This is in-game graphics. In case you didn’t already know that this game looks amazing pretty much all of the time.

Ah, L.A. Noire… it is with a heavy heart that I finally review you. I took my time beating you, mostly because by the halfway point you became a tedious mockery of the very notion of “game”. But you weren’t merely this. You were also an experiment, a worthy one I still believe, and I know you had a hard time coming into this world. A 7-year labor would mar the flesh of any whelp. Thus, I am loathe to criticize the people who birthed you, but criticize them I must if only indirectly via criticism of you. Please forgive me, L.A. Noire and don’t think this means I’m not looking forward to a sequel, cuz I really am. Just make it an actual game next time.

This game has been out for a while. It has been widely reviewed. I am not going to be shy about spoilers so bear that in mind as you read. I’ll try to save the big ones for the last part of the review when I’ll talk about the game’s ending and what I hope to see in future installments.

Like so many things in life, it all begins with blood spatters.

L.A. Noire is an ambitious faux-sandbox game that focuses on the rise and fall of Cole Phelps (Aaron Stanton), a straight-lace war hero who excels at doing casework. The game is sort of like a series of mini-levels tied together by an overarching narrative. Because of the unique performance-capture technology, this is the first game where talking about actors playing characters seems relevant. It’s also a weird thing to talk about because it creates an intriguing overlap (though this is by no means the first cinematic game) that also poses a serious problem for the game on multiple levels.

The gameplay mechanics  fall roughly into the same categories as something like Grand Theft Auto but the game more closely resembles the linear but excellent Mafia II. Basically it features the open world in a huge city, Los Angeles which has been lovingly recreated, it also has shooting and driving and half-arsed platforming. These mechanics are all what you’d expect but executed poorly. The driving is shit in this game, the shooting barely better than Grand Theft Auto 4 and the platforming is haphazard at best.

Luckily for L.A. Noire this is not the focus. Where this game brings something semi-new (it has similarities to the investigation parts of Heavy Rain and earlier point-and-click adventure games as well as the dialogue/choice-heavy Bioware games) is in the more specifically detective-oriented mechanics. You can investigate crime scenes, interview witnesses and suspects, collect clues, etc.

Cole is often a confrontational prick.

For the most part, this stuff works very well. It’s fun, especially in the early stages, to roam a crime scene trying to find clues and later on testing not only your ability to notice details in the environment of the game but also to read people (because these characters are as close to people as a game has ever gotten). It’s later on in the game when the difficulty has to ramp up that you start to run into problems with the interviewing segments. That said, there’s this tendency all along for interviewees to use the word proof every time you call them on something they say. It’s weird and distracting because I know it’s supposed to be a reminder to the player. It just draws attention to the artificiality and tediousness of playing out similar patterns over and over. By the time you’re halfway through the games 21 cases, very little new aside from context is being offered and you will have long since quit driving yourself around since it just invariably ends with accidents, property damage, and demerits from your end of case score.

You’d think that a game so driving-focused would have better mechanics. The driving in this game is unwaveringly terrible. Add that to the fact that the city is way too big for the game and most objectives are as far flung as possible, creating ridiculously overwhelming odds of fucking shit up or just getting surly and bored with how long it takes to get anywhere driving the way the game seems to want you to (read: like a man born in 1947).

At first you want to drive so you don’t miss the great dialogue with your partners but then you realize that letting them drive doesn’t mean missing this and you never drive again. It is that much a pain in the ass.

Then there’s the foot chases. Even Red Dead Redemption had some geography problems and slippery running mechanics, but L.A. Noire should have conceivably stepped this up with it’s more closed-in terrain and reliance on these chases to break up the more passive gameplay that dominates. Of course, Team Bondi made the game and not Rockstar but they couldn’t have benefited from the development of better mechanics over the years? Similarly, the fisticuffs aren’t any more developed than those in Grand Theft Auto 4 or Mafia II. Because these sequences are poorly executed, they feel obligatory and only increase the burden of tedium that L.A. Noire constantly invites.

Of course, I’ve played other formulaic games that were helped by a deep sense of immersion. This game has that potential. I can see getting into it on that level but I only could for the first few hours and then never again. When the game worked for me later, it was in spite of that element because I got fairly caught up in the narrative during the Arson cases where it finally begins to come together. Too late, in my opinion.

