Last week, we started playing L.A. Noire on Kotaku’s Twitch channel. It’s a 2011 detective game with a lot of cases to solve. Recently, we finished the cases for the traffic detective desk. It’s a good introduction to the game that also has a few problems.
In L.A Noire you play as Cole Phelps, an enterprising veteran of World War II now working for the Los Angeles police department. Phelps’ intelligence as a beat cop earns him a promotion to detective, working to solve traffic-related crimes. This is the first portion of the game; every so often Phelps will get shuffled or promoted to a new position in the department. There are homicide cases, vice stings, and arson investigations later on. The initial traffic cases are straightforward: a car full of blood turns out to be a scheme for an estranged husband to flee with his lover. An apparent vehicular manslaughter is a cover up in a plot to cash in on a life insurance policy. Many of these early missions are easy to solve, which gives a sense of forward momentum thanks to their relative brevity. A final case with a dark crime adds some emotional depth and navigates issues of sexual violence with appropriate seriousness. But for all that the traffic desk does right, it also has some missteps.
L.A. Noire uses MotionScan technology, which records facial performances with over thirty high quality cameras. While this allows the main cast of skilled actors like Aaron Staton, John Noble, and Keith Szarabajka to bring their characters to life, the performance in smaller roles are far less nuanced and believable. L.A. Noire is a game about finding the truth, and a large part of this is knowing when a suspect is lying to you during interrogation. You do this by reading their facial expressions, which are rendered in great detail via MotionScan. In order to make the early missions easy, some performances are a wide range of caricature and soap operatic wailing. It’s silly and overblown. It isn’t until the final case that behavior gets more subtle.
Traffic desk manages to sneak a few climactic gunfights into the mix, including a massive shoot out on a movie set for the final case. However, while L.A. Noire might initially seem like “GTA but as a cop,” it’s really an adventure game with a few action segments. As a result, the gunfights are some of the worst parts of the game.. Aiming sensitivity is stiff, making it feel like every gun is drenched in molasses, while the massive body count feels at odds with the seriousness of the rest of the cases. It’s possible to skip these scenes if you fail three times, but a smaller scale would have felt more natural for the first desk.
Every desk assigns Cole to a new partner, and traffic’s partner is largely forgettable. Stefan Bekowsky is a fast-talking jokester who is supposed to foil the much more serious Phelps, but it never really works out. His character falls flat, with jokes that never quite land and no real character arc. Bekowsky is a static character and traffic desk takes a hit because of it.
In spite of these early weaknesses, L.A. Noire has a wonderful sense of place, a haunting score, and the raw investigative work is compelling. Traffic desk is a brisk introduction to the game, but it’s missing some of the nuance that makes the rest of the game so compelling. I loved solving the cases, but I’m glad to take my promotion and move on.