2011 was an exceptionally strong year for video games. Dark Souls popularize a new kind of RPG. Portal 2 refined the first person puzzle genre. And Mortal Kombat returned the fighting series to its former glory.
It was a year of direct and spiritual sequels. Improvements of prior works that remain popular to this day. But in between the blockbuster releases was L.A. Noire. Which, despite being developed for the better part of decade, seemed to appear out of nowhere and vanish just as quickly. Selling over 7.5 million copies and receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews, the end result was the closure of a studio and a director marred in controversy.
What happened? How could a record breaking budget and revolutionary technology leave such a small cultural footprint? Was was it about L.A. Noire that angered some and enticed others?
To understand that, we need to look at another divisive title, 2003’s The Getaway. Originally envisioned as a simple racing game on the PlayStation 1, the project’s director, Brendan Mcnamara, pushed for a far more ambitious experiment. Seeing the potential of the open world genre, McNamara convinced Sony to fund an elaborate PS2 exclusive.
And so Team Soho set off to create a groundbreaking gangster game. Painstakingly recreating 10 square miles of real world London. And utilizing newly invented gameplay mechanics, such as cover systems.
After years of delays, The Getaway finally launched on december 11th 2002 in the UK, and January 19th 2003 in North America. And to the surprise of nearly everyone involved, it quickly sold over 3 million copies. Making it one of the best selling PS2 games of all time.
Surprisingly, Mcnamara would quickly leave Team Soho early that year. Founding his new studio, Team Bondi in Sydney, Australia. Ironically, a country which temporarily banned The Getaway from sale.
For eight long year, Team Bondi would remain silent. Diligently working on their debut game, L.A. Noire. Beyond a brief two minute trailer during E3 2006, little was known about the game. Some eventually classified it as vaporware, comparing its development to Duke Nukem Forever.
But they were wrong, not only would L.A. Noire release, but it was to be published by one of the most influential studios in the world, Rockstar Games. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Rockstar was reaching new levels of acclaim and notoriety following the release of 2008’s Grand Theft Auto 4 and 2010’s Red Dead Redemption. With a May 2011 date, the table was set for L.A. Noire to achieve similar success.
But it didn’t. Despite an extensive marketing campaign and being released on more platforms, L.A. Noire would go on to sell less than half of Red Dead Redemption's sales. Sure, it was the best selling new IP of 2011 but it’s tale was significantly shorter.
It was nothing like the rest of Rockstar’s popular catalogue. The gameplay was slow and methodical, requiring a keen eye for detail and plenty of patience. The open world was vast but lacked interaction. There weren’t the usual set of side activities. And the moral freedom many had come to expect was completely absent. As players were forced to uphold the law. Taken on it’s own, L.A. Noire was the antithesis of modern triple A games.
For starters, it was set in 1947. A unique time in America. The second World War had concluded but the post war era had yet to begin in earnest. Television and Rock N Roll were still years away from widespread popularity. Between Film and Radio, Hollywood, California was the entertainment capital of the entire country. But it was also a hotbed of murder, corruption and crime. With the local mafia providing an endless supply of illegal drugs and gambling deans.
L.A. Noire’s stars Cole Phelps. A celebrated World War 2 hero and unapologetically straight laced newcomer to the Los Angeles Police Department. A man whose personality clashes with the perception of Hollywood or even a traditional noir protagonist. College educated, career driven, and painfully uncool. Phelps is the perfect candidate for the LAPD. Able to cut through projected facades and convoluted schemes to identify motives and methods.
While his military service makes him more than capable in a fight, and he has absolutely no problem putting a criminal down, his strength is in deduction and reason. Which forms the basis of of L.A. Noire’s gameplay. Each of the four divisions of the campaign include five separate cases, and though there is an overarching narrative, the individual crimes are treated as their own short story. Complete with unique locations and characters.
Though this does introduce a new adventure every 40 or so minutes, Phelps by-the-book procedure creates a predictable pattern for each mission. Starting with a routine sweep of a crime scene, weeding out unimportant litter and collecting relevant clues. In terms of interaction, this boils down to strolling around a limited environment. Waiting for an audible chime and controller vibration to pick up and rotate an object until information is discovered.
And while that may sound simplistic, it’s not unlike the mechanics of a classic point and click adventure game. Gathering seemingly unrelated resources to solve puzzles, though in this case the puzzles are interviews with witnesses and suspects. And this is where L.A. Noire’s most recognizable gimmick comes into play.
Rather than animating facial models by hand, Team Bondi used a then revolutionary performance capture system called Motionscan. The games actors would not only have their voices recorded but their faces as well. Transferring every blink, grimace, and open breath onto 3D models. The results were arresting to say the least. And with a greater reliance on screen actors, you’ll likely recognize some of the city’s citizens from their other work.
