L.A. Noire Review: A Troubled Masterpiece

The America of the 1940’s following the end of the second World War was many things, a time of newfound love and peace, violence and despair, as many struggled to find a place, a purpose, in the shadow of the righteous but scarring venture that was the war. The period holds tales of heroes and villains long since past, tales of treachery and immorality, but cunning and triumph as well. It’s a time that we look back on with a sense of excitement and wonder because, after all, who doesn’t love a good story?

This sets the stage for L.A. Noire, a mystery/detective game released in 2011 by Rockstar Games. It takes place in 1947, and you take the role of Cole Phelps, a war hero and now newly minted detective as he witnesses the worst of the criminal underbelly of Hollywood, and works through different detective desks in the L.A. police department. The game serves as an obvious love letter to 40’s and 50’s crime noir movies which the name references.

There’s no real way to ease into this so I’ll just come out and say it; the story is absolutely amazing, but, for the most part, the gameplay is not only dated, but (partly due to its very troubled development) it was clunky even for the time it came out. There is however an exception to this which is the gameplay during crime scene investigations and interrogations, which are really the main focal points of the game anyway.

You start the game off as a patrol officer, but this is brief and only really serves as a tutorial to introduce game mechanics. The game really starts when Cole gets promoted to a detective and gets assigned to the first desk, traffic. From there, Cole will eventually work his way up from the traffic desk to homicide and finally vice, but from that point he is demoted to arson following a scandal and the story begins to follow a downward spiral story motif. This involves Cole coming into direct conflict with the corrupt side of the L.A.P.D. which also serves as a struggle for him to ultimately redeem himself for something he did during the war.

The main character, Cole Phelps, is one of my favorite parts about L.A. Noire. He was a man who enlisted in the Army in the hopes of earning valor, being in control of people and earning medals. This, as revealed in cinematics, ends up leading him to consistently make poor calls in battle, endangering the lives of those under him. Ultimately this reaches a boiling point when he orders flame units to burn out a cave thought to be housing enemies, but ends up being a functioning hospital. Enraged and believing he has made them into monsters, Cole is shot by one of his own men and left to die, leading to him being found later and credited for the work of his men in battling the Japanese, receiving the silver star. Guilt and redemption are the driving forces behind Cole’s decision to join the L.A.P.D, but there’s also a theme of his inability to relate to anyone concerning his trauma leading to his affair with the only person he meets who does understand his struggle. This is much less present in the final game due to the cutting of the burglary desk which would have focused on Cole’s deteriorating home life. There’s also his development which sees him going from a straight laced cop to more of one typical of an action movie, a hero. His story ends with his sacrificial death, finally earning him redemption.

Beyond gushing about the story and character writing of the game, there’s the detective gameplay which isn’t something of incredible depth, but is fun nonetheless. You’ll look for clues around a crime scene or area of importance then apply those clues to interviews with people of interest. In an interview you’ll have set questions to ask then, after the initial answer, you can decide whether the interviewee was telling the truth or not by picking from three response choices. The first is to believe them, a sort of good cop option where you’ll just try to coax more out of them. The second option is to decide they’re lying and provide evidence that conflicts with their claim in order to get the truth. The last is also deciding that they’re lying, but without the evidence, a sort of bad cop option in which you’ll threaten the interviewee. A question will have a correct response so it’s important to read the interviewee’s body language and your evidence to make sure you’re treating them correctly.

L.A. Noire most definitely has its problems though. The game world is rather lifeless for one, but the interviews can also sometimes be a little less obvious than they should be, leaving the player guessing which response is really correct. The gunplay is weak at best and driving feels like trying to steer a colossal cruise liner while inebriated. The game also suffers heavily from troubled development with entire portions of the game being cut all together and mechanics not being present. The facial animations are amazing though.

Ultimately, as stated by the title, L.A. Noire is a troubled masterpiece; something that was made with an incredible amount of love and care, but suffered from an incredibly complicated development process that left it with negative qualities that it never really escapes. It’s a amazing crime noir story stuck in a janky game with redeeming qualities, and I’d recommend it for that amazing story.

3.5/5 paws