2011 In Games: L.A. Noire And The Notepad

While game news is light, and we're reminiscing on a gaming year gone by, I thought I'd take the time to write about the games that defined my year. They weren't necessarily classics — some I absolutely hated, some I fell head over heels for, but they're all worth discussing. Today we're looking at L.A. Noire.

I'm playing L.A. Noire. I have a notepad next to me. This is not usual. Before I would keep a notepad next to me if I was reviewing a game, or writing a magazine feature, but I'm not doing either of the above. I'm playing for fun, in my spare time.

And I'm making a bizarre, bitter list of things I hate about L.A. Noire.

But I don't truly hate L.A. Noire. I know this because I continued to play the game and enjoy it despite my multiple frustrations. The reason I'm writing the list is so I don't forget what I dislike about L.A. Noire.

Because in conversation, I always found it difficult to pinpoint precisely what bothered me so much about the game. There were obvious ones — the interrogation system was way too inconsistent to be genuinely rewarding. You succeeded through dumb luck and, even if you fail, you still somehow succeed. Except on the handful of occasions where the game decided you needed to succeed to progress, subverting the overarching concept of L.A. Noire's interrogations just for the hell of it; just to serve the story.

And the open world, shoe horned into a largely straight forward narrative (or is it the other way round?). Part of me really resented the fact that resources had been mercilessly funneled into a universe that you never truly need to explore — particularly since so many of the core mechanics felt under developed or, worse, completely extraneous to the experience itself. The amount of detail placed in every single square foot of L.A. Noire's environment is completely staggering, yet we rarely get to engage with it in any meaningful way.

So it felt dead, save for the few times it flickered to life with a light piano riff. But even that system was messily integrated. The piano tinkle may highlight an object of interest, but often directed your attention to an empty glass bottle, or a cigarette packet. So why not the other cigarette packet I saw 10 minutes ago? Or the bottle on that table over there? Why won't you let me rake through this guy's trash for God's sake?!

The rationale is obvious, but still flawed: L.A. Noire's slow pacing would become broken if every single piano stroke signalled important info, but the ability to interact with everything would completely ruin it. The solution? Well, that's probably more tricky, but rolling an empty bottle around in my palm for the 30th time sure didn't feel like the correct answer.

I could go on: repetitive mission structure, weak driving mechanics, the fact that Cole Phelps is an extremely unlikeable borderline sociopath — but it almost feels a bit pointless. L.A. Noire didn't disappoint me because of its specific failings; if that were the case there are far better targets for my bile. After an hour's worth of play I looked at my notepad only to find a list of the pettiest complaints. The only significant point I could muster was that there were a lot of things I didn't like about L.A. Noire.

The worst part is this: L.A. Noire is perhaps the most glorious failure of its generation. A game simultaneously bolstered and hampered by its own commitment to a grand vision it had no hope of realising. It was almost doomed to fail and it's telling that, while it's easy to sit and pick at the frays of L.A. Noire's cluttered mechanics and clumsy implementations, I can't think of a single solution to any of its multiple problems.

Maybe in the end L.A. Noire is a testament to what is not possible in video games. And maybe for that it's completely essential — A game you must play in spite of itself. I may not have enjoyed L.A. Noire, more likely I just tolerated it. But I certainly won't forget it.


    Loving this articles Mark. Keep them coming.

      *These articles
      How I managed to mess up a small sentence I do not know

        I ask myself the same question when fixing my own typos!

    Like the original STALKER, LA Noire is an important game, but not neccesarily a great one.
    I wanted to enjoy LA Noire and, to a certain extent, I did.
    But it is flawed in a multitude of small, petty ways which probably seemed like a good idea at the time.
    It is an important game because it tried something new and explored the possiblility that an exciting game could have dull periods. It just didn't make the dull moments shiny enough.

      Except I seemed to relly enjoy this game, alot...
      Was a bold move in most aspects, motion capture, case progression etc.
      It tried and 'mostly' made it. Either way I hope developers can learn from it.

