Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s game goes against the grain of many of our choices; neither a massive franchise nor a forgotten diamond-in-the-rough, but a modest success that was cut off at the knees.
#29. L.A. NOIRE, by Damien Lawardorn
L.A. Noire may be Rockstar Games’s most out-of-character title ever, but that comes down to the fact that it was not developed by the house that Grand Theft Auto built, rather by Australian developer Team Bondi. Absent are the self-aware satire, penchant for excess, ultraviolence, and misanthropy. In their stead is a game that plays itself as straight as its upstanding veteran-turned-police-officer protagonist, Cole Phelps.
After returning from World War II as a decorated hero, Cole joins the Los Angeles Police Department (L.A.P.D.), quickly becoming a poster boy thanks to his proficiency as a detective and unimpeachable character. However, the job is not one suited to a paragon. The force is rife with corruption, and moral ambiguity can seem the best way to get ahead.
Nevertheless, Cole forges forward, dedicated to the tenets of truth, justice, and all the qualities deemed most virtuous. As he does so, he uncovers a sprawling crime racket that links street drugs to murders and a massive insurance scam, encompassing many of the cases that he works on alongside the player. The intricacy of the interconnectedness of this investigation is jaw-dropping, but one area that might have benefitted from deeper treatment is Cole’s personal journey.
Later in the game, the star detective becomes embroiled in a personal scandal that damages his reputation. However, players receive only the barest glimpse of this series of events. For all of its literally game-changing effects, Cole’s personal life dangles just outside the player’s ken, and L.A. Noire suffers—ever so slightly, perhaps—from this lack.
As valid as that critique may be, one thing that must be remembered is that developer Team Bondi never aimed to tell a personal story.
Rather, as the name implies, L.A. Noire is about a city, a time, and a mood. In this respect, the game is an undeniable triumph, every part of the world dripping with a mixture of post-war hope and existential dread. Grand theft auto, violent murder, statutory rape, and much more; the game shies away from little in its depiction of a city of devils.
The cases that comprise Cole’s time with the L.A.P.D.—across the Traffic, Homicide, Vice, and Arson desks—draw from news reports of the time. This incorporation of fact enhances the fiction, bringing it to vivid life and lending each investigation a sense of truth. As a result, any potential sense of tedium that may arise from the processes of investigation and interrogation falls to the wayside, subsumed into the heady hunt for that most elusive of things: the truth.
Nevertheless, the question of whether the game would have outstayed its welcome without that veneer of realism is doubtworthy. Admittedly, the find-a-word style of investigation at crime scenes could have been spruced up more often, but they are only ever the first step. The game shines when Cole walks up to a witness or tracks down his perp. At the time of release, much was made of the revolutionary MotionScan technology: a 32-camera set-up that captured every nuance and tick of the actors’ facial expressions, which were then transferred wholesale into the game. Technology has improved since then, but no other developer has sought to use motion capture to invest the player into the experience in quite the same way.
Here, in the interrogations, the player becomes complicit in Cole’s mission. No longer the action hero, the gamer becomes the active observer, watching every movement for the telltale signs of truth or lies and responding accordingly. However, Cole—at least in the original release—got a little weird during interrogations. When pushed to doubt the witnesses, he would often lash out, his responses sometimes seeming almost sociopathic.
After release, creative director Brendan McNamara remarked on this dissonance, revealing that the prompts were changed late in development. Players of the more recent PlayStation 4, Switch, and Xbox One ports were lucky enough to have those prompts changed from “Truth,” “Doubt,” and “Lie” to the more fitting “Good Cop,” “Bad Cop,” and “Accuse,” in just one of the examples of how remasters are capable of improving on their source products beyond just updating the visuals.
Regardless of the update, in some ways, this snafu may be read as symbolic of the reportedly shambolic production cycle. A prominent criticism of Team Bondi (which has since recurred in other Rockstar products) revolved around alleged unjust work practices, including excessive crunch time and the failure to provide credit to approximately 130 people who were involved in the game’s creation. The problems went further, though: a seven-year development, a change in publisher from Sony to Rockstar, a stream of delays, rumours that Rockstar wrested creative control from McNamara late in the process.
A lesser game might have been crippled or even killed by these setbacks, but L.A. Noire proved to be Sisyphus successful. The game launched to a rapturous reception, generally lauded by critics and becoming the best-selling new IP in gaming history—a record it would hold until the 2014 launch of Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs.
However, the success was not enough to save Team Bondi. One of Australia’s last major studios, the team moved on to the controversially named spiritual successor Whore of the Orient, which promised to explore a corruption-ridden 1930s Shanghai. By that time, the death spiral had already begun. Team Bondi was sold to film production company Kennedy Miller Mitchell (Happy Feet, Mad Max) and later almost silently put out of its misery.
Since then, the L.A. Noire name has been dredged up from the depths, remastered and also repackaged as a VR experience, but absent of any apparent movement to move the IP forward. Once upon a time, Rockstar indicated that the franchise was important in the publisher’s portfolio, but nothing has yet arisen and, given Rockstar’s development rate, nothing will likely appear for years yet.
And that may be the biggest crime of all.
Even though crime video games are never rare (and might as well have grown up along with the medium) the inimitable L.A. Noire cannot be said to be similar to many others. That said, these games were not left behind with the failure of Team Bondi, and several other crime sagas, gangster stories and such have since carried the torch: if not in technology, than at least in cinematic ambition.
Sleeping Dogs was more the traditional kind of Grand Theft Auto-derived open world gangster game, but from the perspective of an undercover cop. Set in Hong Kong, the game brought with it visual inspiration from Asian crime stories rather than the standard American ones. Unfortunately, positive reception and millions of copies sold were not enough to offset much larger costs incurred by Square Enix in acquiring the game (Sleeping Dogs began as a new entry in the True Crime series) and promoting it as a mega-blockbuster.
With two predecessors that were as close to L.A. Noire as anything 2K Games released—being both praised for highly scripted, cinematic stories and criticised for their empty open-worlds—Mafia III was a departure, developed by a new studio and taking an approach inspired by Far Cry‘s outposts and Shadow of Mordor‘s Nemesis system. The game sold much better than Sleeping Dogs, but apparently not enough to guarantee a Mafia IV. Still, Hangar 13’s work was praised for being one of the most detailed works of historical fiction in video games.
Fans of the Yakuza series were excited to hear of Judgment, the Yakuza team’s new IP that puts players in the shoes of a Japanese detective. Having been received rather well at its initial release last year, the English-language version of this investigative drama will release later in 2019.
And of course, players can always find solace in the excellent Red Dead Redemption 2.
Thanks for joining us again for a look at our favourite games. Next week, a totally different franchise at a very different speed—in the meantime, why not share your own favourite one-hit-wonders like L.A. Noire? As always, you can keep locked to OnlySP on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.