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L.A. Noire has problems

Daniel Weissenberger's picture

Many, many, problems. So many, in fact, that I couldn't risk talking about them in my review of the game lest I completely spoil the story for anyone who hasn't played it yet (and still wants to). Over here in the blog section, however, I'm free to be as spoiler-y as I want, so I've put together an article detailing some of the ways in which the game doesn't measure up.

Articles, actually, since this was getting far too big, I've broken it up into three sections. Today, I'll be dealing with the story, structure, and presentation problems that make this mystery game fail as a mystery, or even as a story, really. Tomorrow I'll be covering the game's bizarre character problems, and the day after that will be devoted to minutiae and oddness.

So, let's get started with—

Wait... Why are they the bad guys?

If there's one thing that fiction about cops in 1940s L.A. has taught us (I'm looking at you, novel version of The Black Dahlia), it's that the police department was almost unbelievably corrupt. Why, it's amazing they got any policework done with all the time they spent doing drugs with movie stars and palling around with flamboyant mobsters. It's a reputation that's continued down through the years, where even today the LAPD are thought of as alternately massively incompetent or completely corrupt.

The developers behind L.A. Noire seem so comfortable with this stereotypical depiction of Los Angeles as the most corrupt law enforcement town in America that this corruption is treated as a fait accomplit. If you were to go into L.A. Noire without any preconceptions about how the town operated at that time, as I assume a decent number of people playing the game are going to, you'd find a police department that doesn't seem to have any major problems with corruption at all. In fact, apart for one mission at the very end of the game, where dozens, if not hundreds of dirty cops suddenly burst out of the woodwork, L.A. Noire features absolutely no police corruption at all.

Oh, sure, there are comments here and there about people being on the pad, and Dudley at one point mentions the possibility of beating a confession out of someone, but no evidence of those things turns up in the game, save a ledger of payments that have happened in the past—basically the most passive way imaginable to get that information in. No one visibly takes a bribe, no one is ever framed out of malicious or corrupt intent—a cop never so much as lays a hand on a suspect who didn't start a fight. It's a vision of 1947 Los Angeles policing that's so sanitized that it's almost insulting.

Of Cole's four partners in the game, two are completely honest paragons of virtue, and one is just so profoundly lazy that he doesn't care who gets thrown in jail, so long as he can go home early and grab a drink.There are only two scenes in the game demonstrating actual corruption so how are we supposed to see it as a major threat?

See this guy? He's Roy Earle—Cole corrupt partner. We're supposed to dismiss him as corrupt because he has a nice car and is on speaking terms with a mob boss. But he literally never does anything questionable. We never see him frame anyone, kill anyone—even slap someone around. The only proof we have that he's even actually corrupt is that John Noble (ridiculously) keeps a ledger with the real names of all the people he's bribing on it, along with the day and amount of all the payments. He's the epitome of corruption on the police force in the game, and literally the worst thing he does is rat out Cole for cheating on his wife, so the higher ups will have something to feed to the newspapers, which they hope will be sensational enough to knock coverage of a prostitution scandal off the front page.

That's right—the game's worst cop doesn't even frame Cole. He just reveals a morally questionable thing that Cole actually did of his own free will.

So when we get to the last mission of the game, and cops are swarming the streets of Los Angeles (and possibly the sewers), desperate to murder Jack Kelso and Cole Phelps, we're left wondering where all these dirty cops have been for the rest of the game.

When teasing goes too far

L.A. Noire is a mystery game. In it you play a detective who's supposed to be solving crimes. If it seems like I'm stressing those words a little too hard, let me fill you in on L.A. Noire's most inexcusable structural mistakes. Once you become a detective (I'm leaving out the training missions and Jack's missions), there are 14 cases Cole will have to solve, broken down into 3 Traffic, 6 Homicide, 3 Vice, and 2 Arson. One case from each of the first three is a simple chase affair, and can be removed from consideration. The two other Vice cases are completely spoiled through other means that I'll get to in the next section. This leaves us with nine cases which can be called an actual "mystery", in that a murder has happened, the player isn't supposed to know who the killer is, and they have to figure it out by thoroughly investigating.

Of those nine, only the two traffic cases actually work as mysteries. The other seven—all the homicide and all the arson cases—all reveal who the killer is in the opening seconds of the case, completely ruining the surprise for the audience.

Does that sound hyperbolic? If only.