        I feel its one of those games that focused so much time and attention on getting one core feature perfect that a lot little things were left behind and those little things, while being petty, built up to become a big problem

        L.A Noire was an okay game, the Face Technology was a big step forward....but the gameplay was pretty lacklustre, and made the Face Tech somewhat redundant in that you really didn't use reading faces that much...since all you had was Truth, Lie and Doubt.

        Its a nice window into what the future of gaming might entail, but for now...its somewhat of a mediocre title.

    I think that if LA Noire was set in a modern time period, I wouldn't have liked it half as much (putting aside that the answer to every crime would be "send this for DNA analysis..."). The 40s setting and noir-style cutscenes really sold me from the first case I played.

    It's far from a perfect game, like you pointed out. There were too many flaws for me personally to consider it for my GOTY. I really, really hope that Rockstar picks this up for a sequel though (Noire Vegas, oh yeah). I think all the series needs is a fresh look from a different dev team to hopefully fix all of the games issues. If not, then I can still say I had a lot of fun.

    Oh, that piano tinkle.

    *** that piano player

    The concept of LA Noire reminded me of the old Police Quest games. I love those games so much, that I had high hopes that LA Noire would introduce a similar atmosphere as the PQ series. In a way it did. But as you say, Mark, it was flawed in too many ways.

    But the biggest flaw, in my opinion, you don't mention: It was the story. It was bad, and I DISPISED the ending. As unlikable as Phelps was, I didn't really understand why the devs decided to make the character you play for the last handful of cases a completely different guy. It felt unrewarding and a little disconcerting to suddenly be playing a different character when you're just reaching the business end of a game and a story that has been created around somone else.

    Another thing that bugged me was the fact that they made Phelps so douchy. I mean, I like an anti-hero as much as the next guy. Vic Mackey from the Shield? Tony Soprano? Two of the best ficticious characters in the history of entertainment IMO. They're BAD guys, who are still LIKEABLE. Phelps wasn't necessarily a bad guy. F'ed up, certainly, but he was always trying to do the right thing. So why make a non-anti-hero such a DOUCH?

    I felt the concept of the game had a lot of potential. As Mark says, it's hard to really say how it could be done better. But it could be. I'm sure of it.

    If not for Skyrim LA Noire would be my game of the year. The storyline is the best I've seen in any videogame ever, the characters are all interesting and somewhat likeable, and it was a fantastic challenge trying to root through all your clues and getting everything right 100%.

    As for some of your complaints, some of them seem valid to me but others don't. Yes, in my first playthrough in some of the interrogations I got booted for getting something wrong that should have been an obvious answer and did seem like it but the next time I played through it I read everything carefully and listened carefully and got everything right. Also, with your complaint about pointless objects in the background you can interact with, I thought it was fairly obvious which ones were unique and which ones were integral to the story, personally.

    You can dislike the game all you want and I can certainly see why it didn't click with you but please don't call it a failure. It wounds me when I see "LA Noire" and "failure" in the same sentence.

    My fondest memory of this game was teasing Strange with good 'ole creepy face Donelly.
    Good times.

    Also the game was pretty okay too.

      That's pretty much my favourite part of the game too, and that's saying something. :P

    Great article Mark :)

    I've been lurking Kotaku for a few years and every now and then I'll decide to comment only to delete it just before posting. But I feel a need to complain about this game and I agree completely with what you said about it.

    Your last paragraph pretty much sums it up for me - L.A. Noire was a huge disappointment. I didn't find myself enjoying it but rather tolerating it. Every time I played it I felt no motivation to continue playing, it's like nearly every aspect of the game just made me cringe. The whole game just felt wrong. It's not a terrible game but it's not a great one either and now that you've mentioned it, I probably can't think of a single solution to its problems.

