Feb 6, 2012

REVIEW: L.A. Noire

I’m running late. I’m supposed to be somewhere on the other side of downtown Los A

L.A. Noire

I’m running late.

I’m supposed to be somewhere on the other side of downtown Los Angeles, investigating the death of a young model from an overdose of morphine. She was meant to have drowned in the bath, but the marks on her arms and neck suggested otherwise. I should have had a few leads from the woman who discovered her body, the housecleaner Mrs. Reynoldson, but I made mistakes. I believed her when I had evidence of a lie. Mrs. Reynoldson just wanted to protect the dead woman’s reputation, but I failed to push her in the right direction. The man I control, Detective Cole Phelps, is not a subtle interrogator.

So now I’m on the other side of town, driving my partner’s brand new (it’s 1947) Cadillac Series 62 Convertible down one of Los Angeles’ main arteries. The traffic is terrible, but not the bumper-to-bumper way we imagine of contemporary Los Angeles. The drivers move without noticing me, through my lane, cutting me off and slowing me down. It’s like I don’t exist.

“It’s more fun with the siren on,” says my partner, Vice Detective Roy Earle. Suddenly, I do exist, a blunt force instrument that people get out of the way of. I pull out on the wrong side of the road to overtake a Ford Sedan, but another car turns through an upcoming intersection without warning, heading straight towards me.

We have a head-on collision. The driver gets out of his car, hands on hips, and starts yelling. Cole Phelps drives on.

I’m running late.


This review is eight months overdue. L.A. Noire was released in May last year, and since then, it’s become a figure of division. Upon release, opinions of the game were split fairly evenly between those who loved the game’s openly referential cinematic style, and those who loathed the unclear limits of the trinary interrogation system (players only have three possible responses to any witness under interrogation – truth, doubt, or lie). The game’s reputation took a further hit by proxy when reports about an unethical workplace environment surfaced, and finally, when L.A. Noire’s developers, Team Bondi, went into administration.

In those intervening eight months, L.A. Noire and I have had an awkward relationship. For most of it, I’ve been sitting on my hands, unsure or unable to say anything of interest about the game. For the videogame world, so often focussed on an agile and forgetful news cycle, it is a strange thing to write a review eight months after a game was released. Opinions are formed quickly. The pack rarely lingers.

But for eight months, I’ve been watching, and I’ve been driving. L.A. Noire is a slow game. Here is a slow review.


Back in the Cadillac Series 62, Cole Phelps is fleeing the scene of the head-on collision. The detailed, verisimilitudinous scenery flows past without any need for comment, as though each individual building didn’t take some poor worker at Team Bondi many hours to perfect. It’s just there, just like how the real Los Angeles is just there. It spreads impossibly outwards, a super-network of roads and dwellings. The labour of carpenters is difficult to comprehend when you’ve just seen two thousand California bungalows in a row.

What L.A. Noire doesn’t say on its box is that most of your time with Cole Phelps will be spent driving. At a point, driving ceases being a punctuation mark, an ellipsis between interrogations and short bursts of action, and becomes a core component of the game. For the most part, L.A. Noire is a car driving simulator set in 1947 Los Angeles. The driving sequences are mostly skippable, but once you get into a rhythm with them, they become defining.

Driving is the surface and the current of L.A. Noire. The traditional Rockstar GPS system of navigation from the Grand Theft Auto games has been ditched for a more setting-appropriate waypoint system. It transfigures the streets of Los Angeles from the anonymous lines on a map that they would’ve been into great barriers that shape your movement even as you try to close on your target.

Driving is the game’s flow; L.A. Noire’s drifting, ebbing lack of a gravitational pull. L.A. Noire is far from a boring game, but it is meandering. It is decentred.

All videogames have rhythms, and so do the people that play them. Many are quick. Some are even rapid-fire, the staccato frequency of actions and responses calculated to achieve a form of sensory overload.

Many, like L.A. Noire, are long. The traditional Role-Playing Game, which, in its Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) manifestation, takes on a rhythm not dissimilar to that of an occupation. People play these games with a regularity of effort that mirrors work, performing endless repetitions of simple tasks, busywork that holds the promise of eventual reward.