But the purpose of Motionscan was more than impressive graphics. During an interrogation, suspects often conceal the truth but their facial tics reveal their insincerity. Giving Cole hints on how to direct his questioning. Calm and understanding, forceful and threatening, or selecting from the collected evidence to disprove their lies. It’s an all or nothing gamble, and breaking through a witnesses defense mechanism is deeply satisfying. At least, when it works.
This being my second playthrough, I was already aware of how important the investigation sequences are, and made sure to document every single piece evidence. As well as carefully listening to statements and staring at faces for giveaways. For the most part, I could select the right response. But every 4th mission or so, the choices felt out of sync, and my success rate would take a nosedive.
At first I assumed it was simply user error. But the intuition points, unlockable aids that simplified sections of a case, tell a different story.
For example, removing a line of questioning. However, in one instance, the game mentioned only 13.2% of all users were able to deduct the right answer after removing an option. Meaning a 76.8% failure rate for players WITH extra help.
Regardless, the story branches allow for flexible success. Sure, you might not find the truth. But as long as someone suspicious ends up dead or in handcuffs, the police captain is happy. Well, most of the time.
In fact, the only way to temporarily lose is in the life or death action sequences. Every once in awhile, the only solution is burning rubber a handful of bullets, and bruised knuckles. It might seem extreme by today’s standards, but in the era before Miranda Rights and SWAT Teams, the LAPD were tasked with violently resolving standoffs and colliding into criminal vehicles.
And it’s these moments where The Getaway’s DNA shines through with stiff cover shooting and heavily scripted on foot and car chase sequences. None of which are all that difficult but a direct and simple objective is an apperical change to the mostly relaxed pace.
And the pursuit events really show off the impressive scale and detail of L.A. Noire’s open world. Aside from a few artistic liberties, the general streets and landmarks are in correct proportion to their real world location. Or, they were back in 1947.
And this is a main criticism against the game design. Why bother rebuilding a 70 year old version of a city if there’s nothing to do inside of it. To some degree, that’s fair but L.A. Noire is a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
The best aspect of L.A. Noire isn’t it’s story, gameplay, or graphics. It’s potent sense of commitment. Every element endears the next. Incredibly detailed houses with multiple decorated rooms and authentic radio shows playing in the background appear for 10 minutes and then are never. Seen. again.
Likewise, the faces and voices of dozens and dozens of actors portray elaborately written characters with carefully researched slang and mannerisms, only to appear for just one scene.
Walking out of a building into 8 square miles of real world 1940’s Los Angeles never loses its awe. Even if I often resorted to fast travel, the city was a crucial element.
Because none of this needed to be here. It’s conceivable a far more stripped down version removing the facial performances, open world, could have delivered a successful experience, but not the same effect.
Now it’s far from perfect, as previously mentioned, a small number of cases feel snakebit from the start, and the final story arc doesn’t quite make sense. But the game’s aspirational vision is unlike anything seen before or since.
Which unfortunately didn’t quite line up with audience expectations. Players were anticipating grand theft auto 1947. What they got was a mix of heavy rain, ace attorney, and google maps. And the action sequences that were there were fine, but all together made up a narrow slice of the 20 hour story. Not to mention the option to skip shooting and car chases all together.
But those that liked it, championed it. After years of toiling away, Team Bondi finally got the last laugh. But only for a moment.
In January 2010, 16 months before LA Noire would release, an anonymous twitter account called @veracious_shit began leaking details of Team Bondi’s working conditions. Citing the director Brenden McNamara as the key problem and exposing the truth behind the game’s production.
According to the account, Sony became unhappy with McNamara during the development of The Getaway. Apparently he had promised it would be a launch title for the PS2, but it would arrive over two years late with a bloated budget. McNamara was equally irritated, Sony had forced the game’s release despite his protest, and so he left to start Team Bondi.
But when The Getaway’s produced strong sales, Sony quickly contracted McNamara’s new studio for another project. A PlayStation 3 launch exclusive called L.A. Noire. Sony handsomely funded the game to speed up the process for it’s fall 2006 release date. But Bondi’s Sydney location made routine check ups infrequent. And so McNamara was left to his own devices.
When Sony finally evaluated L.A. Noire’s progress, they were horrified to learn the game was in an unplayable state. In less than a year, McNamara had spent over 20 million dollars, most of which was used to form Depth Analysis, the tech company responsible for Motion Scan. Sony realized the project was unsalvageable without a sizeable time and money investment.