    What annoys me the most is that most of the big 'critic' (IGN, GameTrailers, GameSpot) reviews ignore these flaws and praise it immensely. I generally don't just rely on a single review to justify whether to buy a game or not but rather a collective of both 'user' and 'critic' reviews. But this time I figured "Hey!, it's a Rockstar game, it can't be that bad can it?" and believed all the 'critic' praise it gained (Metascore of 89). I was interested in it but not interested enough to buy it at launch so I let it fly under my radar for some time. Perhaps it was my fault but because of this, when I finally decide to buy it a few months ago I chose to straight out ignore 'user' reviews relying solely on what the media said...

    L.A. Noire was overrated to me. I know review scores are pretty much pointless but the difference between L.A. Noire's 'critic' and 'user' score is pretty big. Generally most reviews will be close to what I think and what most 'user' scores are and when they are different, the 'user' score is generally the higher one. The only other game I felt was extremely overrated was GTAIV. No way was this a 'near perfect' game (as a 98/100 would imply). It too had flaws that were overlooked my many 'critics'. I enjoyed GTAIV but it was also a bit of a disappointment. Not a terrible game by all means but not an amazing one either.

    Now L.A. Noire didn't disappoint me because I expected it to be more like a 'Rockstar game' (a violent sandbox etc.) I knew it was a detective game and that's what I wanted - a detective game. I understand how people can hate on it because they wanted more (killing random pedestrians etc.) but to me it just wasn't as good of a detective game as I expected.

    The game starts off good but it isn't long before it all starts going downhill. It just became more tedious. I tend not to leave games unfinished but L.A. Noire still sits in my PS3, untouched as it has been for weeks. I tried to enjoy it but I just couldn't. I managed to play it until case 15 out of 21 before I just couldn't tolerate it anymore.

    And that's why L.A. Noire is my biggest video game disappointment of 2011.

    (I know no one is going to read or care about what I said but if I'm going to comment on one of my favourite sites (Kotaku AU) at least once every few months I better make it decent effort :))

    Keep up the good work Kotaku AU!

      I read it! I care! :)

      Actually the same kind of thing has been bothering me for a while, you can't trust most game reviews these days, and if you know about Jeff Gerstman getting fired for giving kane and lynch a bad score (im sure you do), you'll know why.

        Yay! :D

        What you said was spot on though. It makes me think that most reviewers will overlook some of the game's flaws just to keep their job and please the publisher.

          Oh and paid reviews... totally forgot about them :P

          Totally unfair on smaller titles that are just as good but get overlooked and treated unfairly because of it

    The biggest problem with me was it was trying to be realistic but yet it felt like the most 'gamey' game in years. I was constantly reloading when I heard that downer piano riff and Phelps went off his rocker because I chose Doubt instead of Evidence. The game didn't feel natural at all
    If they wanted to take the mulitple ways through a case thing, there shouldn't be a right way to do things, otherwise it feels like you're playing the wrong way to use any other method.
    It was my biggest disappointment of the year for sure.

    It just got repetitive and my engagement with the interrogations lapsed once I screwed a few of them up and kept on going rehardless. Not knowing why I screwed them up, as well, was annoying. When I fail at a game I like to be able to look back and go "It's because I missed that quicktime event", or "I shouldn't have just run in all guns blazing".
    Whilst I liked the setting, visuals, and (overall) the story, too many times I chose responses arbitrarily during interrogations.
    As a fundamental gameplay element it didn't work as well as it should have and whether that's down to story structure or just a broken system doesn't really matter - it crippled the game and I gave up three quarters through.

    I really, really tried to enjoy LA Noire. At times it was fun, but it just felt frustrating... like I always ended up screwing up the interrogations because what I thought it meant and what the writers intended ended up being completely different...

    I'm a bit taken back by just how many people really didn't like L.A. Noire. I've only just started playing the game as I wanted to wait until I had the opportunity to play the game with my mother (who is 66). Perhaps I am not deep enough into it for its flaws to really stand out or maybe because we typically just solve one case per evening but I have to say I am really enjoying myself and my mother is entranced with the game. I get the same feeling playing it as I did playing adventure games in the late 80s minus the frustration.

