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L.A. Noire's problems finally reach their end

Daniel Weissenberger's picture

Here in the third section of my L.A. Noire post-mortem, I'm offering a grab bag of oddness I noticed while playing the game.

Um... That's not how betting works

There are three missions on the game's Vice desk, and two of them are ruined, as mentioned before, by the newspaper-related cut-scenes that spoil all of their key plot details. The third mission, while more satisfying than the other two, is fundamentally undercut at the writing stage based on a problem at the scripting stage: The writer/director doesn't seem to understand how gambling works, at all.

This segment, "The Set-Up", is based around the same premise as the Bruce Willis segment from the film Pulp Fiction—a man agrees to throw a fight, then bets on himself, wins the fight, and tries to escape with the money. Complications ensue when his moll tries to run out with the money, and his corrupt manager tries to murder him. Further complications come from the fact that seemingly everyone in town knew about this fix, and bet on the other guy—including one of the cops now trying to track him down!

Nothing wrong with that plot, right? Well, not in theory, but the way it's written, the story makes no logical sense. Why? Because the boxer being asked to throw the fight was not heavily favored to win it.

For educational purposes, allow me to present a brief clip from my favourite movie—

That's the key element to learn from this clip—you only ever pay the favorite to throw a fight, because that's the only way to get a decent return. If I were to bet thirty dollars on the favorite in John Polito's example and he wins, I'd only walk away with forty (my thirty back, plus the ten I won in the bet). While the underdog pays out 3-1, the favorite is 1-3, the "short money" of the clip. So if I bet on the 3-1 underdog, and that guy wins, I'm in for one hell of a payday—120 dollars.

Multiply that a few times, and suddenly the appeal of fixing a fight becomes obvious.

So what's wrong with L.A. Noire's version of this classic tale? The man being paid to throw the fight isn't the favourite. He's the underdog. The boxer is referred to as a bum, a never-was, the kind of guy who other boxers get a fight with just to polish up their records a little. Here are the odds on him the day of the fight:

That averages out to about 20:1. Which is just crazy, as boxing odds go, but let's move on—why would anyone pay this man to lose the fight? The gambling community is already as sure as they can possibly be that he's going to lose it. They're essentially begging people to bet on him by offering odds like that. Really, he's basically the ideal candidate for the kind of upset victory that a guy looking to fix a fight would want.

Why am I focusing so much on this error? Well, not just because it's egregious, and the kind of thing you'd think the writer/director ought to know if he's going to be writing about the seedy underbelly of American crime, but rather because it makes all the people fussing over the fight look patently ridiculous. Why do they care so much about this fight if they stand to make essentially no money off of it?

Roy Earle, Cole's corrupt partner spends the entire mission bitching about all the money that the fleeing boxer has cost him—and while it's true that Roy lost the fifty dollars that he bet, how much did he stand to win if the fight had gone as planned?

That's right—Roy Earle is getting all kinds of upset over two dollars and fifty cents.

Three-quarters of a reunion

Cole Phelps, the game's main character, is played by Aaron Staton, Ken from Mad Men. This isn't acknowledged or winked at by the vast majority of the game, then suddenly, come the first arson mission, the cameos come in quick succession.

First there's Rich Sommer, playing a travel agent, followed by—

Vincent Kartheiser, playing a foul-mouthed gas fixture installer.

Seeing the two men in quick succession, all I could think (and I doubt I'm the only one) was "When is Jon Hamm getting here?"

And then he doesn't. Which is both inexplicable and crushingly disappointing, especially when there's a part that's essentially tailor-made for him.

The crusading ADA who's going to take over the District Attorney's office and clean up this town! It's two scenes and maybe ten lines of dialogue—perfect cameo material. Yet it's played by some random unfamiliar actor.

What's going on, Team Bondi? Why couldn't you get Hamm? The man does web videos, for God's sake, could he really be too stuck-up to appear in a video game?

Oh, and Meyer Cohen is played by the guy who was the comedian in season two, but it's more of a real part in the game than a cheeky cameo like the other two.

You know, we're not all students of historic police sciences

I'm in favour of throwing people into the deep end of stories, and not molly-coddling them about the details. If there's slang in the world of a game, I don't need it to be spelled out as long as it makes sense in context. Hell, that's how people learn slang in the first place.

The developers of L.A. Noire have taken this attitude and run with it to a degree that goes past "trusting your audience" and well into "baffling your audience" territory. Throughout missions we're told to go places at Code 2 or Code 3, with no explanation for what the difference in those terms means, the dispatcher is constantly throwing crime numbers at the player, expecting them to somehow know exactly what they're about to walk into. I can't express how baffled I was the first time I was asked to find a "gamewell".

The most bizarre choice, however, comes when players reach the third desk of the game. Now, as someone who's actually read L.A. Confidential, I'm aware that the police department responsible for drug and prostitution investigations in the 40s LAPD was called "Administrative Vice". The game isn't especially clear on that fact, though, and I can only imagine a few players out there were baffled to hear Cole and Roy show up at a crime scene and announce that they're with "Advice".

