I TRIED TO AVOID SPOILERS AND FAILED. YOU HAVE BEEN ALERTED.
ALSO, IT IS LONG AND RANTY SO… ANOTHER WARNING THERE
A lot of what I’ve been seeing in critique of LA Noire has seemed questionable at best, completely ignorant of the crime genre and noir sub-genre at worst.
First of all, the idea that the game isn’t noir - if you think this, you either haven’t finished the game or you know nothing about noir. LA Noire is about corruption, human weakness, and loss of innocence. If you don’t think that’s noir, you have no business discussing the sub-genre.
Next is this idea that the game doesn’t do much to stop you from breaking the law and ruining the atmosphere. Of course it does - it lets you destroy the experience and suffer for it. What I have seen from other people who really like the game is cooperation. People who have major problems with the game don’t seem to like that they have to cooperate to get the full experience. Guess what? It isn’t just video games that require cooperation - it is every single storytelling medium, as all require suspension of disbelief to function. LA Noire has simply taken a further step and asked for you to not just suspend your disbelief passively, but to also become the character onscreen and accept the logic that Phelps must. LA Noire is the director and you are the actor. Yes there is a script, but with room for improvisation. You have plenty of meta knowledge, it’s true, but so would any actor and you are given enough to help you stick to the path ahead but not too much.
There are many elements to help you become Cole Phelps. A lot of people have criticised the dead city, but I actually think it helps you to think like Phelps. All LA is to Phelps is a tool to satisfy his ambition. Sure, he often uses the words of a dedicated lawman, but his actions always reveal his true nature, and you can interpret the lifelessness of the city as how Cole sees it. The end of case reports further add to this effect. You don’t cause chaos because it would reflect poorly on your report - you are simply serving your own ambition, not the people. Some might suggest that the later game goes against that, but I’d point out that you are consistently prompted to skip to destination and avoid the city entirely.
One frustration with LA Noire that I find puzzling is the idea that the moments where the game forces you to make the wrong decision are somehow flawed. This might make sense if you weren’t paying attention to how the game works, but it doesn’t make sense when considered from the director/actor standpoint. Failure on the part of the player is practically meaningless in game terms, so why on earth would you think the game is about winning? Noir is not about winning, and the game doesn’t make it about that, either. You can point to the case reviews and achievements all you like, but again, these can be seen as getting you into the mind of Cole Phelps - those things are only meaningful to your ego, just like everything is for the sake of Phelps’ ambition and pride.
There are criticisms I can understand, though. The interrogations can be frustrating (but, again, are mostly an issue of pride). I think they are poorly mislabeled more than anything - Good Cop, Bad Cop, Accusation would likely be better, if cheesy. I never quite got what people were on about with Phelps going in different directions to what they expected, but I can see that as legitimately frustrating. Nevertheless, none of it stops you from experiencing the game.
Another understandable frustration is the lack of noir elements early on in the piece, but I think a lot of people didn’t start picking up on the elements until much later than they began to appear. The damage that Phelps’ ambition does to those around him is clear early on. The same goes with the corruption, and I don’t understand the people who are demanding they should have seen more overt corruption in the police department. Who would put it all out on display? It is pretty clearly implied all throughout the game, but apparently we have to see money changing hands and the beating of suspects, or it doesn’t exist (by the way, we do see the results of a beating when interviewing the pedophile, so… yeah, I guess people think police corruption only counts when it’s entirely innocent people getting beaten, huh?)
I also understand frustration with the action sections, but these were mostly pretty easy, and I think quite enjoyable if you have gotten your head into the space of the characters. Even the much maligned street crimes serve to get you in that headspace, as while I felt bad about all the killing to begin with, I was feeling much more Phelpsian about it later as I took on street crimes as needed simply to help myself with investigations. The game may be slow in building up to the meat of the story, but I think it takes a while for it to get the player thinking like Phelps, as he is unlike most avatars in games.
A final point I need to make is that most people I know found a single case per sitting was optimal. Reviewers would not have been approaching it this way, and I wonder if that affected how they experienced the game. Rushing through would have detracted from the mental game that LA Noire encourages you to play, and would explain why a lot of reviewers seemed to be misguidedly playing to win and why they found the red herrings so frustrating. I believe that reviewing practices for other mediums may actually be bad for games, as few other forms take 20 or more hours to experience, and the play style of a games reviewer can easily be far different to that of a normal player when there is a deadline for the review.
All in all, I think LA Noire was definitely flawed, but I think it was much more successful than it is being given credit for. Where others saw failures of the game, all I can see is players being willfully uncooperative and ignorant of all the signs that show cooperation as the key to enjoyment. When you cooperate by taking on the headspace of your avatar, you are rewarded with the optimal experience. When you decide to fight against what has been encouraged in order to just “beat the game”, that is when LA Noire is simply the sum of its parts and nothing more.