    Agree with lots of these comments
    For me the problem is that it's to easy to cheat with the Internet which when you get something slightly wrong understanding why is so frustrating!

    The detail and visuals of LA Noire is simply amazing. The story was pretty decent but the ending felt kinda rushed. IMO, if this game had more functionality such as taking the train, listening to jazz at the Blue Room, bowling, changing the radio or even drinking at a bar; the game would be more fun and less 'stiff' if you know what I mean.

      And thankfully due to the setting those features could be implemented and used when a person saw fit not when they get a phone call on their mobile from their cousin. :P

    LA Noire has ruined facial animation for me. Watching characters talk in any other game now is just painful.
    I will be massively disappointed if GTA5 doesnt adopt the same facial animation.
    And I will be equally disappointed if more games dont start adopting this form. . . and soon!

    I'm sorry but most of these criticisms seem to be mostly due to your failure in playing the game. You are meant to be a detective, gather evidence review it then make your accusations to see what people say and piece the puzzles together, so its more your inconsistency to guess things correctly rather than the game itself failing in this regard, its not like theres a chance you'll pick the answer and theres a chance it will be wrong, you'll be choosing the wrong answer.

    I can see where you are coming from exploring the open world part, the investigations feel too important to be running around doing other things, they really needed to give you *holidays* or whatever so you could explore the world without the pressure of cases to solve.

    Theres always going to be pointless clues lying around too its a detective game, I'm in complete agreement with Toasty Fresh, this was a damn amazing story and a fun and unique experience!

    Two major flaws to me:

    1. Lack of clear options in interrogations. It was usually clearly between truth and doubt/lie, and a crap shoot between doubt and lie. Really needed Bioware's dialogue wheel to make the interrogations work as gameplay.

    2. Cole being the player character but making a major choice offscreen and for reasons not revealed to the player besides Cole being a headcase.

    3. The player regularly being ahead of Cole and unable to do anything about it or follow any lead except the painfully linear one (this really bugged me in a homicide case where a temp bartender was mentioned as a witness and no option given to follow him up).

    Fantastic world and atmosphere though.

    Three major flaws to me:

    1. Lack of clear options in interrogations. It was usually clearly between truth and doubt/lie, and a crap shoot between doubt and lie. Really needed Bioware's dialogue wheel to make the interrogations work as gameplay.

    2. Cole being the player character but making a major choice offscreen and for reasons not revealed to the player besides Cole being a headcase.

    3. The player regularly being ahead of Cole and unable to do anything about it or follow any lead except the painfully linear one (this really bugged me in a homicide case where a temp bartender was mentioned as a witness and no option given to follow him up).

    Fantastic world and atmosphere though.

    Mark and Kotaku AU community, fantastic article and great comments!

    "The Golden Butterfly" case ruined the game for me.

    ****Slight spoiler****

    LA Noire, like that awkward friend of yours, constantly asks the wrong questions of you: always "why does it make sense that THIS guy did it" and not "who did it".

    The one case were you get to choose a perp, and you finally feel like you're going to have an effect on the game's story, they're both wrong! But you know this if you're paying attention because it doesn't quite add up anyway. The game constantly yells at you to arrest the creepy guy, even though he is the less likely of the two suspects. You follow your gut and go for the normal, good father guy, who has the slightly stronger case against him, and you get a one star rating. Arrest the creep, and you get 5 stars! WTF. I thought we were meant to be detectives?

    Later on it turns out that neither of them did (duh) and your chief doesn't even have the good manners to apologise to you for handing you your arse and making you walk a beat.

    If you get top chose a criminal just once, at least one of them should be the right guy.

    Then later in the game

      *Last line was meant to be deleted*

      Though later in the game other stuff DOES happen that sucks. But I wasn't going to mention it.

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