It was on a whim that I decided to play L.A. Noire and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney simultaneously. One game arrived via preorder on its release date while the other was chosen by the GameFly algorithm that always sends the game that least interests me. I wanted to play Phoenix Wright because I was blown away by Shu Takumi’s more recent Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. I wanted to play L.A. Noire because it’s a goddamned Rockstar game. Little did I know I’d be drawing so many parallels between the two.
While L.A. Noire is often billed as original, its core gameplay is nearly identical to Phoenix Wright. That is, gathering evidence through a rigid adventure game format and then using that evidence to find contradictions in a suspect’s statements. Where the games diverge is how they perform in execution.
Phoenix Wright is fascinating (like all of Takumi’s games) in how far it stretches the definition of a video game. Most of your time with the game is spent reading. When arguments for interactive fiction are tossed around, these games should be prime examples. It’s not because how much story there is or how little you’re actually playing, but how none of that matters because it’s compelling.
L.A. Noire’s interrogation sequences offer similar moments that stretch the definition of a game. Often, I’d put the controller down to contemplate my next move for minutes at a time. When I played with friends, the truth/doubt/lie decision turned into a debate almost completely removed from the game. Forget the controller—we weren’t even looking at the screen anymore.
These were the best moments of L.A. Noire. They make the stories of Team Bondi’s seven-year struggle and questionable working conditions seem like a pursuit of the new and worthwhile. That’s why L.A. Noire is so frustrating: a great idea is nearly suffocated under the crushing weight of mainstream appeal and a big budget. What should have been a work of art is reduced to the mundane.
Phoenix Wright has its own set of problems. For one, it’s a bit too silly for anyone to take seriously. It’s also rigid and linear. Get the wrong answer and you’re penalized; get the right one and the plot trucks along, simple as that. But it’s a game so sure of itself that I can’t help but compare the two. Phoenix Wright isn’t ever afraid that it might bore you. L.A. Noire, on the other hand, treats its players like they have ADD, tossing in bits of Ritalin in the form of borderline-insulting action sequences.
The core gameplay of L.A. Noire is in the crime scenes and interrogation sequences. However, you also spend much of your time driving from location to location in a lifeless, methodical recreation of 1940s Los Angeles. You also engage in cover-based shooting sequences, and every once in a while you’ll piece together clues through hilariously contrived puzzles. The game loves on-foot chase sequences, showing off its pole-climbing, fence-vaulting, and stairwell-running animations as much as possible.
If you stray from the main path, there are nearly one hundred cars that someone surely spent years creating. Unfortunately, they all control too loosely to take seriously. This, especially with Rockstar’s influence, is surprising as they nailed the driving controls in GTA IV. Why does this matter if driving isn’t the focus? Because driving in L.A. Noire turns the game into a tragic cartoon. If the game’s face-scanning technology scales the valley of innovation like a pro, the driving sections send it tumbling back down to the bottom.
My question is if Team Bondi and Rockstar weren’t willing to nail the driving controls, why have them at all? If they couldn’t go the extra mile in immersing you in the open world, why bother offering it? Obviously, a ton of time was spent crafting these elements, and it’s tragic that they’re lacking, but I think if they weren’t there it would be a much better game.
Consider Phoenix Wright. In that game, you’re never thrust into random action sequences. You move to each location through a menu, and your options are to investigate or talk. It’s simple, but thanks to a compelling mystery and a focus on the investigative gameplay, it’s fun and even exciting.
The same is true of L.A. Noire. The most engaging moments come from talking to suspects, investigating crime scenes, and exposing a killer. While the game makes much of the action parts optional, it also sprinkles them into the cases, turning a car chase or shootout into a cheap resolution of the mystery. Am I supposed to feel good when I catch a killer but run over three pedestrians in the process?
Normally I wouldn’t call for limiting the scope of any game, but here it would have made for a richer experience. Imagine if, instead of a huge city, you were limited to specific areas. What if you never drove at all? What if the rare shootouts happened via cutscenes, or even better, Cole Phelps simply never fired his weapon? That may sound boring, but what if that narrow focus allowed for more non-linear cases? What if you could ask more detailed questions and Team Bondi spent more time testing and polishing the interrogation sequences? What if pinpointing the wrong suspect in a case led the story down a different path instead of yielding a score penalty?
Now I didn’t spend any time at Team Bondi, nor do I know anything about their process. The direction they took L.A. Noire could have been the only one they’d ever considered or the only one they could successfully pull off. But maybe—just maybe—they had something bolder in mind. I have to hope there was a more admirable goal that was damaged by an inflated budget and too big expectations. I have to hope this because between the lazy shootouts and sloppy driving, L.A. Noire had the potential to be one of the most subtle and mature games in history.