In Defense of L.A. Noire, The Game Where It Feels Good to Be a Bad Detective

In Defense of L.A. Noire, The Game Where It Feels Good to Be a Bad Detective

With L.A. Noire's remaster out today, we reflect on how it's better for being imperfect, just like the fiction it's inspired by.

Big budget games, especially as they've evolved over the years, always seem to want to fashion the player as a detective. Maybe because as a detective, you're inherently kind of a smarter hero than the rest. You're not only the strongest hero in the world, but the most intelligent too. It's the ultimate power fantasy.

In the Arkham series, Batman finally lived up to his World's Greatest Detective nickname. He investigated crime scenes, chased down famous villains, got to the bottom of things. In games like The Witcher 3 and the more recent Assassin's Creed: Origins and Horizon Zero Dawn, players adopted Batman-like detective senses even more. Their vision slowed down, their senses heightened. They could see things that the naked eye cannot see. (Well, at least in Horizon Zero Dawn, this is contextualized by some high-tech doo-dad; in The Witcher 3 it's embedded in being a semi-magical witcher.)

But those heroes are overpowered. Their attention to detail is superhuman at best. Meanwhile, another game narrowed on being a detective took the opposite approach. It relished in clumsiness; it allowed players to mess up once in awhile. The greatest detective in games is also consequently the worst: Cole Phelps of L.A. Noire.

Like my favorite noir anti-heroes, Phelps is far from perfect. He's a regular Sam Spade. (Or Spike Spiegel, or Rick Deckard, or Jake Gittes, or... you get it.) He flubs investigations a lot. He makes questionable life decisions. He shows relatively little emotion in general, almost like a flesh-covered robot. Yet that's all what makes playing as Phelps stick out. I actually felt like a real detective for a change, not a powerful being that can flick on a Spidey-like sense like a light switch. Just another human being, hopefully making the world a better place somehow, case by case.

Overall though, L.A. Noire is a messy, messy game, much like the fiction it's largely inspired by. I understand the criticisms that have plagued it over the years, or why people side-eye me when I say it's my favorite Rockstar-published game. It has some troubling depictions of women (again, like other noir). Its interrogations are easy to screw up, and don't bear much consequences for doing so. Its open world is not as lively as you'd imagine from the typical Rockstar moniker. Its story takes a major dip in the final act. And yet, L.A. Noire's highs far outweigh its lows for me. Of all of Rockstar's games I've played, it's easily the one that's stuck out in my mind the most over the years. It's Rockstar at their peak weirdest, publishing a game that feels risky in any gaming climate, something I worry we won't get much more of ever again after all the money Grand Theft Auto Online has been raking in for parent company Take-Two.

When L.A. Noire was first marketed, I remember it being framed as Grand Theft Auto-like with a "noir" paint job. Yet when I got my hands on the game for the first time back in 2011, that was the opposite of the case. L.A. Noire wasn't another hyper-polished Grand Theft Auto clone. It was its own thing entirely. It was, above all else, a unique triple-A game.

As Detective Cole Phelps, the game has you navigating life in the Los Angeles Police Department, bouncing among the ranks as you get promoted and demoted. All along the way, you stop and investigate crime scenes, talk to witnesses, and due to Team Bondi's advanced facial technology, attempt to deduce if they're telling the whole truth by reading their facial cues. The interrogation system wasn't perfect—for one, the prompts were a bit misleading, and luckily in the new remaster, they've been altered—but it depended on teaching the player to read subtlety. Not everyone sweats when they're lying, and for some, it's as simple as an eye twitch.

L.A. Noire lives up to its name. Like The Maltese Falcon's stoic Sam Spade, L.A. Noire's Cole Phelps is a detective with a sorta-whack moral compass. He's not a good dude, despite his earnest attempts to be "good" early on. And I think that's part of what makes the game tick. It's a true noir in that sense: the sense that the "hero" sucks, and is extremely flawed to the point of being unlikable.

That's how the best of noir fiction operates, on the pretense that this is a grimy, crummy world with a morally ambiguous dude at the center. L.A. Noire knows this tone, it knows these familiar characterizations. It perfectly imagines its hard-boiled detective universe to a tee.

For me, that was always enough to overshadow its blemishes. L.A. Noire dares to wholly emulate the fiction it's inspired by, for better or worse, right down to its anticlimactic ending. When L.A. Noire rolls to a close, you can almost picture an alternate universe version of the scene playing out like the classic film Chinatown, as if someone tapped the player on the shoulder to say, "Forget it Phelps, it's Hollywood."

When released in 2011, L.A. Noire kinda signaled the end of Rockstar's more experimental phase. In their past, I always admired their weirder decisions, like randomly reviving a 1979 movie into a video game in 2005, or plopping the Grand Theft Auto open world formula into a boarding school in 2006. Rockstar took risks, and helped developers like L.A. Noire's Team Bondi take other risks too. L.A. Noire, while not developed by Rockstar, was often often touted alongside the rest like a not-just-published game. And given Rockstar's pedigree and rare side of publishing third-party games, it's easy to see why they were often lumped together.

While critically acclaimed at launch, L.A. Noire seems to have gotten flack in the years since. Even my dear colleagues here at USgamer seemed to have nothing but shrugs in response to the news of its remaster, available today on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. As for me, I look forward to returning to Team Bondi's imperfect envisioning of a detective in crime-ridden Los Angeles. Maybe I'll actually ace every case put in front of ol' Phelps this time around.

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Caty McCarthy

Senior Editor

Caty McCarthy is a former freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, VICE, The AV Club, Kotaku, Polygon, and IGN. When she's not blathering into a podcast mic, reading a book, or playing a billion video games at once, she's probably watching Terrace House or something. She is currently USgamer's Senior Editor.

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