Every case is preceded by a title card, and most of them show footage of the crime actually being committed—the developers are careful to avoid showing people's faces, but in a game designed around asking the player to be able to pick up on subtle visual cues in order to figure out when someone is lying, simply refusing to show a face is nowhere near enough to preserve the killer's anonymity.

I'll show you what I'm talking about. The first homicide case is The Lipstick Murder, and in the introductory video, we get this shot of the killer:

So, he's a tall white guy wearing grey slacks in an overcoat, killing a woman with a pipe. Not a huge spoiler, but when the two suspects are a dumpy, middle-aged man and a short Hispanic man, the fact that neither one resembles the guy we actually saw commit the crime should leave the player wondering what's going on.

This is a sense that only get worse as the next mission, The Golden Butterfly, starts.

Look, it's a tall white guy in grey slacks, but now he's wearing a vest! We can't know for certain that it's the same man, but we can make an educated guess. Which stops being a guess at the beginning of The White Shoe Murder.

There he is again—grey vest man. And what about The Studio Secretary Murder?

Wow, they're not even trying to hide it now, are they?

At this point you might interrupt to say "But wait, Dan—the storyline of those missions is that the Black Dahlia Avenger is continuing to kill women, but the police don't want the press attention, so they're saying it has to be copycats—so that's why it's okay that we know we're dealing with the same guy!" and were you to do so, I'd have a question to ask in response—

What is gained by showing the killer at the beginning of these cases?

The question of whether or not we're dealing with a copycat killer should be at the forefront of the player's mind. They should be struggling, along with the characters, over whether they're dealing with the same killer every time, or whether people desperate to get rid of a troublesome woman in their lives are copycatting the crimes of the Black Dahlia Avenger in the hopes of getting away with their own murders.

These openings rob the player of that experience. While Cole isn't certain what's going on, the player knows for a fact that the same person is responsible for every crime, and that all the time and effort they're putting into tracking down a suspect in each individual case is a complete waste. A non-optional waste, mind you. The player has no option but to chase around innocent people and help the killer frame them for murder for a full six hours in a row. What could be more frustrating than that?

Now just imagine those same cases hadn't opened with a reveal of the killer—what would be the effect? The player could go through the early ones, genuinely thinking they were chasing a copycat, and then grow more suspicious of the similar cases, just as Cole does in the game—instead of feeling like the game is just padding out the running time, we could be actively trying to figure out what's going on, and then be rewarded with a vindication of our theories when it turned out that our suspicions were correct!

Oh, to be fair, one of the cases, The Silk Stocking Murder, doesn't have a teaser—but in that one the killer leaves a ridiculous blood/clue trail that only a crazed cinema-level preposterous serial killer, and not a simple copycat, would ever bother doing.

The craziest thing about all this is that after completely ruining the Homicide portion of the game with these teasers, the game does it again in the Arson section! The first case, the Gas Man features two separate depictions of the killer. First when he's burning down one of the houses—

And then again when he's setting up another murder—

—while Cole and Biggs are rushing out to brace the three suspects—can they get there in time to save some more lives?

No—because here are the three suspects.

Kindly note that none of them resemble the man we saw commit the crime in the least. Yet the player is asked to send one of these three obviously innocent men to jail, and then be taunted by the game when the intro movie for the next case flaunts the fact that they didn't even come close to the right guy—

That case, too, ends with the cops pinning the crime on another guy who didn't do it. Although this one dies in a hail of gunfire, so at least there won't be anyone to sue the department for wrongful arrest.

The kicker in the arson cases is that not only does the player know that they're not chasing the right guy, but they also know who the right guy is, and why he's burning down the houses—and they have known for roughly ten hours! How is this possible? Well, just—

Read all about it!

Spread throughout the game's investigative locations are newspapers. Unlike the "collectibles" that litter the game's world map, these aren't hidden away in back corners. They're placed out in the open, lying on tables, desks, occasionally a floor. The key element here is that they're not hard to find—music plays and the controller shakes when the player approaches them, just like any other clue in the game. They're not like any other clue in the game, though—they're designed specifically to spoil. every surprise the game has left to offer.

Reading the newspaper starts a cut-scene depicting the adventures of Courtney Sheldon, ne'er-do-well marine medic, and his association with a nefarious doctor named Harlan Fontaine. The upside of these articles? Additional screentime for the actor playing Harlan Fontaine, who manages to upstage John Noble and become the MVP of the entire cast. The Downside? This parallel plot completely spoils the entire Vice section of the game.