Every desk has an overarching plot. The Homicide desk, for example, is concerned with copycats and the Black Dahlia killer and even lets you have an alternaverse hidden-history resolution to that colossal mystery. The problem is, via Cole’s succession of partners, you have people constantly telling you that no, this is not connected. In the Arson desk it gets downright comical with Cole having almost no reason to draw the connections he does when he does and Biggs has no reason to doubt it. There’s a disconnect between what the player can deduce and what the characters do, which is a TV-show kind of barrier which this game is full of. It’s interesting because, as a TV series taken in chunks, is kind of the almost-model that L.A. Noire works best within. I tried to play it that way, treating each case an episode like they are contextualized in-game, but it was still tedious.

Later on, with greater interview difficulty, you’re forced to accuse people of lying because you can no longer guess where Cole is going with his questioning. You start off talking about one thing and you think you have proof for that thing but when you have him be accusatory, it turns out that he’s on a completely different track. It’s a weird consequence of such a scripted game but it doesn’t cause the problems earlier on that it does in the later stages. I mean, it goes from being like ‘oooh, clever’ to ‘what the fuck, where did that come from?’ and you’re left more frustrated than impressed when you fail to outsmart an opponent. It isn’t about missing clues or not being able to connect dots, it’s about just not knowing what is going to come out of Cole’s mouth next because of the disconnect between that and the question you’re picking out of your notepad. That is sloppy.

Cole is a badass, whatever else might be said of him.

Now we come to talking about the game’s protagonist. Eventually, Cole’s personal history and character start to become more clear and relevant to the game. It comes a bit too late, though, and the way people treat him after he’s outed for fucking a German lounge singer is a bit ridiculous. Or it seems so with my cynical, contemporary perspective and all. It’s a nitpick. What is not a nitpick is that Cole is a boring fucking guy to play as. Because he’s the clean-nosed one among all his partners, they are invariably more interesting characters. Bukowsky (Sean McGowan) maybe is the exception to this because the Traffic Desk is a bit bland and he’s also a rookie detective and seems to look up to Phelps a bit. Galloway (Michael McGrady) is my favorite and Harrington (Adam Lennington) is probably the most entertaining. They all act as foils for Cole Phelps, which is a nice touch, but it only serves to outline how bland Cole is.

When the game introduces Jack Kelso as a playable character, all the tedium and frustration magically vanish. All of a sudden, the game becomes a cohesive story and the intrigue and action are all completely centered on the main characters and not one-0ffs per case. Kelso is the character L.A. Noire should have been about but I get the story they wanted to tell. I’d say they ought to have started the alternating between Cole and Kelso way earlier, allowing us to follow their parallel stories. It’s just that Kelso is so much more the Chandler hero, the Philip Marlowe of the game, and even in terms of gameplay he has an interesting freedom that Cole, as a cop, does not have. As Kelso, you ride solo but you’re a much more colorful guy and you have a personal reason to bust down doors, smack dudes around, and so on. Add to that his inherent tension with Cole, a mix of empathy and enmity, and you’ve got a gangbusters twist that almost redeems the entire game.

Because Cole is suffering from survivor’s guilt and more due to choices made in the war which have had an unlikely connection to much of his career as a cop (the game is unobtrusively populated with characters from his past), it makes sense that he dies at the end. Therefore, if there is going to be a sequel, I hope Bondi already planned to focus it on Jack Kelso’s career as a DA’s investigator. Give us a more free-roaming game with better mechanics and execution and a more personal stake in the overall storyline and I’ll be a happy camper. You didn’t need to make this game 21 cases long if you’d given half that and made them more compelling and centered on a more compelling character. If L.A. Noire was a novel or even a TV series, these narrative problems would be easier to forgive but as a game it just distances the player more than is good for it.

L.A. Noire is an experimental game, bridging the gap between a television series and a procedural game. It fails in many respects but it remains an amazing experience if only because of its technological pedigree and the solid work of its varied and extensive cast. Most of the cast are TV actors, many of whom can be seen in AMC’s Mad Men. Seeing John Noble in this game was also good for a kick, especially the character he plays.

Initially I planned on being a lot tougher on this game. I find now that I can’t quite bring myself to rail against it, it did so much right and offers a lot of potential. It’s just a game that falls on the wrong side of its own experiment. It should have been more of a game and less of a tech demo with a TV show mixed in. Which sounds like a complaint against its narrative but isn’t. The narrative should have given us more, not less, of who Cole is and what he does in his off-hours all along. That might have justified the emphasis on cut-scenes and dialogue rather than how disconnected they are from who you’re playing as. Probably this is a result of hard choices between giving the players a guy they can mold themselves to, an everyman, and letting Cole have his own personality. Within this conflict, if it existed and it seems to, too much is lost until Jack Kelso steps in and you can finally see Cole separate as a character from his role as player avatar. Maybe this was intentional and if so, good move. But again,  it comes too late to save the game from being too riddled with problems and half measures to fully justify itself.