LA Noire: The Detective Game That's Not Much Cop

Rockstar Games, those clever folk behind Grand Theft Auto have just launched a new game which looks ace - like the movie LA Confidential. Unfortunately they forgot to make it any fun to play.
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LA Noire left me feeling like a naughty kid on a school trip to Calais – and not in a good way.

You need to understand - this is a serious game. It is not a place for idiots who want to lark around or who think they can wander off on their own to buy illegal pornography.

No sir. This game knows that you can’t be trusted and is fully prepared to keep you locked up on the coach to prevent any embarrassing situations from occurring.

It is this general controlling attitude found throughout LA Noire which made it one of the least enjoyable games I have played in a long time.

I say this as somebody who admires just about everything Rockstar has made in the past – even that ping pong game. They are one of the few companies who make the kind of worlds I want to enter – ones that don’t involve zombies, spaceships or magic pixies.

So I wanted to love LA Noire. But I just couldn’t.  It felt like listening to a bad remix of a classic tune – a grindcore version of God Only Knows or something.

The remix analogy may not be too far from the mark as LA Noire was made in partnership with an Aussie developer called Team Bondi. They sent them all the bits and bobs required to make a Rockstar game and then left them to get on with it.

So on the surface LA Noire appears to be a familiar friend. It’s basically GTA crossed with a movie like LA Confidential. It’s set in the Los Angeles of 1947 with the period vibe created by twiddly jazz, neat haircuts and tweed jackets.

So I wanted to love LA Noire. But I just couldn’t.  It felt like listening to a bad remix of a classic tune – a grindcore version of God Only Knows or something.

You take charge of a detective called Cole Phelps as you help to solve crimes and slowly rise up through the ranks of LAPD. As you complete missions you unlock a story about corruption, drugs, murder and all that.

It’s all nicely done and the characters benefit from the kind of subtle facial animations which are light years ahead of the usual Richard Hammond death stare.

But it’s the story which causes the major problem for me. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s like a deranged control freak which holds the rest of the game hostage. If you don’t comply with its increasingly insane demands - the game is going to die.

You are dragged around in a headlock from one mission to another. You have no choice in what you do – other than the order you do things. If you get stuck on a niggly mission, that’s tough – you will do it again and again until it’s complete.

This is a major break from the way Rockstar games usually work. The design of GTA and Red Dead Redemption ensures that you always have a ton of different things to do – side missions, challenges, mini-games. So if you get stuck or bored with one thing you just move onto something else.

LA Noire doesn’t cater for this. You do what you are told.

As you can’t be trusted the open-world city has been be locked behind a glass cabinet – you can look, but you can’t touch. There’s nothing to do. No cool stuff to find. Nothing to interact with. The game won’t even let you to punch or shoot – not unless it’s absolutely necessary for the story.

This creates a nagging feeling throughout that you’re not really wanted. You’re a meddling presence who serves no purpose other than to interfere with the telling of the game’s sophisticated, multi-layered, historically accurate, pre-scripted, linear narrative.

It wants you to accept the role of an observer rather than a player. And for large swathes of the game you have no choice; there are three DVDs worth of cut-scenes to sit through. You will often find yourself gazing down at the white plastic croissant in your hand and wondering what the fuck it does.

The control freak nature of this game also means the removal of any meaningful consequences to your decisions. An example of this is with the interrogation sequences. You are invited to say whether each suspect is lying or telling the truth – but it doesn’t matter. Nothing you choose has any real impact on the outcome of the case.

But this is all for your own good – you do understand that?

The other major failing is the way you collect evidence – which you will spend a lot of time doing. This is done by awkwardly shuffling around the crime scene while jabbing the action button to find which objects you can interact with.

It’s a horribly clunky system which is a design relic from the old point-and-click adventures which were around 20 years ago. When transferred into a 3D world it leaves your character looking more like a bumbling Inspector Clouseau than a slick detective.

There are similar kinds of design problems throughout which create a slow, awkward and frustrating player experience. That’s not to mention the frequent technical glitches with the game freezing – but maybe that was just my crappy old Xbox.

I am sure people can overlook many of these problems if they get sucked into the story - but this never happened to me. I just resented the fact that it was being forced on me in such a clumsy way.

And I find it worrying if LA Noire represents the direction Rockstar Games are moving in with the emphasis on story and cinematics over player choice. It seems like they are moving backwards from a design point of view with LA Noire being less playable than the original GTA game from 1997.

What I don’t understand is why the games industry is so obsessed with recreating a cinematic experience because the movies are already pretty good at that. It’s like the rail industry trying to develop flying trains to compete with the airline industry.

Games should stick to what they do best. And that’s all the stuff that has been chopped out of LA Noire – player choice and interactivity.

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