Fortunately for Bondi and Sony, Brendan McNamara’s friends at Rockstar we’re interesting in acquiring the entire project. And in perhaps the most telling sign of this entire story, Sony wrote off the 20 million dollars and gave L.A. Noire to Rockstar for free. Under the condition that Rockstar develop one exclusive for them, it’s unclear if this deal was ever resolved but for a time AGENT was meant to be a PS3 exclusive.
According to sources, Rockstar was so impressed by Team Bondi, they considered purchasing the studio outright and relabeling it Rockstar Sydney. From the outside, it looked as though Bondi was finally back on track.
But according to former employees, development remained chaotic. One source described McNamara as “the angriest person I’ve ever met” Allegedly it was not uncommon for Brendan to scream at an individual employee, berating them right at their work station, in front of their peers. The division leads would apologize to the employee eventually but would never stand up against McNamara.
In a later interview, Brendan defended his method of directly confront employees rather than following the chain of command by stating "It's my game. I can go to anyone I want in the team and say, 'I want it changed'."
And change was a constant at Team Bondi. Turnover was drastically high by any measurement. The studio recruited directly from local college campuses, offering real work experience and a full time job right after graduation.
Employees would quickly become burnt out as 60 hours weeks became 80 hour weeks and for long stretches, 120 hour weeks. So why did so many try to see it through? Because their hours and hours of overtime was unpaid, their contracts stated payment of overtime would come in one large sum three months after ship. Provided they were still employees at that time. Even Mcnamara admits over 100 people left during production.
And whenever an employee was lost, their work was dropped onto someone else. A former coder recalled doing the work of four people for months. For lengthy periods, the entire gameplay animations were created by a single person.
Despite years of crunch, L.A. Noire was nowhere near complete and Rockstar became increasingly dissatisfied with the progress. Dan and Sam Houser as well as renowned producer Leslie Benzies became far more hands on during the game’s final two years. Overruling, ignoring, and shutting down Brendan McNamara’s grandiose ideas. Fully designed fraud and burglary sections of the game were completely abandoned.
When Rockstar updated the game’s logo, McNamara was livid, accidently sending out a company wide email stating ‘there will be hell to pay”
Witnessing the disastrous development first hand, Rockstar scrapped any plans to purchase Team Bondi. They had already invested more time and money than even Sony had. Now surpassing 50 million dollars, L.A. Noire had become one of the most expensive games ever made.
And for about a month, it appeared to be a success story. But soon the first hand accounts, leaked emails, and explosive articles made their way into the news cycle. Team Bondi became synonymous with toxic development cycles. Any chance of future publisher deals evaporated. Afterall, if Sony and Rockstar couldn’t whip McNamara into shape, who could?
In October of 2011, five months after the release of LA Noire, Team Bondi closed its doors and all of its assets were liquidated to pay off it’s outstanding debts. However, the company properties were purchased by Kennedy Miller Mitchell, the Australian production company behind the Mad Max franchise.
Somehow, KMM agreed to fund McNamara’s next project, the deafly named Whore of the Orient. It would have featured many of the gameplay systems from L.A. Noire in a 1936 Shanghai setting. But by June of 2016, the project was confirmed dead.
And so we come to the story’s end. The surprise re-release of L.A. Noire on current gen platforms and the HTC Vive VR headset.
All these years later, does L.A. Noire still feel fresh? Yes...and no. It’s ironic Team Bondi wouldn’t live to see some of it’s ideas become popularized. Less than a year after LA Noire’s release, Telltale’s The Walking Dead would usher in a new age of adventure games. While facial performance capture technology would rapidly advance, with this year’s Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice breaking new ground in the field.
So why now? Why bring back L.A. Noire? Perhaps Rockstar is testing the waters for another sequel, but if so, they’re not putting much effort into it. This latest port can look downright ugly at times. Though it can be played in 4K resolution, the fuzzy facies women’s muddy haircuts are already terrible in 1080p.
The numerous audio glitches and hard cuts have been left unresolved. There’s a clear difference in vocal performances during scenes. One character echos while another is plain.
Then there’s the unexplainable, such as this head temporarily turning green.
In fact, the only appreciable difference is in the integration sequences. Where truth, doubt, lie have been changed to Good Cop, Bad Cop, Accuse. But just like the original, these options occasionally fail to represent the actual choice or fit with the line of questioning.
In all likelihood this quick port is Rockstar’s second chance at recouping their lost investment. But it’s also a second chance for Team Bondi. That’s not to romanticize McNamara’s horrific business practices, it’s safe to assume his behavior hurt the end result and only caused misery. Somehow the employees were able to overcome the nightmarish development and abusive management and produce something truly great.
There’s a narration in the game’s 5th mission that goes “The case that makes you. The case that breaks you”
For Team Bondi, LA Noire was one in the same.