L.A. Noire I give it 4 stars

Cole Phelps, the detective hero of L.A. Noire, is brilliant but flawed, and so is the game. When it works, L.A. Noire is electrifying; it does its job with panache. But in the end, like Phelps, it can’t entirely leave its past behind.

This is a police procedural. While there are car chases, shootouts, and fisticuffs, the heart of the action is in the crime scene work and the interrogations. There’s a certain satisfaction in casing an apartment, spotting a piece of paper out of place, examining it, and realizing that it ties your suspect to the drug ring he denies knowing anything about. The real thrill, though, comes in using that clue to catch the suspect in a lie, seeing his eyes flick as you ask him abut it and he mumbles an unconvincingly vague denial, and thinking, “I have you now.”

The interrogations are truly remarkable. Like the Phoenix Wright games, they require you to pull out the appropriate piece of evidence to put the lie to a suspect’s lie. The innovation here is in the use of motion-capture technology, not for silly stunts, but to display detailed facial expressions. As you ask each question, the witnesses answer realistically. They cough, they look you in the eye, they smile, they sweat. Some of them are flirts, others are bullies, others are psychopaths or lunks in way over their head. And then it’s decision time: will you believe them, press them harder, or confront them with the evidence that show’s they’re lying? Get it right, and you can extract a little more information towards unraveling the case. Get it wrong, and they’ll clam up on you.

Doing well in the interviews requires engaging your whole brain. The left brain looks for contradictions; is there anything in the evidence that doesn’t fit? The right brain looks for honesty; is this person suddenly getting nervous on me? Some of the tells are easy; witnesses who break eye contact and look off to the side frequently have something to hide. But others are really, marvelously subtle. I don’t think I could tell you specifically how I knew when some of the suspects were lying to me; I could just tell that their faces were closed off in a way that they hadn’t been a moment before. The game also rewards thinking carefully about context. What do I think this person’s link to the crime might be, and what kinds of things might they be trying to hide? It was when I got lazy about thinking through the angles that I started to screw up; the cases when I was careful about the possible narratives that things went well. Huge amounts depend on getting a good baseline read on a suspect. Some people roll their eyes when they’re trying to remember a scene carefully, so it’s not a sign of anything suspicious at all; others are tight-lipped from the get-go, and their tells are subtle as all get-out.

The game also gets its atmospherics very right. The game is set in 1947 Los Angeles, and the designers drank deeply at the wells of L.A. Confidential and Chinatown, right down to the Jerry Goldsmith-inspired musical score. The back-and-forth dialogue, some playful and some tense, between Phelps and his partners is positively crackling. The result is that L.A. Noire is “cinematic” in the best way. When you get into your car to drive to the next location, and your partner starts chewing over what you expect to find as the score wells up … the sense of anticipation is just perfect. The cases, for the most part, have satisfying narrative arcs; things come together in precisely the way they ought to in the last act of an hour-long television drama.

The first marble in the oatmeal is that this is recognizably a Rockstar game. It’s as though Rockstar, knowing that it has a game engine highly optimized for driving around city streets, feels compelled to put a lot of driving around in every game. Just as Red Dead Redemption could as well have been titled Grand Theft Horse, L.A. Noire at times feels a bit too much like Grand Obeying All Traffic Laws Auto. If it weren’t for the ability to “have your partner drive” (i.e. to teleport from location to location), I probably would have given up on it partway through. The car chases and shootouts are still just as frustrating as in Grand Theft Auto; you can always count on the controls to do something flaky at the worst possible moment. I lost count of the number of times Phelps started climbing up a fire escape rather than down it, or ignored someone punching him, or started aiming in the wrong direction.

