Ten years after release, is L.A. still Noire or Nah? Detective FBT investigates the strange case of LA Noire
2021 marks the 10yr anniversary of LA Noire, and at the time its landmark facial animation, complex plotting and environmental detail raised LA Noire to the top of many a GOTY list. But you don't hear about it much those days. Unlike Skyrim, Mass Effect 2 or Arkham City, all released in the same year, LA Noire is almost forgotten. Time to see if it's as classic as LA Confidential the film or as forgotten as LA Confidential the TV pilot (either of them).
L.A.N had a troubled production, and after release the developers Team Bondi collapsed, leaving L.A.N as their one flawed masterpiece. And oh boy is it flawed. And a masterpiece. LA Noir is one of the most confounding games I’ve ever played.
In 1947, war hero Cole Phelps has become a beat cop. His absolute commitment to law and order quickly gets him noticed and before long he’s working his way up through the ranks, but his dogged commitment to justice puts him at odds with his partners, captains, witnesses, perps and the mob. And me. He doesn’t want to mess with me.
A decade on, LA Noire still looks exceptional - it shows games are about the detail, creating a convincing world and it impresses. While looking a little Uncanny Valley, the characters’ mo-cap is still astonishing; it has to be, reading expressions and picking up body language is a key part of the investigations. And it’s not limited to those moments. Your partners’ smirks, glances and reacts even while idle, making them feel like more than just NPCs or mission markers. They’re incredibly well characterised too. Our Vice partner, Earle, is an oily, woman-beating, lost to the streets sleaze-bag, and our Homicide partner Galloway is an on-the-nose burn-out with his own interpretation of the law. They are clichés but they subtly set the scene and get you into the noir mood. The only thing that doesn’t fit here is me.
I am a terrible cop. I miss all the evidence, don’t listen to statements, forget what I’m doing and completely hash up the questioning. I’m not in Vice, I’m in Vice City and drive like it, nicking cars and knocking people over.
But, it doesn’t matter. I always blunder into catching the perp. One case I completely stuffed; no evidence, confession, nothing. The guy should have walked, yet he blurted out a confession. Then I realise this isn’t freeroam, there’s multiple choices and options in the investigations, but I don’t actually have an impact. It’s a rail game.
You have three questioning techniques - Truth, Doubt, Lie, reactions to how Cole perceives the suspect’s demeanour, but he’ll go from Joe Friday to Bad Lieutenant in one dialogue choice. I was talking to a distraught cleaning woman and I 'doubted' that she didn’t know where her mistress had been recently - since a cleaning woman would know her comings and goings - but Cole yelled that a nosy old bag like her is hiding something. Easy there.
This is due to a last minute change in the way Cole questions, but it makes him completely unpredictable and it’s infuriating when you think you’re about to tease out a clue or trap someone in a lie and instead he just loses his shit - I once asked a man ‘when did you last see your wife?’ He replied he didn’t know and Cole burst a blood vessel - calm down, we’d just established they were estranged and living apart. It’s like good cop, bad toddler.
Generally, he’s a Just The Facts ‘Mam man, doggedly investigating the case, and at first I liked his dispassionate attitude and that we only saw him at work, never at play. But then our partners point out he has been playing – he’s got a wife and kid at home and a lounge singer on the side, but instead of being a reveal, it’s a betrayal; why is that a shock to me, the one playing him? I didn't even know about the wife, let alone the lover. Clearly he’s a flawed, conflicted man but we only get to play the façade he puts on at work? I’m just a part of his personality?
The cases too have moments of ‘huh’ to them. During our long stint in the Homicide division, Cole keeps investigating women murdered in the same pattern. But the odd thing is in each case there’s overwhelming evidence against someone they each knew; coincidence? Obviously not, but it takes Cole at least three of them before he even questions the similarities. By then we already know who it is, because of a comment by an NPC – which Cole missed but I didn’t yet couldn’t action it. I love a slow-burner but Cole, you’re slowing me down. Everyone else seems to be having more fun than me.
There are some free-roam elements but they feel tacked on - we get emergency calls to go help a 911 event, but there's only about five of them that repeat, and we can unlock special cars for no reason. Cole also has a wardrobe that allows for better defence, fight ability and so on, but those seem a deliberate bit of petulance by Bondi, as if they were forced to add armoured suits and other RPG elements but made them useless. Why can't we see what he gets up with the lounge singer instead?
The early Traffic desk cases are fun, but by the time you make Homicide you realise none of it matters. It’s the same with the next desk, Vice, and again in Arson. Picking clues can be laborious. It’s nice that some are irrelevant but Cole ruins it by instantly saying ‘that’s irrelevant’ - then why TF did you pick it up?!
This isn’t just me being impatient. I’m happy as a linear 40s gumshoe but I’m not playing I’m just observing, and all the noir is knocked out of it. I can deep dive into the world and uncover every clue, agonise over question and comb evidence, but it doesn’t matter because I know there’s no risk, no investment; Cole will get his man no matter how hard I try not to, so why does the game make out like choice matters?
It should have been a branching questline, where I had to make, say, five solid collars before being promoted and could ruin cases or get busted down a division. Then I’d be invested, I’d earn the promotions. I once forgot to talk to the driver in a hit and run case and still got a promotion for 'solving' the case. Another I failed after accidently shooting a suspect, and there was zero impact.
In some ways it’s wrong to knock L.A.N – it is gaming as art, and I spend hours just driving, happily lost in the 40s. A section of LA Noire was rebuilt as a VR experience, and I bet that’s incredible - to experience at least. Many of the cases are exact reproductions of sensational murders of the time, it's a faithful reproduction of 40s LA down to even the bus routes.
But ultimately, L.A.N is nowhere near as complex or clever as it thinks it is. It would have worked so much better as a linear game, tight and murky and corrupt like all good noirs. As it is, it's a really indulgent walking sim.
Still, it's amazing the game was released at all. There were bitter recriminations against Team Bondi's management and Rockstar, who were publishing L.A.N, distanced themselves. Team Bondi collapsed, with much of the remaining team moving to Kennedy Miller Michell where they announced follow up "Whore of the Orient", intended to be a similar game to L.A.N., but it was eventually cancelled, leaving this as their only release.
I loved this world so much, but I’m just an NPC. I might as well be sat with a whiskey sour watching someone else play it. I thought I was gonna be Exley, Gittes, or Bogart maybe. I’m not even Rigby Reardon.