Set in 1947, L.A. Noire mostly tells the story of Cole Phelps (Aaron Staton), a straight-laced World War II vet who comes home and immediately signs up for the L.A.P.D. to bring good clean justice to the City of Angels, only to find out, like just about every cop in a 1940s detective story does, that no one’s wings stay clean very long. Having said that, in video-game time, Cole takes his sweet time developing into something other than the beat cop we meet in the opening hour. Once the game teaches players the basics through Cole’s first cases, he’s assigned to the traffic desk, and the cycle of gameplay presents itself. Cole and his partner—a revolving door of new faces, depending on which beat he’s assigned to—get a case dropped in their lap in the morning, trek off to a location to gather clues, interrogate witnesses and suspects, and occasionally find themselves chasing down scumbags on foot or by car.
Gathering clues takes up much of L.A. Noire‘s campaign, with points of interest noted by a tinkly piano chord but never visual in a way where you won’t spend more time than necessary grinding against the walls trying to find the last crucial clues to effectively furthering the plot. Chases and combat show the game’s pedigree as one of Rockstar’s babies, though being on the right side of the law for once means that vehicular mayhem and shooting sprees that clip innocent bystanders are big no-nos that severely impact your rating at the end of a case. Not that there’s a whole lot with which to cause mayhem, since L.A. Noire‘s Los Angeles is probably the most disappointingly sparse open worlds in recent memory, only put to good use during car chases.
The interrogations are the big gimmick here, at once a stroke of genius and a cringing misstep. Throughout them, Cole asks pointed questions to persons of interest, and it’s up to you to react accordingly if you think there’s more information to be had, or if a person is lying. The facial-scan technology powering the actors’ performances—an impressive feat even before this remaster—gets to shine its brightest here; you catch a subject in a lie by noticing a facial tic, a dry-mouthed swallow, or a nervous, darting look. This is still one of gaming’s most meaningful implementations of motion capture.
The inherent problems with the interrogation system remain though. While Rockstar has made a tiny, welcome change to said system—the reaction options have been altered from Truth/Doubt/Lie to Good Cop/Bad Cop/Accuse—the rewording still doesn’t address the matter of Cole’s perplexing mood swings, as when he has a screaming fit when he doesn’t believe that a drunk came home to his wife at the time he said he did. More than this, every question has only one correct reaction, leaving no room for the sort of nuance and prodding that many of the cases may elicit from a thinking player. And yet, to think of what it would take to get this right, the minutiae of emotional response that’d be necessary, one can’t help but respect the level of work involved in even getting the system to its present level of functionality.
L.A. Noire‘s problems stand out all the more with its storytelling. In many ways, it’s right on par with what Rockstar brings to its other projects, bolstered by an incredible cast of “Hey, I know that guy!” character actors—a slew of which, Staton included, are Mad Men veterans—and the mocap technology has translated their performances with nearly Uncanny Valley precision. The game falls short structurally, however. A good 20 hours of the campaign—the length of a burly action game or a brief RPG—are spent with one-off traffic and homicide cases, all of which are interesting in the moment, but very few actually stick in the mind after they’re done, with the homicide desk being a particular frustration: Cole Phelps gets to solve the infamous Black Dahlia murder case, but its climax and resolution fall way short of doing literal or figurative justice to one of the great mysteries of the 20th century.
The vice desk is where L.A. Noire starts to actually live up to its title, with Phelps uncovering a scandal that goes all the way to the top of the chain of command. A femme fatale enters the scene, the line between organized crime and the law blurs to the point of nonexistence, and a second, less tightly wound protagonist makes his appearance. The game’s story blossoms in its latter hours, but the time spent waiting for it to do so can be demotivating.
Even with a new coat of graphical paint, L.A. Noire remains a game that adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Time has been kinder to its intent and ideas than it has to the game as a whole, and that by itself almost makes the endeavor worth revisiting, just for a brief glimpse of what could’ve been if given more time and effort, and could be if Rockstar decides to revisit the series in earnest. It’s a frustrating experience, the kind that has plenty of things to teach players but not nearly as much for us to actually enjoy.