Warning: This long-ass post contains major spoilers about the plot of L.A. Noire.
My review of L.A. Noire is up now at thephoenix.com. Short version: I thought that the non-interrogation stuff was generally terrible, while the interrogations were a mixed bag. That's what the review focuses on. For a much longer and more complete review that echoes my thoughts almost entirely, I recommend Tom Chick's review at Honest Gamers.
Since I didn't have much more space to devote to the story, I will do so here. Like the gameplay, the story is incredibly uneven. It's got high highs and low lows, and its most impressive storytelling feat is that sometimes those peaks and troughs occur simultaneously.
Although the details of each mystery often stay mysterious, the broad strokes are clear from the start. Of the three larger crimes that you eventually unravel, only the first -- the true identity of the Black Dahlia killer -- comes as any sort of a surprise at its conclusion. The final saga, about greedy property developers, crooked politicians, and a generous interpretation of eminent domain, is the most well-written and absorbing of the three, but it's also evident from the first five minutes of the first case what the conspiracy is.
L.A. Noire shows us things that it shouldn't. Sometimes, you happen upon collectible newspapers that trigger movie clips which further explain the mystery you're solving. This is a major misstep, giving the player far more information than they need to understand the criminal conspiracy, while giving them nothing to help with the details of their investigation. Usually, in a mystery, these things should work the other way around. You should have all the details but not understand how they fit together until the very end.
The most stunning miscalculation in this vein occurs near the end. You find a newsreel clip as part of his investigation, which turns out to be a recording of a secret meeting between the major players in which they all but explain their devious plan while cackling and twisting their mustaches. Unlike the newspapers, this isn't a semi-optional collectible. It's a crucial clue, and necessary for your advancement. This sequence doesn't just hit a false note -- it's like one of those "shreds" videos on YouTube.
In other crucial ways, L.A. Noire withholds details that it should show us. We are supposed to care when a crooked cop uses Phelps' marital infidelity to get him removed from the vice desk. By that time, you may have to stop for a minute to try to remember when you last saw Phelps' wife at all. Oh, right, it was in the first three seconds of the game, when we glimpsed her waving goodbye in a long shot as he left the house for his first day as a patrolman.
Phelps' relationship with his paramour is also underdeveloped, played so coyly that for a long time I thought that something else was going on between them. Nope. It's just that L.A. Noire -- a game which has no problem showing you naked dead women -- has no time for that aspect of its supposedly mature storytelling, not when there's yet another torpid footchase for the player to suffer through. Not that I'm saying I wanted MotionScan-powered sex scenes, necessarily, just that Cole's affair is left so ambiguous that there's no impact when it blows up in his face.
Then again, the narrative structure of the whole game is pretty weird. While investigating a series of murders with a similar M.O., it is a little strange that only Phelps suspects a serial killer, but that's a well-worn trope, especially since there is political pressure to close cases and be done with it. But it is astonishing how many bloody pipe wrenches belonging to non-murderers one can find in the course of a murder investigation.
Flashbacks, shown between cases, eventually provide the game's true dramatic throughline. We suspect from the start that Phelps is not the war hero everyone thinks he is. He says as much to anybody who will listen. So it's not surprising to learn that he earned his Silver Star during a moment of incredible cowardice on Okinawa, not bravery, and one of the game's truer observations is that, in combat, the line between heroism and gutlessness is just as thin as the one that divides living and dying.
We were prepared for this part of the story, but less so for the picture of Phelps that develops over the course of the game. For as good as he is at working cases (and, no matter how many times you fuck up an interrogation, people never stop complimenting his casework), his straight-arrow routine isn't the virtue it is supposed to be. He is obstinate, bad at working with others, and hungry for glory.
We see this develop in the flashbacks as a rivalry between Phelps and another officer candidate named Jack Kelso. Suspecting that Kelso is the superior leader, Phelps undermines him to the point that Kelso is washed out of OCS. When they meet again on Okinawa, Kelso, as a non-com, is still the more courageous Marine, and has the respect of the men which Phelps lacks. Kelso, like the rest of Phelps' unit, keeps showing up on the periphery of the Los Angeles saga, until the game throws us its biggest curveball. You spend the last few cases playing not as Phelps, but as Kelso.
Frankly, Kelso is the more appealing character, and if he were to star in a sequel to L.A. Noire, I would look forward to playing it. He is more believable as a gumshoe sticking his nose where it doesn't belong. He takes more lumps in his few cases than Phelps does in the dozens before him, and keeps coming back for more. Phelps' sanctimonious act is hard to take; Kelso is more grounded.
Still, this makes sense for the story that you eventually realize L.A. Noire is trying to tell. The more we learn about Phelps' actions in the war, the more we realize how much he has to atone for. Besides his undeserved Silver Star, Phelps has something much worse on his conscience. After giving the order to a flamethrower to clear out a cave system, Phelps learns that the complex was housing not enemy soldiers, but wounded civilians. Not only is he a coward -- he has blood on his hands.
In the meantime, the suspicions that Phelps had about Kelso's superior bravery and leadership are proven, over and over again, to be correct. Why do you play as Kelso? Because he is everything that Phelps wishes he was. And he is what Phelps, ultimately, tries to emulate. In the end, Phelps sacrifices himself to save Kelso. The flood that kills him washes away his sins.
Here's the part that tripped me up. You play 90% of the game as Cole Phelps, and, at its foundation, the story is Phelps' redemption. When it finally happens, you're controlling somebody else! For better or worse, you've invested your time and energy into Phelps' character by playing this game. You've empathized with him when he's been less than the person he can be. When, for the first time in his life, shows true heroism, he does so in a cutscene, long after your connection to him has been severed. And the admirable man you're currently playing as? He's now the guy who needs to get bailed out.
Over the course of playing L.A. Noire, I got familiar with a sense of frustration and bewilderment that happened at least once per interrogation -- where I had been completely on board with the fiction, knew whether the suspect was lying, and understood exactly how to bust them, only to hear the mournful musical cue indicating that I had chosen incorrectly, instead of the chime that meant I was right.
In a sense, that's how I felt at the game's conclusion. Like I had missed something that should have been right in front of my eyes. I kept waiting for that chime. It never came.