Saturday, 3 September 2011

L.A. Noire

Spoilers ahead.

I should probably make it clear that L.A. Noire wasn’t exactly my favourite game of all time. Plenty about it rubbed me the wrong way, such as how repetitive the experience felt at times, how tedious/unintentionally hilarious the clue finding sequences were (that’s a wooden spoon, Cole, put it down!) and, perhaps most of all, how the questioning segments were either made frustratingly vague or painfully obvious by those just-a-bit-too-convincing facial animations.

Of course there were moments during these interrogations when I genuinely wasn’t sure whether to hit X or A, and I screwed up on several occasions. But most of the time, it was either:

Believe them if they answer quickly, clearly and keep eye contact with you.

Doubt them if their eyes start swivelling like those sinister late 90s Action Man figures.

Accuse them of lying if, quite frankly, they look like they’re having a stroke.

But that’s not what I want to complain about. As despite how samey the game quickly became, I was constantly impressed by the level of painstaking attention to detail that was on display the entire time. Team Bondi did a fantastic job in recreating that Noire style. In addition, the voice acting was mostly excellent and helped to sell the game’s filmic style. Through thick and thin I lapped up the atmosphere and story, believing it was all leading somewhere great.

If only.

I think the first serious bump in the road comes when, after having already spent 17-18 hours playing as detective Cole Phelps, you are suddenly wrenched from his shoes and forced to spend the final three hours of the story playing as Jack Kelso – a private investigator who we know little about, save for the knowledge that he and Cole were frequently at loggerheads during the war. Thing is, my problem with this isn’t actually about getting peeved at suddenly having to play as the new guy (call it ‘Arbiter Syndrome’ if you like), but that we soon discover how much of a better character than Cole Phelps this Jack dude really is.

Lest we forget, Cole is a heartless robot with one emotion: ANGER. Seriously, this guy’s mood swings are the stuff of nightmares! When he’s not intensely studying discarded cigarette packets or the aforementioned wooden spoons, he’s probably shouting at something. Whether it’s down the phone (“THIS IS DETECTIVE PHELPS!”), or at a hospitalised child ("WHY ARE YOU LYING TO US?!"), his voice is rarely lowered; and even when it is, he still sounds annoyed about something. It often becomes tempting to press Y just for the hell of it.

And he always looks constipated.

Now, hyperbole aside, I know Phelps has been to hell and back. What we learn about his wartime history could well excuse his emotional nature. But he just isn’t likeable enough. Jack Kelso is another story, however. True, he frowns a lot; and he has this annoying habit of calling women “princess” (makes my skin crawl), but unless I’m mistaken, those are actual Noire character traits. He’s the daring PI who goes out of his way to find the truth, and ends up dodging danger at every turn as a result. Why couldn’t this guy have been the main character instead?

Although while Jack’s more dramatic cases do make for a refreshing change of pace from Cole’s far more monotonous objectives, it’s around this point that the story takes a turn for the more convoluted. I don’t know about anyone else, but my favourite part of L.A. Noire was the homicide desk’s conclusion where you were following clues left by the ‘Werewolf Killer’ around Los Angeles (just a shame the climax of that sequence was so bitterly disappointing). Several hours later, with its string of deadly and clearly connected house fires, the arson desk cases appeared to be heading in a similar direction, and prior to playing as Kelso, I was expecting the final cases to lead Cole and Biggs closer to a final confrontation with the serial arsonist, and then ultimately to the main antagonist, Dr. Harlan Fontaine (who we knew was ultimately, if indirectly, responsible for the arsonist’s actions).

Instead, the story became bogged down with the main characters investigating Elysian Field’s insurance scam, which was more than a little boring when compared to what had come before and what could have been. Yet strangely, the game suddenly turns into the 40s set prequel to Commando with you leading an assault on one particular villain’s mansion. It sure made a change from questioning suspects about their involvement in the conspiracy at hand, but it felt jarringly out of place.

But the real issue doesn’t rear its ugly head until right near the end. How, after all the hours spent slowly investigating crime scenes and questioning rubber-faced suspects, and gradually sensing how all the story’s plot threads were weaving together into something memorable... the game draws to a close with the sewer level.


Generally speaking, the fourth stage of most NES games! Often remembered as the worst level of the bunch, too. It’s certainly no exception here with its depressingly boring design and the inevitable use of water as a fatal obstacle (yes, Jack is seemingly yet another in a long line of video game protagonists who can’t swim). Even more bizarre is how you’re suddenly given access to a flamethrower!

... I’m still trying to figure out what the thought process behind this decision was.

Just to add a little more bitter disappointment, all of the antagonists are either disposed of or forgotten about without ANY involvement of your own. The stage was set for one final, intense interrogation with Fontaine as a ‘final boss’ of sorts, where you could have used all the evidence you’d built up against him. Remember, Fontaine had already been set up as a slimy-yet-suave villain who would have no doubt provided Cole with a significant challenge, which could have led to alternate endings based on how well the confrontation went. He was, by far, one of the most well developed game villains I know of, so there was so much potential!                   

Eh... maybe I’m just too optimistic.   

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