L.A. Noire and what comes next

For a 3-day weekend, I didn’t get a tremendous amount of gaming happening.  I did finish Lego Pirates of the Caribbean, which is to say that I finished all the stages and unlocked a fair amount of extras.  And I did a bit more Dirt 3, including some of the amazingly fun multiplayer – the Zombie mode, or whatever it’s called, is incredibly fun.  But I ultimately spent the most time getting back into L.A. Noire.

I was emailing back and forth with a friend about it.  He had been asking when I was going to be online in Dirt 3, and I’d told him I was almost done with L.A. Noire and that I’d be all over Dirt 3 once I’d finished the last few cases.  And so then he asked:

So now that you are most of the way through [the game] and well into the development of the over-arching story, are you loving it?

And I responded:

I don’t know that I’m loving it.  I’m enjoying it, certainly, and I am appreciative of what it is and what it took to make it.  But for all it does to immerse you in the world, it does a thousand other small, subtle things that totally throw you out and reminds you that it is a game.  The interrogations, in particular, are so beholden to a particular, specific formula that you almost wonder why they bothered with the facial animation tech in the first place.  And there’s been lots of times where my own brain is ahead of Cole Phelps’ brain, and so he never asks the questions that I want to ask.  Part of this is because of those newspapers – I don’t know if you’ve been diligent in picking them up, but they’ve been telegraphing where the overall story is headed – so much so that it almost broke the game for me at several points.

I should also confess that I’ve been using a walkthrough for the last few missions, because I hate getting questions wrong.  Does that take all the challenge out of the game?  Yes, pretty much; I’d been doing great in terms of clue gathering, and I’ve been having my partner do all the driving since it’s impossible for me to not crash into a thousand cars and lampposts and pedestrians just going around the corner.  The sandbox element feels totally unnecessary and not particularly interesting, either – certainly not in the way that it worked for RDR and GTA.

Now, look – I’ll be the first person to acknowledge that using walkthroughs, especially in a game like L.A. Noire, essentially defeats the purpose of playing the game in the first place, even if the walkthrough in question doesn’t actually spoil the story, but rather simply gives you all the right answers to the interrogations.  I’ve been saying ever since the beginning that the interrogations are the most problematic part of L.A. Noire, and judging from all the podcasts I’ve listened to, I know I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Like I said above, the essential problem with the interrogations is that once you get past the astoundingly good facial animation, you are left with a very basic template that never, ever changes or deviates, and so whatever immersion you might have had in the animation is ripped out from under you as soon as it’s time to react.  Let’s say that you ask the Person of Interest a question.  The POI will say something in response to your question, and then immediately start acting, usually betraying everything that they just saidThey’ll forcefully say “There’s absolutely no goddamned way that I could’ve murdered that person,” and then as soon as they stop talking they’ll immediately start twitching and grinding their teeth, and if you think they’re lying they’ll suddenly get brazen and say “Well why don’t you prove it, flatfoot!”   Let’s leave aside the obvious observation that real conversations never work like this, and let’s also leave side the weird disconnect in the player character’s attitudes when confronting a lie (gently) and being doubtful (flying off the handle).  The main problem that I’ve been having is that I never seem to be able to ask the questions that I want to ask.  Either my own personal brain is ahead of the game, or else I’m on a path that’s utterly disconnected from the correct line of questioning.  And when I’m actually asking the right questions, I’m still generally 50/50 when it comes to confronting a lie with what I believe is the right piece of corroborating evidence.

That’s mostly my problem, I suppose.  But the fact that lots of other people are having problems with it leads me to believe that maybe it isn’t just my fault.

The last thing in my email, though, is part of the larger problem I have with the game – that the sandbox element feels unnecessary.  I totally get that having a real post-war L.A. is an incredible achievement, and I really truly wish that I could spend more time exploring it.  Problem is, there’s really no incentive to do so; the side missions feel obligatory (most of them are 20 second shoot-outs) and the hidden collectibles are so well hidden that I wouldn’t even know about them if I hadn’t been told they were there.  The one side thing that I’ve been diligent about collecting is the newspapers, and even then, they’ve revealed so much of the backstory that I almost feel like I know too much – for example, the events that mark the transition from Ad Vice to Arson were more or less telegraphed in one particular newspaper that was almost impossible to ignore, which more or less ruined the surprise.

But there’s a solution to this problem.  In fact, there’s a solution to most of the problems I have with L.A. Noire, and it’s a solution that would make L.A. Noire 2 better for everybody.  And it’s a solution that seems kinda obvious, so much so that I have to wonder if the developers knew it also, but had spent so long working on what they’d already come up with that to switch gears would cause more problems than it would solve.

The solution:  your player character in L.A. Noire 2 is a private detective.  Here’s 4 quick reasons why that works:

1.  Suddenly, the sandbox makes sense.  A private detective can run around L.A. and do things – he can go to the fights, he can gamble at the tracks, he can explore – he’s not beholden to the law in the same way a police officer is, especially a golden boy like Cole Phelps.

2.  Similarly, the side missions could be more varied.  The photography missions alone would be more interesting than the shoot-outs we’re currently working with.

3.  A private eye fits the noir mold a thousand times more than a police officer.  He can be darker, he can be mysterious, he can be drunk, he can wear his regret on his sleeves.  Cole Phelps is more of an automaton than a living, breathing person – and while there might be a good, as yet unrevealed reason why that is, a private eye is more interesting right from the get-go.

4.  I’m guessing that a private eye’s interrogations wouldn’t be as formalized as a police officer’s interrogations, but that would certainly make them a hell of a lot more interesting and varied.

I appreciate that L.A. Noire’s current set-up works, in a certain way – the progression of Cole’s career is broken into desks, which also vary up the cases and put him in different situations.  It’s just that it never feels as gritty or as dirty as it could.  I’m not saying that a future L.A. Noire game has to be like GTA – it’s just that it has the potential to be so much more than it already is.

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