I know it's not "cool" to have a thick videogame manual any more, but there are plenty of loading screens in this thing—would it have killed you to drop a few glossary items into them, developers?

You couldn't find a less obtrusive way to let us know this?

When Jack returns to his office to grab some files after being fired, the following thing actually happens:

That's right, a security guard tells Jack where his own office is. Come on, developers, there had to be a less unbelievably stupid way to get this information across.

For example, one mission earlier, when we started inside Jack's office, maybe you could have  asked the player to walk out of the building rather than simply teleporting them out the second the movie was over.

Or did no one think of it?

How did you miss that? Are you sure you're a cop?

The final traffic desk mission, "The Fallen Idol", begins when Cole is told that the crime scene he must report to is right across the street. He's shocked to hear about this, and I'm shocked by his reaction.

This is the front door of the police station—notice the direction that the parking lot is facing.

That's the car he's supposed to be investigating.

How did he not notice it on the way to work? Shouldn't he at least have seen the people milling around, looking at the bizarre spectacle? Even if he somehow drove up a back way, parked without looking around, and entered the building through a side door, what are the odds that the absolute first thing someone said to him the moment he walked through the door wasn't "Hey, did you hear about the car crash right outside? Damn thing's stuck in a billboard, halfway off a cliff! Go take a look!"

That's right, the odds are zero percent.

Fingerprints were first used in court more than 100 years ago

This is a still of Cole picking up a murder weapon with his bare hands. I was spoiled for choice in picking an image for this piece, since this happens once per mission. Other than making Cole look like a terrible cop, why does this happen over and over again?

In every movie I've ever seen from (or about) this period, detectives pick up pieces of evidence with a handkerchief, unless their dealing with a gun, in which case they put a pencil through the trigger-guard or down the barrel.

Why does Cole defy all known evidence-handling procedure? Simple: to enable the game's in-no-way revolutionary item-examination mechanic! Whenever they pick up an item, the player can turn it around in their hand until they the specific angle they're supposed to look at it from in order to notice something important.

Beyond getting every case Cole is involved in thrown out of court, this feature adds nothing to the game save a pointless, finicky, time-wasting chore. There's no way to miss these special parts of items, so why bother with this mechanic? Was there really a tester who said "Hey, you know what part I really like? Where you have to roll the thumbstick until the controller starts vibrating, then hold it in place for two seconds, and if your thumb moves slightly you have to start all over again! That's great!" I sincerely doubt it.

I have no idea why Roy Earle gets Cole assigned to vice

I mean, if he just wanted to betray him, he could have done it wherever Cole was working—he obviously knew about the affair before the reassignment.

If he wanted someone working with him that he could blackmail into going along with evil if the situation required it, that should have come up at some point in the game.

If he really just wanted a good detective to work with, then that would be odd. Because he's a villain who's supposedly doing corrupt things all the time (not that we see him or anything...), and having a good detective around would likely put a crimp in those plans.

Apropos of nothing...

Cole's Partner in Traffic looks and sounds a lot like a young Brad Pitt.

Haven't I seen you somewhere before?

In a few of the late-game street crimes, characters from earlier in the game reappear, involved in new crimes. This would be a cute and fun little bit of continuity except for one small thing—the guys I was seeing again were from so far back in the game that I had no idea who they were.

I don't think I'm at fault here, either. L.A. Noire has an enormous cast. The cast section of the manual takes up nearly three full pages of the manual—how can they possibly expect us to remember a single unimportant person we had one conversation with eight hours ago? Would a little reminder of when we last saw the guy have really been so out of order?

Until next time...

With a beautiful setting and great action, there's a good twenty percent of L.A. Noire that I loved unreservedly, and I neither regret buying the game, nor am I planning to sell my copy any time soon.

In fact, if my theory is correct and the developers spent the last three missions of the game on Jack because they knew there were going to kill off Cole and wanted to familiarize people with the star of the sequel, I just want to let them know that I'm completely fine with that.

Just so we're clear, Team Bondi, if you make a game about Jack Kelso, crusading DA's investigator, and his world-weary partner Szarbajka, I will purchase that game.

Seriously, though—please fix all the non-action related parts of the game before you do that.

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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Heh

That betting bit is hilarious!

I really really enjoyed the game, warts and all. That said, I'm glad you're picking it apart. While some of your criticism is a stretch IMO (The Mad Men thing for example), some of it I totally agree with (The movie reel smoking gun was hugely, jarringly, stupid.)

I guess that overall I felt that for me personally, the things it did well way overshadowed the flaws during my time with the game. I mean, I had a blast with it, didn't want it to end, and picked it right back up and started over when it did.

This may sound like sort of a backhanded complement, but I just don't see other games too often that attempt to do anything near this level narrativley. When it comes to games, ultimately, I guess I tend to grade on a curve somewhat. Sure, the game is full of the clumsy controls and somewhat goofy minigames and design decisions that R* is known for, but then again, compared to IV, the story is as tight as a damn drum, and compared to most other big deal releases, it's fucking Citizen Kane.

