"So you're still carrying that army .45, Cole."
L.A. Noire is an Important Game. Not, I don't think, because it is itself a masterpiece (except in comparison to previous attempts to do the same thing), but because it points the way to masterpieces that may be made in the future. This is a game that succeeds through its writing, acting and (sometimes second-hand) plotting. The action sequences are often simply less fun than searching crime scenes and interviewing suspects - although I did find the foot chases uniformly thrilling.
It's telling, to me, that the game's biggest problems - a dearth of likeable characters, bystanders who repeat the same quips over and over, and a lack of actual noir-ish sensibility - are all issues with the execution of its story, rather than issues with the mechanics it uses to tell that story in interactive form in the first place. And I was surprised to discover that the last few cases actually fix those three flaws anyway, which makes their existence either more or less of a missed opportunity depending on how you look at it.
For his final assignment at the L.A.P.D., our anti-hero detective Cole Phelps is partnered with Herschel Biggs, nicely played Keith Szarabajka (previously best known for "assuming direct control" in Mass Effect 2). Biggs is the first person Phelps actually seems to almost warm to, even as our protagonist finally crosses the moral event horizon from rude to full fledged bastard - an event which unexpectedly introduces another likeable character and turns the game into a proper jeu noir.
I don't want to spoil anything, but after completing the last three cases I couldn't help but wonder why the game wasn't like that the whole way through. Which, perhaps, does do a disservice to how much I enjoyed the police procedural aspects that made up the meat of the game until that point, but should also speak of how it found something else to do that was arguably more organic and human.
L.A. Noire's other big problem is genre confusion. Not within the game, but within players' expectations. L.A. Noire is set in an impressively detailed recreation of a swathe of late 1940s Los Angeles. In the language of contemporary video games, this implies that it's an "open world game", where you can abandon your objectives and go find fun things to do elsewhere in the city. Which is unfortunate, because there is very little to do in L.A. Noire's city at all, outside of your current case.
It's difficult to judge whether this is a misstep, because the game benefits so much from having this fantastic setting, with huge scope for interesting places to investigate, and endless streets and alleyways through which to chase and tail suspects. If you can unlearn what you've learned about large areas modelled in recent video games (perhaps thinking back to the cities of Syndicate, probably the first game to do this), then the L.A. on show here will suck you in and dazzle you. On the other hand, if you can't help but think of this as an "open world", it will seem almost comically flat, empty and robotic.
Another thing that people might dislike about L.A. Noire but which I thought worked well, is the way you can bumble through cases without really trying. Even if you mess up, other opportunities present themselves, and someone will usually end up in the slammer, if not necessarily the right person. Those who need games to be challenges that must be surmounted through blood, sweat and tears will probably foam at the mouth over this, but I really like it, for two reasons.
Firstly, the most frustrating moment in an adventure game (of which, yes, this is one) is when the whole thing grinds to a halt because you can't solve this one puzzle. It's especially frustrating in a genre historically known for its stories and characters because life doesn't work that way. If you can't find a way to do this one little thing, you're not stuck trying to do it for the rest of your life. You find an alternative way to achieve your goal, or find another goal altogether. L.A. Noire tries to model this, with the proviso that if you can't do things the best way, you'll lose out on a full understanding of the case, and may not even get a conviction out of your arrest.
The second reason I'm fine with L.A. Noire doing this is because it has a little trick up its sleeve called the star rating. At the end of each case you get a stamp with stars on it numbering between one and five. The number of stars you are awarded is basically dependent on how good a detective you are: how many clues you find, how many lies you disprove, how much you don't drive like someone playing a video game (I have problems with that last metric). If you are the right kind of person, the satisfaction of getting five stars is beyond words - as is the shame of getting just one. Of the three cases where I got a one star rating, I replayed two of them immediately - and I'm really looking forward to replaying the remaining one after I've had a little break from 1940s detecting.
Perhaps, finally, L.A. Noire's problem is that it really is that important milestone game, trying to do things that haven't really been done this way before. Because of that, it doesn't know how best to signal its intentions, sowing seeds of confusion among players looking for familiar landmarks. It looks like an open world game, but it's not. It looks like a game about the One Good Cop defeating the bad guys, but it's not.
This is the surprisingly small and personal story of a self-righteous man trying to readjust to civilian life after experiencing traumatic events at war, and the surprisingly small and personal stories of the crimes he investigates as a police officer. In today's market of big budget games, this is unexpected and weird and inevitably not done as well as it could have been. But its success in the video game charts is hopefully a sign to publishers and developers that in this direction lies fertile ground.