When it comes to creating virtual worlds, Rockstar may just be the true heir of Origin Systems. Whether it’s the Liberty City of Grand Theft Auto 3 or GTA4, the fictionalised versions of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas in GTA San Andreas, the boarding school and small town of Bully or the dying Old West of Red Dead Redemption, in my opinion Rockstar’s greatest creation to date.
L.A. Noire‘s sun-drenched yet crime-riddled 1950s Los Angeles is both an amazing feat and, quite possibly, Rockstar’s greatest wasted opportunity. It’s an impressive recreation, looking just like the movies, from Chinatown to L.A. Confidential – but where I enjoyed exploring San Fierro, New Austin and Liberty City, I never felt at home in this noirish L.A. In Rockstar’s other games, I’d forgo all automated options of getting around the place, I’d drive everywhere myself, just because I enjoyed hanging around in these cities. The games and their locations, they were one and the same. In L.A. Noire, though, I quickly started to ask my partner to do all the driving. In spite of the game’s title the place itself, Los Angeles, is a mere backdrop – and as it’s rarely integrated well into the game, it feels like an elaborate loading screen, or like a technically impressive but essentially lifeless cardboard backdrop – like The Truman Show‘s Sunhaven, and I was the unwitting Truman stuck there.
Unfortunately, L.A. Noire is full of wasted opportunities. The writing is great, as is most of the (voice) acting, but the game’s signature motion-capture technology veers into Uncanny Valley as often as it succeeds at bringing its characters to life.
The occasional disconnect between the characters’ faces and their bodies is one thing; another is that L.A. Noire doesn’t do photo-realism, doesn’t try to, so the animations, realistic down to the imperfections of involuntary twitches, don’t gel with the more stylised look. It doesn’t matter whether the latter is due to technical limitations – the result, while often impressive, does pull its audience out of the moment too often.
L.A. Noire could have managed to pull everything together with its gameplay, but alas, that’s another strike against the game. It’s not so much that it plays badly – what hurts L.A. Noire is that as a game it is bland. Rockstar’s other titles tend to be generous to a fault in the gameplay department, where you might get new elements introduced two thirds into a game’s plot. In its ’50s crime-and-punishment saga you’ll be doing pretty much the same from the first case you’re working to the last. Here a foot chase, there a car pursuit – and the game’s signature interrogations suffer from a lack of internal logic (seriously, guys, at times the choice between Doubt and Lie seems to have been down to a coin-toss).
In spite of all this, though, I’d be lying if I claimed that L.A. Noire didn’t have its compelling moments. As you progress from the first crime desk (Traffic) to the second (Homicide), the single cases start to connect, and the story ties in cleverly with the Black Dahlia murder. As the plot begins to cohere, the characters become more interesting, and the protagonist Cole Phelbs, while rarely likeable, turns into one of Rockstar’s trademark flawed anti-heroes. By the game’s ending, I felt for the guy and his messed-up issues.
In the end, L.A. Noire is a weak game with strong elements – and for a Rockstar game, it’s a failure. It’s a fascinating failure, though, and I’m curious to see how its experiments and assets – the motion-captured acting, the story structure, the ‘real’ location – pay off in future titles by the developer. Grand Theft Auto V will again be set in Los Santos, Rockstar’s earlier take on LA; I, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing L.A. Noire‘s fingerprints on it.