Guys in fedoras, old fashioned soda ads, bar matchbooks in elegant fonts— this game has got em’! And a mostly accurate map of 1947 Los Angeles. Rockstar also made some new face scanning technology for L.A. Noire. The faces are really lifelike! But they’re still just a little off, like if a trickster forest spirit made an enchanted mask out of river mud so he could steal human babies. As soon as he gets within ten feet you’re like, “You’re not the midwife! Get away from my baby!” Then you throw salted oak roots in his lying forest spirit face.
You’re supposed to use facial clues to figure out if people are lying in L.A. Noire. For example, if a suspect’s eyes are darting around nervously, they’re lying. If they tug at their tie like Rodney Dangerfield, they’re lying. However, if they wear their tie around their head like a headband, they’re drunk. Or civilization has collapsed and they’ve joined the resistance but didn’t have time to go home and change into shorts.
I botched a lot of interrogations because I gave people the benefit of the doubt too often. Also, every suspect had way too much damning evidence against them. It seemed like I found a bloody tire iron everywhere I went. I was starting to wonder if having a bloody tire iron in your house was fashionable in the 40’s. Hey mister where’d you get your blood-soaked tire iron? I got it on sale at Woolworth’s!
L.A. Noire is all about collecting clues at the crime scene and this is where the game really gets bogged down. The controller vibrates when you get close to a clue, and often it’s something mundane and unrelated to the crime. But I still felt compelled to pick up every clue when the controller vibrated. One time there was a bunch of carrots on a kitchen counter and the game indicated that they might be a clue. And I was thinking, really L.A. Noire? These carrots? You want this LAPD detective to walk over to a bunch of carrots and seriously consider them as part of a criminal investigation? Ok, fine— maybe one of the rabbits from Watership Down did it. Does the rabbit look nervous?
Cole Phelps certainly doesn’t mind putting his bare hands all over the corpses of murder victims. Especially the way he cups their chins and tilts their heads around and rifles through their bloody sport coats. And I know he didn’t wash his hands afterwards because I’m the one controlling him. He didn’t even bother to wipe his hands on his pants! Seems like a man who crouches over dead bodies every day and insists on direct contact with their cold, blood-spattered and lifeless skin would want to rinse up now and again.
Rockstar really seemed to want to emphasize the picking up produce and caressing dead bodies aspects of the game because you don’t have a life meter or any kind of weapons display like in Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto IV. Also, shooting suspects in the back will lose you the case. Or even shooting them in the foot. I lost a few cases where a suspect was fleeing, so I figured what the hell, I’d shoot out their ankle and then get the answers I needed. Nope— you have to run them down and tackle them. My thing is, if I ask someone a few questions about a murder and they start to run away, I’m pretty sure that’s the murderer so why can’t I put a bullet in their leg? Probably because Cole Phelps wouldn’t be able to help himself from crouching over them and running his ungloved hands all over their unconscious bleeding bodies.
So here’s a spoiler about the end of the game. I didn’t like the way you play as Cole Phelps for most of L.A. Noire and then in the game’s final cases you play as Jack Kelso the claims investigator. I understand that Rockstar was trying to purposely chip away at the connection you feel with Cole Phelps. When it’s revealed that he was cheating on his wife during the timeline of the game’s events, it’s just as surprising to the player as anyone else. And when you’re abruptly switched to playing as Kelso, the feeling of control over Phelps slips away and he becomes as unknowable as any other NPC in the game; more like a movie character with his own motivations than a video game avatar.
But because the change in characters is so sudden, it feels more like a bait and switch than an artistic statement. There’s a reason that Super Mario Bros. doesn’t have you play as Mario until World 8 and then make you play as Mario’s old plumbing partner Jeffrey Krasinski. Sure, they have history together but you just put a lot of hours into going on an adventure with Mario and now some new guy gets to knock Bowser in the lava?
Obviously, L.A. Noire is more complex than Super Mario Bros. In L.A. Noire, you throw corrupt Los Angeles government officials into lava. Ultimately, L.A. Noire is beautiful but makes strange choices, like a girl I once dated who yelled at me at a party for not having read T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’. Despite its flaws, I’m happy to pick up and closely examine the odd rutabaga if it means companies like Rockstar will keep putting out thoughtful games targeted at adults. Especially if that rutabaga is served with broiled pork chop. The end!