Any disapointment I felt with say, a failed interview or Kelso's incessant "princess"ing every woman in sight was immediately pushed aside by the next charming bit of partner banter or 3rd man inspired sewer chase.

Let's not forget that the pulp detective stories from which this game draws inspiration were just that: pulp. They weren't all masterpieces, but they were more often than not one hell of a stylish ride.

I think the game definitely does them justice.

Cole's framing

He wasn't framed to protect a prostitution ring. He was framed because he was about to bust Courtney, which was a threat to Fontaine, which was a threat to the Chief of Police and the other muckity mucks in Suburban Redevelopment.

About the 'framing'

@Ben

Here's the video in question: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjSu3C6Tt80

Just another example of the game's general sloppiness - Cole actually gets turfed out over something that doesn't ever come up in the game proper.

Even if it had something to do with Courtney and Fontaine (which it didn't), why would they think they had to get rid of Cole? Every time Cole is presented with the opportunity to make a fuss and get some justice, or let it go and get a pat on the head, he lets it go. Since he's been completely happy to just go along with the LAPD System as-is, why would anyone assume that he wouldn't play ball this time as well?

daniel, about the framing

@Daniel

Maybe I got it wrong, but I was under the impression that they did not frame Cole solely to get him demoted and out of their way (he wasn't much of a nuisance to the LAPD anyway - he seemed to do just fine with corruption, as long as it was masked by seemingly official, rational orders).

I think they framed him to take the media/public attention away from Brenda Allen and Charles Stoker (who testified secretly before the jury in 1949 about internal police corruption (this is never mentioned in the game, though, because the writers aren't very good at their job and believe we are all historians)). So they feed the papers a story about Cole's betrayal of the American people to cover up their mess.

Cole was already well-known for being a good, honest cop (an uncanny number of civilians in the streets seemed to recognize him) so this news story about his little perverted secret was bound to capture most of the public attention. As a result, the corrupt politicians were able to escape from the incoming scandal unscathed.

That being said, I do agree with most of the points you've made in your articles. The writers did an awful, awful job, and I resent them for it. The film reel Kelso finds in the abandoned building baffled me to no end; such a trick is inexcusable. Also, I hope the sequel is not about him. This clown won't shut up about princesses and it makes me cringe.

I'll write about Cole Phelps a bit, because I think he had the potential to be a great anti-hero. I like the way the game tries to deconstruct his heroic façade and turn him from your typical honest no-nonsense cop into a miserable, flawed but endearing human being. Unfortunately and obviously, it did not work out as planned. If Cole had been more likable, bold, emotional and fleshed out and had opened to the player early on, I think the ending would have been much more satisfying (also, if Cole would have been strong enough as a lead character, the writers would not have had to resort to some dull jock like Kelso for the last few missions, an idiotic decision that lessens the emotional impact of Cole's demise).

Before concluding, I do think they should have given Cole a more dramatic death, letting him time to spout a final monologue or something, as the water washes him on a pile of debris and he's about to drown in filth. Not something cheesy about redemption or courage, mind you; I'm thinking about something more in the lines of a confession or distressing ramblings about the fear of death - it would have made him more human.

As it is, the untimely death of a robot like Phelps isn't affecting (still, I can't help but think that maybe it was in the writer's intentions all along to make Cole utterly unlikable before killing him off unceremoniously, destroying any hint of empathy for him in any player - this negation of typical storytelling techniques and character development, could it be a clever, artistic statement? ...of course not, who am I kidding? This is just ham-fisted writing).

In my opinion, from a story standpoint, Deadly Premonition suceeded where L.A. Noire failed; the player, through Zach, could learn about York and empathize with him easily, even though he was a lonely, soft-spoken lunatic with chronically antisocial behavior and a nightmarish grin. We also got to know the suspects (and the killer(s)), observe them, talk to them and befriend them, before finding out who they really were - now that is efficient and impactful storytelling. That's why I think DP is a better (albeit very different) story-driven detective game; everybody should learn from what it does right!

Refreshing

this is fun.

Not the game... the discussions. I cant remember the last time a rockstar game sparked any actually discussion. Normally Rockstar's PR team works hand in hand with game reviewers, to make sure no real criticisms come to light, until well after everyone has bought the game.

Contacting Curtis Benson via Police Dispatch?

One piece of oddness that really stuck out for me was was after Jack investigated the abandoned movie studio (featuring the bad guys and their evil plan film).

He picked up the phone to call Curtis Benson, his boss at the insurance company. You'd think he call the office, right? Nope, he calls "Police Dispatch" in order to reach him.

Ummm...why is an insurance company president reachable via police dispatch?

I agree with everything in this series of posts. I really enjoyed the first hour or two of the game, wanted to snap the discs during Homicide, but was pleased when the cases actually started relating to the overarching plot. The ending was a major letdown, though.

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