The Vice missions revolve around Cole and Roy's attempts to locate a shipment of morphine and firearms that were stolen from an army surplus ship, stop the rash of deaths caused by too-pure drugs hitting the streets, and quell the gang war raging over possession of the dope. The key mystery that Cole is presented with is "where are these drugs coming from" and "why are marines Cole knows being murdered"?

These would be compelling questions indeed, if the player didn't already know the answer to all of them. Simply by reading newspapers lying around the crime scenes we're shown the entire story of Courtney stealing the drugs, selling them to mob kingpin Mickey Cohen, backing out of the deal when people start dying, then enlisting all of his marine buddies to help back him up when the Mickster's goons try to rub him out.

There is literally no part of the scheme that the player is in the dark about when the Vice section starts, which means that instead of playing along with Cole, slowly discovering the connection between his flashbacks and these current crimes, we're left tapping our feet, waiting for the game to hurry up and get to the point already.

And if spoiling all of the Vice storyline weren't bad enough, as I mentioned above, Arson is ruined by these newspapers as well. There's a beefy man in a large jacket burning people alive? Gee, I wonder if it's that guy we saw in a newspaper article talking on the phone to doctor Fontaine, freaking out about the fact that he accidentally burned some people alive!

Is it possible to get through the game without reading any of the newspapers? Sure—but why would you? We've been trained by thousands of games to pick up every collectible we can get our hands on—and by the time you realize that the newspaper side-stories you're reading are going to dovetail with the main game you've already had the entire story spoiled for you.

The sad part is that these newspapers are even worse than the book pages from Alan Wake—the previous worst offender in this relatively niche field of game-ruining. At least there the only thing being spoiled were the timing of upcoming jump-scares and boss fights—here in L.A. Noire they're stripping all of the mystery out of a mystery game.

Whoa.. déjà vu!

I've already discussed how frustrating it is that the Homicide missions expect the player to chase down people that they know are innocent—there's something I haven't mentioned yet, and it's possibly even more egregious than the whole "framing people" thing. Of the five "mysteries" on the Homicide desk, four of them are the EXACT SAME CASE.

Not just in the sense of a serial killer framing innocent people for his crimes, either—each one of the first four cases is about a married woman who's estranged from her husband getting murdered after a night out drinking alone. In each case the husband is the prime suspect, with a second suspect off to the side. Three out of the four times it's the other guy you're supposed to frame, and in one it's the husband (popular actor Greg Gruenberg!). The cases are inexcusably similar—you could make the argument that the killer liked preying on drunk women, and that's why he worked as a bartender, but did all of the victims have to have the exact same backstory?

The only variety is in the fifth case, where the dead woman is a hard-drinking vagrant who the killer seems to have just stumbled upon. But even she is a 40ish white woman, like all but one of the other victims.

It's bad enough that the Homicide desk asks players to kill time for six hours before meeting the real killer—why on Earth would the developers want to make it feel like five of those hours were spent investigating the same case over and over again?

And don't try to tell me the victim similarity was because serial killers like to go after the same victim type over and over again. 4/5 of the women were in their 40s and white (hispanic and 20s was the other), 4/5 of them were married but estranged from their husbands.

This is supposed to be the Black Dahlia Avenger they're chasing, and Betty Short didn't match either of those characteristics.

John Noble has an evil plan, and he'd like you to watch a brief filmstrip about it, if you've got a minute

It's rare to see a game just flat-out giving up, but it actually happens in L.A. Noire. Perhaps realizing that the player may not have been paying that close attention to the intricate conspiracy storyline, the developers decide to just lay everything out for the audience in a single info-dump. Who's in on the scheme, what everyone's up to, the whole magilla.

How is it done? In the most preposterous way possible!

Nothing about that video's existence makes sense. Why does it start as a promotional film, then cut into rich men cackling about how they're exploiting both the government and the working men? Why is it shot from multiple angles? Were there six cameras at this secret meeting of evil, or did they just do multiple takes? Why is it in an abandoned film studio, threaded through the projector in a trashed screening room?

Most importantly, since all of the men at that table are in on the evil scheme, why are they so happy to talk openly about part A of the plan, but not part B, which wouldn't be revealed until the next mission? Do they somehow know that the person watching this film isn't yet at the part of the game where they'll find out that this is all related to the freeway?

Oh, and if stealing land so that you can sell it to the government, profiting off the building of the freeway sounds like a familiar plot to you, it's because that was Judge Doom's plan in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

So I guess everything just worked out?