The bigger problem with L.A. Noire is that it doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions. As Tycho observes, the game lets you skip all the action sequences, but you’re on your own for the interrogations, and if you blow one, there is no “repeat the interview” button to press. The case rolls on, and you need to live with the consequences. Except not quite. The case really does roll on, which means the game feels compelled to dole out just enough information to get you to the next piece of the investigation, no matter how badly you have failed at extracting it during the interrogation. You may have completely misread a suspect, but he will still blurt out the next crucial fact during the closing cutscene. And so you stumble onwards, perhaps to botch the next interview just as badly. It’s the video-game equivalent of bumper bowling; once you realize that the game really is this forgiving, the tension just drains away. Other characters may discuss your screwups, but the plot itself rumbles on, even if you have the detecting ability of a Clousseau.

If I ran the zoo, I would make it possible to fail a case through shoddy investigation; miss too many lies and you’ll need to start the case again from scratch, because your investigation has hit a dead end. I recognize that this kind of high-stakes design decision is commercially impractical in a triple-A title. Our culture constantly reminds us that failure is not an option; only in games is that literally true. Still, I hope that future games in what I hope will become a well-established genre are willing to do even less hand-holding. (And yes, I am aware that some reviewers criticized the game for not doing enough hand-holding in the interviews.)

Finally, a few words about the overall plot. Don’t have high expectations, and you won’t be disappointed. The game mixes a little too much in to its central conspiracy, to the point that it becomes a convenient catch-all for period-appropriate criminal enterprises. Drug-running and land speculation? Sure, why not. The pacing is also off. While some plot strands — including a Black Dahlia-esque serial killer — grind on with frustrating monotony, other crucial developments are barely foreshadowed or are quickly forgotten. I don’t have as many complaints as this guy (parts 2 and 3) does, but don’t expect something with the tautness of the movies that inspired it.

That said, I did find one storytelling twist to be very elegantly done. I’ll put it a few lines down, past a big blatant SPOILER WARNING:

You spend much of the game’s third act chasing a drug ring which has gotten a hold of a large quantity of Army surplus morphine. Cole Phelps soon realizes that a group of ex-Marines, many of whom he knew from the war, are deeply involved. (Their role is also made clear by a parallel set of cutscenes that you unlock during the course of your investigation.) They boosted the morphine, then started selling it in a scheme designed to benefit themselves and other GIs, and became involved with real criminals, viz. Mickey Cohen. Phelps catches up with them as things are starting to go very wrong; he wants to arrest them, but also to protect them from the much more dangerous demons they have foolishly summoned. Things do not go as hoped, for a variety of reasons, and many of them, including their likable leader Courtney Sheldon, end up dead.

Throughout the game, cutscenes have shown Phelps’s history in the war. We learn that his Silver Star was utterly undeserved, that he froze and panicked under pressure, and that his straight-arrow personality got many of his men killed, made the rest hate him, and led directly to a wartime atrocity. The final cutscene, after the end credits, though, focuses on Sheldon and the morphine ring. He and his buddies in the Marines are sitting on a ship in Los Angeles harbor, waiting for their return to civilian life, when one of them reads in the paper about that “phony bastard” Lieutenant Phelps being promoted in the LAPD. Resentment builds at “jerks like Phelps,” until Sheldon points out that they’re sitting on two tons of surplus morphine, and that it could be a “peace dividend.”

I think the scene is brilliant, because it puts the game in a new perspective. Not so much factually — the player already knows by this point what happened, more or less — but because it situates the game back within the film noir genre. The classic noir plot is about a dope who thinks he’s found an angle at last, only to get in over his head and be caught up in a current of corruption and betrayal. Sheldon and his buddies are the dopes of L.A. Noire, much of which is devoted to showing just how badly things go for them. The player, as Cole Phelps, sees things only obliquely, in parts here and there, as the tragedy unwinds. I disagree with the critics who think that this robs the morphine plot of L.A. Noire of tension; in a police procedural, the reader often knows more than the detectives about where things are heading. No, this is a final, well-timed reminder that this part of the game, indeed the most noir-ish part, is not your story.

I actually ended up finding the Phoenix Wright games pretty lame as a simulation of cross-examination. They really downplayed deduction and clever thinking in favor of a keyword approach to finding “clues.” Fortunately it sounds like L.A. Noire is better.

I’m a big fan of law professors playing video games.

All the best,