Written by Thomas Read
Rockstar have certainly put themselves in an interesting position over the course of their existence. Everyone knows them for their formerly controversial Grand Theft Auto series. (I say formerly because everyone, including non-gamers, is now familiar with the gratuitous violence and obscenity inherent to GTA.) Due to this association, many people were at first uncertain when Rockstar released what turned out to be the acclaimed Red Dead Redemption, a game that wasn’t another simple urban crime spree simulator. Following this new experiment in Period Shooters, they released L.A. Noire. (Pronounced “Nwar.”)
L.A. Noire follows the story of Cole Phelps, a young war hero recently returned to the newly blossoming city of Los Angeles. This was a city that, in 1947, was unlike any other city in the world: a real marvel of human ingenuity and determination, and you feel that when you’re exploring it. The overarcing plot, tying all the cases together is satisfying, a story of police corruption and Cole Phelps’ quest for redemption (That’s all I’ll say about that.)
The setting of the city looks great: It’s well-textured, colourful, varied in locations and interesting to look at. In short, it looks and feels like a living, breathing city. It’s not huge, but it doesn’t need to be. The density of the metropolis makes every square block a unique space of its own, and you’ll be entertained by just driving around. The atmosphere is outstanding, and you’ll feel like you’re in the fourties. While Cole is somewhat lacking in emotional range (Regarding his personal issues, not when he screams an accusation at an old woman), you come to realise why he seems so uncomfortable most of the time, and he ends up growing on you.
The game is episodic, consisting of largely standalone cases that follow one another. You start off as a street cop, and go through the various desks at the LAPD: Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson. Generally speaking, you investigate the crime scene, find clues, and follow those clues to more clues and people to question (Car chases are frequent.) When you’ve wrapped up the case, you usually interrogate the suspect in a smoky room and use the clues you’ve collected to put them away. This makes for fun, bite-sized gameplay, so you can do one case and be satisfied with it.
The game can feel like it’s moving slowly sometimes, and the image of Cole standing in a person’s house, wandering around for things to pick up and inspect is a reoccuring theme. Don’t be fooled, though, it is punctuated by high-adrenaline moments that break the searching and interrogating. You will not be bored if you are interested in what’s happening.
Unfortunately, the difficulty in LA Noire is somewhat lacking. It is by no means a hard game, with very few ways to fail. You feel like the game is almost holding your hand much of the time, as you can miss clues, completely botch interrogations of key suspects, or even put the wrong person away, with no real penalty. There are even hints you can earn, if you’re unsure about a person’s true motives (Think Lifelines in Who Wants to be a Millionaire.) The challenge lies in doing well, in really understanding the case, suspects, and series of events, to come to a satisfying conclusion.
The graphics in L.A. Noire are great; Everything is dynamic and feels alive. In addition to the previously mentioned city, the cars, people, and even bus benches are all realistic and simply look good. The music is an experience in itself, a combination of jazz, big band music, and swingy tunes that fit the 1940’s atmosphere perfectly. The character models are really the most impressive feature graphically, as the faces and bodies of characters are modeled by real actors, and they look like it. (See this link for actors vs. their in-game character models. Spooky, huh?)
The realism and attention to detail really drives the games core mechanic, the interrogation. Simply put, you’ll ask questions about the case you’re working to people involved, and you have to figure out whether they’re telling the truth, deceiving, or outright lying to you. It requires you to pay attention during these parts, and read people’s facial expressions. Sometimes it’s obvious, as someone will shift their weight around and their eyes will dart all over the room. Sometimes, however, you’ll come across a great liar.. or someone totally innocent that you think is lying, because the last guy was such a good liar. You will be challenged. You’ll have to use your head and pay attention. This isn’t like other games’ difficulty where you have to shoot the other guy before he shoots you; this is a thinking game.
You can tell it’s a descendant of GTA, but it’s very different, too. The controls will be familiar to anyone who’s played any of Rockstar’s past games (Thank God you don’t have to tap A to run a la GTA IV.) Think of GTA, except you’re on the cops’ side, and it’s in the fourties: L.A. Noire in a nutshell. While it lacks the freedom of GTA, (running over pedestrians just for fun) it also makes you feel like you’re really working towards something meaningful, something GTA strongly lacks.
Another unfortunate thing about L.A. Noire is its lack of replay value. The game is not short and you will be chipping away at it for a long time (3 discs on the Xbox 360) but once you’re done with it, you will feel little compulsion to play it again. This is ignoring completionists, who will want to get high scores on all the cases and collect all the cars, film reels, newspapers and more. The game is a good story, but it’s like an incredibly long movie that you’ll only infrequently want to watch again. It’s certainly very cinematic, like an old detective movie, but the cases, interrogations and clues are what ultimately moves the game forward. Once you’ve solved all the cases there’s not much left.
All in all, L.A. Noire is a good game. The story and gameplay are solid and the graphics, characters, music and atmosphere are all exceptional. The game’s weak points are that the difficulty is ultimately up to how well you want to do, and it has little replay value. It’s not a game for everyone, but if you want a well-told story with unique gameplay and success you have to really work for, (don’t feel bad about resetting a case because you messed up something big) L.A. Noire is an experience you’re not likely to forget soon.
[The game even offers a Black and White setting in its options menu, which make the old-timey detective flick vibe come alive even more.]
Overall score: 83 While it is an obvious brainchild of GTA, its gameplay differences are bigger than its similarities. It has its problems, but is an interesting and innovative direction for gaming to take, and worth a try if nothing else.
Genre Score (Adventure): 87 An exact genre is tricky to pinpoint. The detective-based interrogation is unique and innovative, and gunplay is only a small fraction of the experince. It is ultimately an adventure game with conversation and collection of clues being the main driving force.