At this point, I buy one game a month. That I bought LA Noire this month indicates that I wanted to like it. A few hours in, I was really into it. But now, a few cases from the end, I have no desire to even finish it. What went wrong?
Now that is a mystery I can solve.
LA Noire has a great story. It draws on hard boiled crime fiction both old and new (it owes a particular debt to Ellroy’s Black Dahlia) as well as the filmic corollary film noir. There’s a rich back story having to do with WWII, a string of murders, civic corruption involving the police, and a hard-working yet flawed and unlikeable protagonist. The characters are well-drawn, if not exceptionally detailed. The remarkable motion capture technology, which renders facial expressions with a liveliness not yet seen in games, is to be commended.
On the surface this looks like Grand Theft Noir – free roaming, large city, lots of car travel. But in reality it’s not that sort of game. It’s got one central mechanic that really works: the crime scene investigation mode. It’s a cross between third person and point-and-click adventure game. It’s well-balanced, fun, and most importantly represents something this game is adding to the noir tradition. It’s a reason why this is a game and not a movie.
Unfortunately, the other central mechanic, the interrogation of suspects, is a disaster. I’m not sure exactly why this mode fails so badly. Maybe real human interaction cannot be simulated when one party has only three stock responses to everything. Perhaps the facial animation isn’t quite good enough to pin a mechanic upon. Maybe the acting or writing wasn’t consistent enough, maybe it was but needed a tutorial. Maybe the lack of challenge makes something uninteresting – it’s near impossible to fail this mode, perhaps a tacit admission that the mechanic doesn’t work.
But the game cannot survive a core mechanic not working. The interrogations become glorified cutscenes that take up half the game, the other gameplay modes can’t compensate and the whole thing starts feeling like repetitive drudgework.
I am definitely excited by what LA Noire represents. It’s an adult game in the “real characters, real storytelling” sense rather than the swear words and gore sense. I am excited by the technological advance of real facial animation. I hope for great future things. I just don’t want to play it any more.