But L.A. Noire is unusual. It is slow.

Read on for more of our L.A. Noire review.

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18 thoughts on “REVIEW: L.A. Noire

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    […] something about L.A. Noire that lends itself to incredibly intricate and pensive writing, and Daniel Golding’s post on it at his Crikey blog Game On is no exception. Though Golding calls it a “review” and […]

  5. Mike Jones

    Hello gentlemen gamers. I’m a fan of hardboiled writers like Chandler and although I’ve worked in IT for 30 years, I’ve not been interested in games since an early binge on Zork (1980). So little time. So this discussion is interesting at two levels – whether game play in the milieu of noire is in anyway more satisfying than reading, particularly since you say it’s slow work. We can go right across town and back in a page of reading.

    Your discussion above seems really into the genre and it raises questions in my mind about what the difference might be between police procedurals, gumshoes, noire, hardboiled crime. Parts of each, the other ?

    ….. and if there is a canon within the genre….

    Thanks for an interesting discussion.

  6. jazzy

    Good review, it’s a brilliant game and a wonderfully created world by the Aussie guys… pity about some of the other palaver surrounding the release / development.

    Shouldn’t detract from a game that is what a game should be. It transports you so effectively to another fantastical place that is utterly convincing.

    Apart from Phelps’ turning circle when running. Or the controller buzzing whenever you’re near a clue. I kept checking my phone.

  7. Daniel Golding

    John – yep, as Ruprecht says, each case is anywhere between 30-90 mins. I’d say on average, especially once the game locks into its rhythm, each case is roughly 40-50 mins, and you’re locked in more or less until it finishes. Though I can’t imagine wanting to stop in the middle of a case.

    Also interesting that you should mention real life parallels – many of the cases in L.A. Noire are inspired by real events, discovered from newspaper clippings of the era. Lends it a certain edge.

  8. Ruprecht

    Hi John,

    In LA Noire you play 1 case at a time, each case can take between 30-90 minutes.

    You can’t save in the middle of a case, but you can fast travel to locations, instead of driving, and if you fail an action sequence a few times you can skip it.

    I would say it is suitable for occasional play.

  9. John Reidy

    Great review, and I throughly agree with the delay in writing it, especially for a game of this complexity.
    I haven’t played it (I am PC only), and the PC release was late last year, so it isn’t that out of date…

    Given the slow pace of the game does it support occasional (say half hour play), several times a week? Or is it too hard to pick up from where you left off.

    On my recent OS trip, I spent 2 days in LA. On the first morning, I sat with a cup of coffee in a diner and read the Jan 24 issue of the Orange Country Register, on the front page…

    Millionaire’s girlfriend guilty
    [SANTA ANA The woman at the center of a love triangle was convicted of murder Monday for persuading her young, athletic lover to kill her rich, older boyfriend in 1994 for financial gain.
    Nanette Johnston, 46, showed no reaction when court clerk Laura Hoyle read the verdicts: guilty of first-degree murder and guilty of the special circumstance of committing murder for financial gain.

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  11. Mr Ak

    Especially when it mostly appropriates them on a structural level, rather than a mechanical one.

  12. Mr Ak

    Ahhh. I agree that noir is a broad genre, but I’d argue that there are enough specific stylistic touchstones for it to still be comprehensible *as* a genre, with a broad set of expectations and tropes and choices. And that LA Noire appropriates enough of these (and does so poorly enough) for me to classify that as part of why it fails for me.

    That said, I’d agree that it’s actually not that interesting angle an to take.

  13. Daniel Golding

    Rich Uncle Skeleton – incoming, but I’m going to have to finish my review of Pong first.

    Ruprecht – it’s funny, because some people I’ve spoken to hate the Dahlia parts and love the end, and others, like you, are the opposite. I think I’m a mixture. I enjoy the plain references to film noir classics at the end (i.e. the insurance office from Double Indemnity), but I like the tension of the Dahlia cases very much too. I agree though, that the action is pretty weak throughout. The shootout at the set of Intolerance in particular.

    Mr Ak – thanks for such a thoughtful comment! I do see your point, and there are probably a lot of hallmarks of noir that the game just plain forgets. The lighting is sporadic, and effective at times, but absent at others, while the black and white mode looks like an afterthought.