The developers had a tough job on their hands—wrapping up the whole plot of the game in a satisfactory fashion, trying together all the loose ends into a perfect tapestry. They weren't up to the task.

In fact, they botch the ending of the game pretty spectacularly. Let's skip to the end of the game, huh? Cole and Jack are running through the sewers, trying to catch the arsonist and rescue the singer. The plan, as I understand it, is to get the arsonist to testify about the fires, which will bring down the syndicate and their evil plan to sell land to the government for more than it's worth. Then they shoot the arsonist in the head—but it didn't really matter, since he only knew that Fontaine told him to burn houses, and Fontaine's already dead, and unable to testify.

So there's nothing connecting John Noble to the fires except for a verbal confession made to Kelso after Jack shot him in the leg—not really something that will stand up in court. Kelso never seemed to take any evidence with him, so he doesn't have any documentation to prove that the insurance pedophile was inflating the value of the houses—that kind of thing tends to mysteriously disappear before indictments come down. Really, the only thing they have John Noble on is building substandard houses and defrauding Gis, which—while bad—isn't what I'd call the final nail in the coffin. Especially when one considers the fact that he still owns the land that the L.A. Freeway is going to be built on, which can still be sold for a tidy profit. Also, the freeway itself was designed to service Noble's own developments out in the suburbs, which will still be successful. Not to mention the fact that he's still got the whole local government on his payroll—and while the a new DA might be able to shake things up, the election hasn't happened yet.

How was this a happy ending again?

The developers don't even bother trying to explain—they simply cut from the big action sequence to Cole's funeral, where the eulogy (given by Roy!) mentions, in passing, that Cole was instrumental in getting rid of the corrupt developer John Noble.

The developers were presumably hoping that the players wouldn't ask any questions about exactly how that happened.

The players of a game about BEING A DETECTIVE.

Next time: Do the characters fare better than the story? No.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3  
Developer(s): Team Bondi  
Series: L.A. Noire  
Genre(s): Open World  
Articles: Editorials  
Topic(s): Game Design & Dev  

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I agreed with your review,

I agreed with your review, but I think you're wrong to pick out the spoilers as a major weakness. They do somewhat detract from the challenge of the cases, but the game never gives the impression of trying to emphasise the murder mystery element in it's appeal - rather, it's meant to be played as an experience in character, tension, and atmosphere. Who can honestly praise the classic quality of Grim Fandango for its mystery element over it's style and humour?

Daniel Weissenberger wrote:

See this guy? He's Roy Earle—Cole corrupt partner. We're supposed to dismiss him as corrupt because he has a nice car and is on speaking terms with a mob boss. But he literally never does anything questionable. We never see him frame anyone, kill anyone—even slap someone around.

Not sure what game you played here.

The game practically introduces his character by slapping Elsa Lichtman around for speaking out of turn, he admits to 'playing the game' with the drug dealers at the start of the first vice mission, he sells out on Cole's relationship, he is the messenger that tells Cole to stay away from investigation of Suburban Dev Fund, and he is the guy that gets away with it at the end.

He's DISTINCTLY corrupt throughout.

Roy!

@Alv

I see your point about Roy's positioning, but my point is that he never takes any concrete actions that establish him as a villain - he presents his association with drug dealers as an exercise in harm reduction (not that the term had been invented yet), and while everything he does is fairly scummy, we never see him do any of the 'big 3' corrupt cop actions - take a bribe to overlook a crime, murder someone under colour of authority, frame an innocent person for a crime.

Between framing all those innocent people in the Homicide cases and covering up for Floyd Rose in the very first case, you can make the argument that, between the two of them, Cole Phelps is the worse cop.

LA Noire

I agree with many of your points, but feel you missed the target on a few.

The homicide cases were frustratingly similar especially when you knew from the openning title that it was a serial killer. The whole game was tiring repetitive at times, some changes in investigation format would have been more interesting. Like taking to the interregation scenes to a courtroom environment. Violence and roughing up the victims etc. Wandering around waiting for you controller to vibrate just made working the cases feel like covering the screen rather than looking for clues.

The lose ends from just killing people who you would want testify was silly.

The theme of the whole game is closer to the format of a book where we get to see the story unfold from multiple sides. I felt the newspaper articles made for a great story and made the story richer with respect to courtney's involvement and the story of the protragonist hero actually being a false icon.

The ending is not supposed to be a happy ending. I liked the ending where the bad guys get away with it with Cole getting redemption for his sins via his sacrifice with Roy acting as if he was his friend. The lead up to it could just have been executed better

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