L.A. Noire and its sad, important legacy
Rockstar's recent remaster of L.A. Noire has generated plenty of discussion about the game - as well as its ill-fated developer, Team Bondi. The bloated expectations for this crime thriller/adventure game, the achievements and shortcomings of its design, the stark and uncomfortable take on police corruption and sociopolitical tensions in the late 40's, the development and working conditions at Team Bondi... Whichever way you look at it, L.A. Noire left an enduring, sometimes depressing legacy. In hindsight, it reveals a lot about the feats and failures of the game itself as well as developer/publisher relationships, crunch culture, and much more.
L.A. Noire's road to release has been written about extensively - its seven year long development with multiple delays, its huge production costs that made it one of the most expensive games ever created, and the controversy that erupted around the alleged mismanagement and brutal working life at Team Bondi (which I'll go into later). But from the outside looking in, the game had a different kind of problem before it even came out that ultimately affected its public reception.
With delay after delay, L.A. Noire eventually released in May 2011. Red Dead Redemption had launched exactly a year before, garnering rave reviews, outstanding sales and a market that was hungry for more. This meant L.A. Noire would occupy the unfortunate position of being "the next Rockstar game" after Red Dead's phenomenal success. L.A. Noire was a fundamentally different game than Red Dead - but the marketing campaign never made that very clear, showing off sleuthing and shootouts in equal measure. Expectations ran higher and higher with each trailer's release, and by the time the game came out, many people believed they would be playing a Red Dead-style game set in 1947 Los Angeles. Of course, that's not what they got at all.
L.A. Noire was essentially a very large, very expensive-looking adventure game. Misunderstood as it may have been, the game still mostly succeeded at what it was trying to do. But for every element of its design that L.A. Noire got right, there was something equally problematic that offset the experience of actually playing it.
The sheer amount of research that went into L.A. Noire, conducted over the course of a full year, resulted in a game that was almost staggering in its authenticity and attention to detail. The meticulously recreated city of Los Angeles in the late 40's, reconstructed almost block by block. The culture of Americana and atmosphere of postwar exceptionalism. The impeccable, adaptive original score. The wonderfully genuine fashion, cars, slang, brands and broadcasts. And of course, the game's almost dogged tributes to its film noir influences. It all blended together to create an ambience unlike anything else in games… but it wasn't necessarily functional as an open world.
L.A. Noire had the "empty paradise" problem - its open world was a gorgeous playspace with virtually nothing worthwhile to do in it. Outside of the very linear main investigations that made up the bulk of the game, there was only a series of inconvenient and disposable side missions available at random. All of them required only the worst parts of the game: the sluggish shooting, prolonged chase sequences, and stiff driving. They didn't even contain any meaningful stories or developments; each one usually involved a random perp that you chased and either killed or arrested. These side missions made it feel as though Team Bondi was fruitlessly trying to justify its open world and remind you that it was a video game.
The vast, beautiful playspace of Los Angeles circa 1947 was certainly one of the costliest parts of L.A. Noire's production, but sadly, it just felt extraneous. There was also the fact that the framerate couldn't keep up with most of the game, the bugs were plentiful and noticeable, and the city was populated with NPCs saying things like "wrinkled was not one of the things I wanted to be when I grew up" and "if olive oil comes from olives, where does baby oil come from?"
Despite the issues with the open world, it didn't have a terribly negative impact on the focus of the game. The obvious substance of L.A. Noire was its cases, where the majority of the writing, acting, characterization and story took place. A huge chunk of the game's development was the use of brand new MotionScan technology, which recorded a human face using 32 different cameras and resulted in the best facial animation ever seen in a video game. Team Bondi hired over 400 actors and captured all their expressions this way, which resulted in some excellent performances… and some not-so-excellent ones.
The acting was an important part of L.A. Noire's interrogations, which were the highlight of the game. It was in tracking clues and interviewing suspects that the game really showed its strengths in writing, characterization and storytelling. However, these came with some caveats too. L.A. Noire contained over 20 hours of voicework; the dialogue was usually snappy and lent a lot of color to the characters, but conversations with suspects were broken up by the Truth/Doubt/Lie system of interrogation. These three button prompts would sometimes show up abruptly during an exchange, and they carried the Mass Effect or Fallout 4 dialogue problem of not knowing what your character would actually say after you picked one. L.A. Noire isn't supposed to be a comedy, but it could become one if you chose wrong and Detective Cole Phelps started yelling and accusing a high school girl of killing her mother, for example.
Speaking of Phelps, let's talk about the story. Most of the main cases weren't really about Cole Phelps or any other recurring characters, which was both good and bad. It allowed more development for their separate characters, got you invested in each case and gave the sense that Phelps was just one man in a city of stories. The storytelling itself was primarily mature and thoughtful, with its strong themes of police corruption, personal weakness, racial tension and American greed. However, the overarching plot was still about Phelps and his acquaintances - and it ultimately felt disjointed and lacking in information. Major plot points were told through collectibles, motivations were explained through infrequent flashbacks, and Phelps suddenly falls in love with a jazz singer despite barely knowing her (and being married). In fact, the main story came up so infrequently and so briefly that you'd be forgiven for forgetting important information.
In the end, L.A. Noire was an intriguing and flawed game that wasn't what a lot of people expected - for better and for worse. Not only was its legacy shaped by the uniqueness of the game itself, but also by the downward spiral of events that followed its release. Within a month after launch, former Team Bondi members who had left before the completion of L.A. Noire created a website (which unfortunately doesn't exist anymore) revealing over 100 names that were improperly listed in the game's credits - or not listed at all. This went against the International Game Developers Association's rules on crediting games and resulted in an investigation. It would end up being the first of many sad revelations about Team Bondi.
More former team members soon began coming forward, alleging mismanagement by studio head Brendan McNamara and egregious crunch time. Confidential emails between Rockstar and Team Bondi management were also leaked, indicating a bitter publisher/developer relationship that broke down long before the game was finished. There were then counterclaims made by staff members of Team Bondi supporting McNamara, and a number of comments from McNamara himself - but the damage was done. All in all, it seemed that McNamara and his employees had very different definitions of job requirements, fair work, and dedication.
Team Bondi's reputation rapidly plummeted, and it was unable to find another publisher to sign on for its next title. The studio was forced to shut its doors barely three months after releasing L.A. Noire. It was the first and only title Team Bondi ever made, but its development cycle left us with a remarkable game and an instructive tale in the business of game creation.
Thankfully, L.A. Noire has never truly been forgotten; it was both a critical and commercial success, regarded as a stand-out narrative experience and selling millions of copies. Take-Two always considered it a strong potential franchise, and with a remaster of the game now on the market, we can hold out hope that the company is gauging interest in a sequel.