The Nitpicks: “L.A. Noire”

Like a lot of people, or at least the ones who aren’t having the game overheat their PS3s due to the huge amount of data it takes to keep the game running, I’ve been playing the crap out of “L.A. Noire”, a game that seems founded on the principle of “Goddammit these people paid $60 and we are going to give them $60 worth of game!”

And it’s a great effort, albeit only a pretty good game. What’s holding it back? Well, a few things…which we’ll deal with in The Nitpicks.

Fair warning: here there be spoilers.

The defining problem of “L.A. Noire”: everything about this game is a frustrating mix of polished and rough elements. For everything that’s perfect, there’s something that needed more work.

– Let’s see here: this is a game that combines fistfighting, cover-based shooting, driving, point-and-click adventure gaming, branching dialogue trees, logic puzzles, item hunting, AND platforming. Some of these show the long experience of Rockstar’s use of the Havok engine: gunplay and fistfighting are smooth and rarely frustrating. Others, like the driving mechanic, show absolutely nothing has changed since the freaking PS2. Some of them, like the platforming stuff, desperately needed tweaks; it’s a bit telling they have a skipping function as a default.

– Also they needed to not throw new mechanics at us halfway through the damn game. I’ve spent hours perp-sweating and rooting through evidence, and now you want me to pull a Kratos and walk across a tiny little wire? And then swing from a chandelier? And then wobble around on a tiny little platform like a Mario Party game or something? OK, it’s not hard, but it throws you for a loop at first.

– I’d pay money to find out who came up with the idea of including an escort mission, especially one that involved the driving mechanic, so I could feed that person to a pack of rabid guinea pigs or some other fate that’s equally as painful and stupid.

– Ditto the guy mixing the sound. When the music covers the dialogue (after I’ve turned it down almost all the way), it’s time to put your sound mixer with some of Mickey Cohen’s boys for an education. This goes double for levels that require you to listen closely for quiet and subtle sound cues. Yes, Mr. Sound Mixer, it was so vitally important that you blast the sound loop right over that cue I’m listening for. Thanks. Thanks a bunch.

– Beyond that, though, it’s pretty hard to find a game that works harder to make it simple for you to play without slapping you in the face with it. The anti-frustration features here got a pretty heavy polish, and being able to deactivate them is a nice touch as well.

– The InMotion technology used for the faces is pretty amazing and makes for a great game mechanic. Unfortunately, graphics-wise, it makes everybody look like they’ve got hearing aids or something. The ears look weird.

– Similarly, it doesn’t improve the voice acting. It’s a bit noticeable that COLE PHELPS LIKES TO YELL! A LOT! EVEN IF IT MAKES NO SENSE FOR HIM TO BE DOING SO!

– Speaking of Phelps, I’m having trouble thinking of a more underdeveloped character in video games. Pac-Man has more personality than this stiff. It’s a bit telling that we see his wife that he’s supposed to care so much about precisely once, and the cutscenes establishing his affair with Elsa (cute touch, that) consist of maybe three minutes and a few visits to the Blue Room. Similarly, despite not wanting to talk about the war, and it being this big secret, he doesn’t seem terribly tormented for somebody who essentially ordered a hospital lit on fire.

– Another problem is how hazy and unfocused the overall story is, especially at first. It’s pretty obvious that originally this game was going to be a lot smaller and Cole Phelps was going to be an incidental character. It does finally tie together the plot threads of Okinawa, the morphine heist, and the land grab at the end, but in about the clumsiest way possible. Similarly, it really loves the clumsy deus ex machinas: the ending case is a really lame attempt at introducing a twist because they felt it was obligatory.

– Fortunately, the cases themselves are fairly compelling. You keep solving cases because the cases are fun to solve; I plan to download the hell out of as many as I can get. That said, the Homicide desk is a pretty weak arc: who the killer really is is a dead giveaway the moment you realize alcohol factors into all of them.

– Finally, this game is a film nerd’s dream. It’s not just stuff like the golden reels or the fact that the Intolerance Set is a major landmark in the game: it’s touches like little visual nods to noir classics in throwaway moments. For example, some of the shots at California Fire and Life are frame-perfect imitations of “Double Indemnity”.

How about you, dear reader? Enjoying your time as a Shamus, or wishing Rockstar would put out GTAV already?