutscene - let partner drive you to new location - fall asleep - wake up with sound of controller sliding from your lap and hitting the floor - interrogate whoever's on the scene - cutscene - repeat - repeat - repeat - case solved.
And not even the parts that aren't cutscenes feel like gameplay. I don't think my abilities are being particularly challenged by walking around a crime scene picking up everything I see and turning it around in Cole's hand until he figures out what's special about it. I don't think I'm having much fun with it, either. And when pursuing a suspect on foot, all you have to do is press down the sprint button and steer Cole around -- he'll jump over all the obstacles for you.
Pursuits by car and gunfights are two aspects of the gameplay that actually feel like you're playing them. While the car controls are shit for normal driving, they work somewhat decently for high-speed chases, and the shooting mechanics are competent, but only that. You go into cover and shoot everyone dead. No way to just wound or use some other strategy that could reward you with more points or something.
As for the famed interrogation scenes, they're easily the game's most frustrating aspect.
First of all, the amazing facial animation technology is thrown in the bin by an approach that not only lacks subtlety but never heard of it: when someone is telling you the truth, they'll look you in the eye and appear relatively calm. When someone is telling you a lie, they'll shift nervously, flick their gaze everywhere, tighten their lips and write I AM A LYING SACK OF SHIT on their forehead. Everyone in this game is a phenomenally bad liar, and therefore this huge disparity between their appearances when they're being truthful or deceitful could easily be represented by typical facial animation, which demotes the technology used in this game to little but eye candy. Why not teach the player to recognize microexpressions and train us to spot them as people speak, instead of having them reply to your question and then fall into a long silence that is either calm or nervous? It gives you the impression all the characters are Jim Carrey in LIAR LIAR.
Second of all, what the fuck is wrong with Cole? If he approaches a line of questioning incorrectly, he'll give up on it. You can only ask a single question on any given topic. Fuck it up and there's no going back unless you quit to the main menu and reload the last save, which is far less preferable to, say, Cole rephrasing the fucking question like the goddamn detective he's supposed to be.
"But how does one fuck up the questioning if the suspects are such terrible liars?" you ask, in my diseased imagination. Because there's three options to every question: truth, doubt or lie. The difference between the latter two is evidence, which when lacking requires you to use doubt, and when present requires you to choose lie and pick the particular piece of evidence that corroborates your claims. Problem is, what the game may or may not consider evidence is often strange, so choosing the wrong option can actually happen a lot -- and the annoying thing about it is that there's no middle term. There is only One Right Way for every question, and figuring it out doesn't require wits from the player, only from Cole. All you do is see whether the suspect is obviously lying, then checking your notebook to see if there's any usable evidence against him and choosing either doubt or lie.
It's a system so detached that at one point I realized I didn't know the details of the case I was working on. The game told me to go somewhere, I did, investigate this, I did, investigate that, I did, interrogate him, I did, and so on. Actual thought is rarely required, and when it is, it's almost insulting. On two separate occasions I was asked to put pipes in the correct sequence, and in one of those occasions, I was asked to do that by a guy who could have assembled them in half a second but didn't for no reason.
And finally, what is the frigging goddamn fucking bastard point of having a huge city with nothing to do in it? And I mean nothing. NOTHING. Even MAFIA II -- the game that previously held the title for Most Useless City -- let you rob a store or two and get chased by the police. In L.A. NOIRE, you sometimes get a call from dispatch offering a mini-mission that is often in the other side of the city, instead of using the brilliant RED DEAD REDEMPTION system of having you happen upon nearby events during your journeys -- a system that made the game world feel alive, whereas in NOIRE these mini-missions have their own cutscenes and even their own title cards, so they feel as separate as possible from the game.
L.A. NOIRE should be praised for its approach to maturity, though: it's unafraid to show corpses, either naked or wounded or both. They go so far as to show the charred body of a child. This commitment to reality also shows in the game's amazingly well-done setting, from the way characters talk to how they dress and how they look and what their prejudices are.
But that is one of the few things the game gets right, along with some of its action sequences and a few good scenes. Most of the time, it feels like a movie you have to continuously turn a rusty crank to watch. A repetitive experience -- especially during the Homicide desk -- that never really puts its already flawed mechanics in situations that explore them differently. Cole has a wife and children -- a fact that you only learn well into the game because a character casually mentions it -- yet we never see Cole using his detective skills on his family, which could render interesting dramatic moments. We never see any of Cole's relationships in detail, either, and we rarely see Cole himself when he isn't working.
There's only cases, cases and cases, and as much as the game tries to have an overarching story, ultimately it feels unconnected, arbitrary and, worst of all, tedious. I stopped playing at the first arson case when I found out there would be four other arson cases which would probably require me to do the same thing over and over and I just don't have the patience for now.
Say what you like about HEAVY RAIN -- fuck knows I most certainly never miss an opportunity -- at least it wasn't tedious. It remains an example of what not to do with storytelling in gaming. But L.A. NOIRE is, to me, an example of what not to do with gameplay in gaming.