LA Noire can only get better

, | Games

The only thing consistent about Rockstar’s games is that they’re wildly inconsistent. There’s something manic about the company’s swings from excellence to amateurish, from smart to clumsy, from transcendent to boorish, often in the same game. Red Dead Redemption, for instance, is a sprawling saga of uneven brilliance that I wouldn’t dream of commenting on without acknowledging that the conclusion is very nearly one of the most brilliant conclusions ever to grace a videogame, except for the fact that it turns out it isn’t at all. Grand Theft Auto IV is a collapsing triumph of storytelling, presenting one of the most vividly realized videogame characters before dropping him into some low-rent goombah yarn and then abandoning him entirely for two middling add-ons, presumably because Rockstar is too arrogant to concede the importance of their fantastic voice actors. San Andreas was a stunning technical achievement undermined by an absurd Bond in the Hood endgame. Midnight Club: Los Angeles is one of the most amazing virtual cities ever created and then hidden away in a goofy arcade racing game that no one played because it didn’t have the marketing confidence that went into, say, Electronic Arts’ lousy Need for Speed franchise. As for that ping pong game, well, who ever even played that thing, much less realized it was a Rockstar game? Then there’s Bully, which is a work of unadulterated genius.

So when LA Noire arrived at 9am this morning, I greeted it with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. And now, having spent an entire Monday with it, I’m ready to pronounce it…

After the jump, I’ll finish that sentence

A colossal disappointment. A dull, flat, open world where “open” means mostly linear and mostly empty. A tedious exercise in how not to realize a classic genre like film noire or detective fiction. An adventure game that combines the obtuse puzzles and pixel hunting of Sierra’s Police Quest with the formula of Phoenix Wright, but minus any of that series’ Japanese ebullience. A turgid implausible procedural featuring bull-in-a-china-shop detectives rummaging through inconsequential stuff when they’re not playing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire styled guessing games that stand in for investigations. Seriously, you can even poll the audience (i.e. people who’ve registered for Rockstar Social Club). It’s absurd.

Gunfights that seem to exist for no other reason than because Rockstar can sense the game is dragging. Also, canned chases. So many canned chases. Rockstar simply can’t leave this convention alone. The fleeing car or the escaping suspect will always and only go along its preordained path, and you cannot knock it off the road or shoot the suspect unless the game is scripted to let you.

So far, Los Angeles has virtually no personality. Like Mafia II, I get the sense this city is just filler between missions. There are precious few side activities and no sense of any place meaning anything, because the gameplay itself is so limited. The big set piece that should have been spectacular was just a linear run along catwalks. Surely LA Noire is going to open up soon, right? I’m about a third of the way through the game, having finished the first of three separate disks. I can’t imagine it’s just going to keep doing this for two more disks.

I love the facial animation, which does a wonderful job capturing the nuance of how people express their feelings. A bit lip here, a furrowed brow there, a furtive swallow, a glace. Excellent work, Rockstar. If a videogame is going to present puppet theater, then it needs characters this expressive. Whereas The Sims have been doing this with borderline cartoon characters for a while now, LA Noire finally manages this level of expression with realistic characters, who seem to be built from bits and pieces of familiar actors. You can see a little Michael Madsen in one character, and a touch of Guy Pearce in another, and maybe some Daniel Day-Lewis in that character. The faces still have an Oblivion ugly quality. I have yet to meet an attractive woman (What kind of noire doesn’t introduce a femme fatale in the first reel?) and the only child I’ve encountered is an utter freak because this engine apparently can’t do children’s faces. But whatever the shortcomings of the technology, the characters come alive. It goes a long way towards making the writing more palatable, because it creates that rare sense of a virtual performance few games can manage. Bioware and Bethesda, please play LA Noire.

I also adore the score. It’s an evocative mix of jazz and classic soundtracks from noire movies. It’s very present, but not too intrusive. It has color and voice. It belongs, without merely fading into the background. Anyone writing a score for a videogame, please play LA Noire.

As with Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption, a lot of what drives the game is a sense of mystery about the main character. Who is he? What drives him? What does he care about? Why does he feel the way he feels? There are prominent elements of Niko Bellic and John Marston in LA Noire’s main character. However, as bits and pieces are revealed, I’m worried he’s just going to be a rehash of Bellic and Marston. There better be some kind of twist because right now, he’s as bland and unremarkable as can be. Even his name, Cole Phelps, seems to have come from the random lead character name generator.

I got fed up with LA Noire and finally quit for the day when Phelps declared his progressive outlook during a flashback scene. He takes a break from a battle flashback to reprimand a soldier for being disrespectful to the Japanese. Phelps explains that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor not because they hate our way of life, but because we cut off their oil. And, Phelps asks, how would we feel if our oil got cut off?

I shouldn’t mind this little bit of storytelling, but I do. I can almost feel the reverberations from the writers at Rockstar slapping themselves on the back for putting such a progressive concept in their game. And, yeah, we did cut off a lot of Japan’s oil supply because they were conquering chunks of China and Southeast Asia. That’s kind of an important point, but Rockstar wants to stick some glib point into their game whether it belongs or not, as if we’re too dumb to judge the merits of various social and political issues without Rockstar reminding us that intolerance against Native Americans and Jews is bad, but it’s okay to burn Mexican villages if you’re on a mission and laugh about gay characters on motorscooters called Faggios. Because, hey, the lead character is a good guy who knows the Japanese were just like us. It’s like that scene in a war movie when the soldier finds a photograph of a slain enemy’s sweetheart. ‘Hey, he was just like me!’ the soldier realizes and it’s a good point, even if we’ve been making that same point for thousands of years of writing about war. But this time on a national scale. Where the point fails because, no, we were nothing like the Japanese in World War II when it came to how our nations acted. Instead of demonstrating that the main character is smart and sensitive, now he’s just some anachronistic dope whose idea of the big picture is taking one step back instead of stepping back far enough to actually see the big picture.

Last week I saw a wonderful movie called Meek’s Cutoff. It’s about settlers in Oregon in the 19th Cetury. At one point in the movie, one woman says to another woman that they’re “working like niggers”. At another point, a character thanks another character by saying “that’s mighty white of you”. Both lines are kind of gross to hear, but they make sense, and they’re actually a subtle but important part of what the movie is getting at. And none of the characters who says these gross things is a villain. On the contrary, in fact. Meek’s Cutoff is a historical story with tremendous contemporary relevance, but it doesn’t feel the need to cheat some facile progressive thinking into the story so that we can relate to them.

Granted, it’s not very fair to compare an art house movie to a videogame, but good writing is good writing. And it’s time for videogames to have more of it. For all its badboy image, Rockstar is one of the few developers who could get away with being informative and subversive and relevant, but they continue to play it safe and glib and disingenuously progressive with Gay Tony and anti-Semitic storekeepers getting their just desserts and now sensitivity to the Japanese dilemma in World War II in a story populated almost entirely by perverts, wife-beaters, and borderline — but only borderline! — racists who the main character will continue to rise above. In LA Noire, the trappings of 1946 Los Angeles are reserved for the villains and rogues. Or that’s how it plays so far. We’ll see where it goes over the course of the next two disks.

And that’s really the bottom line for now: we’ll see. This is by no means a final pronouncement, as I’ve got many hours of LA Noire to go. I’ll be writing a full review hopefully by the end of the week. But for now, I find myself wishing I’d done something else with my Monday and I’m not particularly looking forward to going back into this paper thin and safely played noire LA.