Thursday, 29 March 2012

A Requiem for Cole Phelps

L.A. Noire is a great game, but it feels like a greater game was sacrificed to make it. The gameplay is simply standard GTA style driving and shooting with the exception of the interrogation. The interrogations are both the best part of the game and yet they are also the game's greatest weakness. The game can be seen as Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy to Americans) done right. A story focused game carried by a strong script and excellent voice work by professional actors.

A Thousand Stories in the Naked City

The player takes the role of Cole Phelps, a former marine in the Japanese theater of World War II and a recent addition to the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department. At first Cole seems like another bland white male, but slowly he is reviled as a little more complex of a character. His stern morals are more in line with 21st century outlook then the middle 20th century world he lives in. His subtle disdain towards the rampant chauvinism and racism endears him to the player and creates subtle conflicts with the people around him. He never develops into a very complex character, but as we learn about his experience in the war, we discover he is a flawed man trying to come to term with his failures and ambitions. Sadly, we are given barely a glimpse into his life beyond these flashbacks. His wife appears on screen only once for a few seconds, despite the fact that his relationship with her plays a significant part in the plot. His personal life is a mystery as well as the reasons for his choice of lovers. The game paints him as the unintended catalyst to some of the greatest plot events, yet avoids the immense dramatic potential of revealing it to Cole himself. We are thus left with a character who has a devastating effect on the people around him, yet is seldom touched by their actions in turn. Unfortunately this does not seem as a calculated effort to create a tragedy in which the protagonist is unaware of his role, but rather an unintended result of a hasty trim to a much more complex and grandiose story.
The open city in which the game takes place doesn't has the gameplay to justify it's existence. The game could have function just as well without the ability to drive from the police station to the crime scenes or to any other location in the city. There are some hidden collectables and various cars, but collecting them has no game-play advantage or significance. The chase sequence and trailing segments might have served as justification if they were not as restrictive and linear as they are. Escaping persons and vehicles always follow the same route and there is no real advantage to the sandbox-like city in any of the action sequences. What it does though is provide a layer of realism and immersion. Pedestrians talk about your exploits when you're around and react to your driving. It still feels like a wasted aspect of the gameplay, and many times I took advantage of the option to reach my destination automatically and instantly, since there was no reason to navigate the streets on my own.

Phelps grills an old woman for information. A common situation for the diligent detective.

Three Simple Questions
The heart of L.A. Noire is the Interrogations. Here the game gets to shine with amazingly detailed and complex faces, animated in a realistic way and allowing the actors to make the most out of their performances. And yet it also the stage of the games' greatest missteps. The scenario is always simple: You ask a suspect of a witness a question, he responds and you are given three replay options: Lie, Doubt and Truth. These are your responses to the testimony and "Lie"allows you to confront a suspect with evidence. Only one choice will reveal more clues and information. And you only get one chance to get it right. The problem is obvious- these are very vague descriptions for the innumerable angles an investigator might choose to confront his opponent. And so many times I was surprised to discover that the game interpreted "Doubt" very differently then I had expected. Or that the "Lie" I was supposed to expose was a detail not directly related to the question.
Another problem is the drastic change of tone Cole might make from question to answer. Sometimes it seems as if Cole adopted the"Good Cop, Bad Cop" routine and decided to play both alternatively. Another less common problem is a disconnection that sometimes pops-up between Cole's conclusions and the Player's. From time to time Cole seems to be ahead of the player or far behind on the trail toward the truth. Which becomes a bit jarring when Cole confront a suspect with an unexpected theory or when Cole doesn't ask the right questions when the player already deduced the solution. These are thankfully rare, but do expose the limitation of the game.
The game tends to forgives the player's mistake and keeps the story rolling even if the player missed a clue or has chosen the wrong response. So failing an interrogation is frustrating but doesn't impedes the progress of the story. The problem is that unlike other challenges in the game, the interrogation scenes are really the only realm where you are immediately penalized. A chase scene will allow you to close the distance to your quarry even if you took a wrong turn, you can wander around a crime scene as long as you like to inspect potential clues. But if you choose the wrong response in an interrogation, your only option is to exit and reload your game and try it all over again.

A dead body and a head full of questions: A common opening for many fascinating cases in Cole's career.

 M is for Murder
Noire is divided into five parts representing Cole's career. Patrol is a series of well done tutorials, Traffic has you investigating abandoned cars and road accidents, Homicide is about solving murders, Vice is where the story really picks up and finally Arson is where the plot enters the last act. Of the four major chapter, Homicide is the best in my opinion, and yet it has almost nothing to do with the overall plot.
It is an aberration. Much of the chapter focuses on a serial killer. And this is where Cole really works as a character. He is already established as an overqualified cop. He is intelligent, fluent in Japanese, quotes poetry and the occasional Latin phrase, all of which contribute to his failure to endear himself to his co-workers. They see him as smug and patronizing and naturally resent his rapid rise through the ranks. And then comes the serial killer, and Cole is suddenly the only cop equipped to deal with him. The killer is an intelligent madman who communicates in prose, and Cole matches his wits against this illusive adversary.
Unfortunately what could have been epic, feels rushed. Every murder in this chapter is linked to the serial killer and the final confrontation against him resolves itself too quickly to satisfy. The killer's identity is another aspect that gets glossed over and despite the dramatic potential he is not revealed to be a person with which Cole had significant contact before.
The Arson chapter again feels rushed. Here events that were only hinted at previously suddenly take the center stage. The major plot developments that took place in the Vice chapter, take a peripheral role as the plot changes focus unexpectedly. The man who I suspected to be the leading villain turns out to be part of a group of villains and towards the end he is dispatched and another character becomes the focus of the finale. Similarly the game which previously progressed the grand plot elements slowly, suddenly rushes to tie them all up rather ungracefully.
The conspiracy hinted at throughout the game, now reveals itself to the characters with a propaganda film. Yes, the conspirators operating in the shadows decided for some unknown reason to film their sinister meeting, edit in a commercial oriented opening and leave the film reel in a working projector inside an abandoned warehouse for the protagonist to find. This is as blunt and as ridicules as I describe I assure you.
The ending is dark and morose. But not wholly unsatisfactory. After the credits we are treated with a much more powerful scene of one of the events that drove much of the plot throughout the last two chapters of the game. There we are given a new tragic angle when we learn how Cole again served as a catalyst to events that will haunt him. And we are also hear a much more comforting message as the final words of the story.

Smile! You are the star of a crime scene.
I spent almost 40 hours playing L.A. Noire. A player that prefers to rush through it might finish it in less then 20. Players who will take the time to collect the optional cars and street crime might manage to stretch it to 60 hours. I found myself postponing the ending, playing in small chunks to prolong the experience. And thus I must admit that despite my critique, I enjoyed Noire very much. And yet, I cannot shake the feeling that I was playing in the skeleton remains of a much more ambitious project. One that had a much more complicated plot and that would have used the vast cast of characters it surrounded you with for more then window dressing. Somewhere there might have been a game where the player knew Cole's wife as a full character and where the serial killer played a significant part in the overall plot. I find myself imagining Noire taking full advantage of the sandbox city gameplay, giving you reason and opportunity to explore the setting.
The studio behind Noire is rumored to have experienced quite a bit of trouble through the development of the game. And so, I find it easy to imagine how sacrifices led Noire to become what it it. And ultimately, it is a good game with a very good script, a relatively original setting and dialog technique as well as some of the best acting ever seen in a video game.