    I think ultimately, my point is that analysing the game through a lens of noir is just not ever going to be very interesting. Even if the game was unequivocally drawing on the best of noir in new ways (which it isn’t, certainly), I don’t think it would be very interesting, because noir is such a broad thing. Comparing what is essentially a police procedural game with elements of a hard-boiled to a cinematic genre that can include things as diverse as Blade Runner and Notorious just isn’t very helpful. If you want to criticise the game for lacking a human touch in the characters (which I don’t necessarily think is a defining feature of noir, by the way – and also I think is something that is provided in the game by Kelso), then criticise it for just that, rather than through a constructed lens of noir.

    I think genres are useful tools, don’t get me wrong. I’m particularly excited by genre analyses of Red Dead Redemption as a western, actually. I even think genre criticisms of L.A. Noire through the lens of police procedural, or gumshoe, or a gangster tropes could be interesting. But noir is just so broad that you have to work pretty hard to make even basic assumptions stick. It’s too much work for little gain.

  14. Ruprecht

    Mr Ak, that’s nice summation of how LA Noire mimics the noir “look n feel” without really understanding it — like when pre-teen singers do cover versions of raunchy love songs.

  15. Mr Ak

    Crap. I meant Sidney Falco, not J J Hunsecker. Tony Curtis.

  16. Mr Ak

    God damn you Golding, now I want to go and play LA Noire again. And I hated LA Noire. You dirty son of a bitch. (Can I say these things on Crikey? I’m saying these things on Crikey.)

    Loved the review.

    That said, I couldn’t disagree more strongly about the relevance of the noir genre as a useful analytical tool for discussing the game (even if arguing film with you is like bringing a knife to a gunfight.)

    Sure, noir as a genre as amorphous at best. It’s German expressionism mixed with jazz, stories from the hardboiled pulps, fast production schedules and the Hollywood studio system. Probably half a dozen other ingredients I’m not even aware of.

    But there’s a one thing that’s pretty consistently true across the best of the genre. It’s the humanity of the protagonists. It’s John Huston covering the girl’s eyes at the end of Chinatown. Or the point at which Jack Nicholson can’t bring himself to ask the next question in the final interrogation of Faye Dunaway. Or the despicable J J Hunsecker walking alone in New York city while the traffic flashes past him and below him in The Sweet Smell of Success. Often the techniques of noir are focused around this central image of the human as both flawed and vulnerable.

    Phelps is neither.

    Well, I suppose he is flawed. But in the sense that he’s an incoherent psychopath, not a broken and desperate human being. He’s the centre of a world which clearly exists just for him, and which will allow any behaviour, no matter how bizarre. He’s the best cop on the force, but he’s also an idiot who can’t see even the most obvious connections. He’s full of contradictions, but not in any interesting way. He’s full of contradictions because it’s a badly thought-out game.

    And as for vulnerable, just look at the end sequence, one clearly referencing the tunnel scenes in both the Third Man and the lesser-known The Naked City. But there’s one crucial difference. In the Naked City, the killer is running, fleeing the sound of splashing feet and the bright light of torches in LA’s sewer tunnels. In LA Noire, Cole Phelps just meanders along, shooting everybody.

    Actually, there’s two reasons if you include the fact that the lighting model in LA Noire doesn’t accentuate light and shadow well enough for the scene to have even a faint chance working well enough for the visual style to be effective. And I suppose that’s the other reason why the Noir part of LA Noire is meaningful for its discussion.

    It tries.

    At a level of consistency that would be the envy of professional athletes (except the 2007-2011 Geelong Cats), it adopts the forms and tools of noir film and hardboiled fiction but fails to understand how they actually work, what they’re actually for.

    Sorry, I’m ranting. Good piece, disagree about the noir part.

  17. Ruprecht

    Nice piece, I especially liked the discussion on jazz.

    As you alluded to in your review, the action parts were the weakest link in the playing experience. Unfortunately, they ramp up the action in the second half while the investigative part flatlines. I think the game peaks with the Black Dahlia-esque cases then declines into tedium.

  18. Rich Uncle Skeleton

    Look forward to your Quake 2 review.

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