[Some minor L.A. Noire spoilers ahead. No major specifics.]
Danielle and I finished L.A. Noire last night. It was beautiful and engaging, with a few glaring flaws in the plotline* and gameplay, and several smaller problems. The reviews that give it 80-90% are spot on. When Bondi and Rockstar sit down to make the inevitable sequel, a few changes would go a long way:
- First, this setting needs more sandbox elements and a mission structure better suited to them. I understand this isn't a GTA-style open world game, but a simulated mid-century LA this glorious shouldn't feel like it's utterly devoid of anything to do. And since each case begins as soon as you finish the previous one, the few sandbox elements there are must be done during cases, when you should be trying to keep your mind on the evidence. It's bad for gameplay and for immersion when you're sent from dispatch to check out a crime scene, and instead spend a couple hours wandering the city looking for hidden cars and film reels. In the most glaring, frustrating design decision, the game ends without an option to continue exploring the city and completing tasks after finishing the storyline. You can't even go back a step, as the last auto-save point before the end is in the middle of the final action sequence.
- The game's centerpiece, the interview system, needs some work. Too often, the line between "doubt" and "lie" is inscrutable and nonsensical. There are cases where the game ignores a relevant piece of evidence, or expects you to make a perplexing leap of logic ("You can't prove I knew about that!" "You lie! Here's some proof that it happened!"). Sometimes multiple pieces of evidence contradict the testimony, but the game considers only one correct. This is less of a big deal because the game is so forgiving of incorrect answers, but that's another problem all its own: the system is so forgiving of mistakes that it starts feeling like it doesn't matter what you do. The only reward for good work is more stars on your case report.
- On a fiddlier note, the order of operations in the interviews needs to be changed. The current "lie" system runs like this: [accuse of lying] [suspect demands proof] [select evidence from list] [suspect breaks down]. This means that, in story terms, the suspect only ever challenges you when you have the evidence to show he's lying. If you don't have that evidence (meaning you'll select "doubt" instead of "lie", the same suspect will just break down without defying you. It also means generally cooperative suspects who are just being a bit evasive will suddenly get uncharacteristically defiant and demanding, but only when their lies can be objectively contradicted. It's a small issue but a distracting one, and the fix is as easy as having the player select the evidence right after selecting "lie", without intervening dialogue. The scripted dialogue can then play out the interaction however the writer thinks is best.
- Again, I know this is a narrative game, not a sandbox. But cutting back a bit on all the cutscenes and warping to destinations would go a long way to making the game feel more interactive, even if the story structure is identical. Can I walk my own character through the interaction or drive him to the destination myself? Then let me.
- The police-procedural story was great as a departure from the norm, and really helped to set L.A. Noire apart, but it's also very limiting. Switching to a private detective story (a possibility set up very naturally by this game's storyline) would give a lot more freedom for open-world elements, and relieve a few minor frustrations, like picking up better weapons only to revert automatically to the service pistol at the end of a mission.**
- Include dead eye. All games should have dead eye, from Tetris to Professor Layton.
[* - A fall from grace is a great dramatic device, as long as it has the context to make it seem appropriate to the character, and ideally it should either lead to redemption or make a statement about the character's character. If the fall involves the character's family, it would be nice if we could at least see them before it plays out. Up until the twist in the story, I suspected Phelps was lying about being married.]
[** - Or in the middle. It was very frustrating to be fighting multiple enemies, finally get my hands on a Thompson or BAR, go into a cutscene, and come out of it with the new gun gone.]