L.A. Noire Review
Posted by Sammy Barker
L.A. Noire is our favourite type of game, but it won't appeal to everybody. Those looking promisingly at the Rockstar logo on the game's cover should know that this is not a Grand Theft Auto-esque affair. While it supports the open world structure and narrative driven campaign of Rockstar's traditional adventures, this is a much more classical title.
For some, the previous paragraph will be a scathing disappointment, and if you fit that mould you should steer well clear of L.A. Noire. This is a title that's different to practically every other game on the PlayStation 3, with Sony's own Heavy Rain representing the closest association.
Playing as ex-military lieutenant and budding detective Cole Phelps, you'll work you way through four desks in the LAPD, dealing with cases including traffic, homicide, vice and arson. Working as a detective gives L.A. Noire a distinct throwback appeal. Cases are set out like classic police procedurals, where you'll need to gather evidence and interrogate suspects to convict criminals. The segregation of cases makes the game brilliantly digestable, though there is a connecting narrative that keeps Phelps' story arc interesting.
Much has been made of L.A. Noire's stunning facial animation technology, and it really is game-changer. What's most impressive about the game's MotionScan technology is that the game just wouldn't work without it. A big portion of L.A. Noire's gameplay depends on your ability interrogate suspects and read their reactions to your questioning. The slightest twitch on a suspect's face can signify a lie, and as such you need to be aware of every single aspect of the interrogation to succeed. The concept works incredibly well, lending itself to some of the most engaging cutscenes ever. You really do have to take in everything you possibly can or risk bungling the case that you're currently participating in.
Failure in L.A. Noire is not of the traditional type. The game would be broken if each time you interpreted a suspect's answer incorrectly it dumped you into a game over screen. L.A. Noire instead opens and closes paths, taking you down different directions depending on your success or failure. The mechanic strips away any hint of linearity, ensuring you reach each case's goal on your own terms, rather than the rules set by the game. Ultimately, you feel in control of every action you make, and the game does a stunning job of seamlessly coaxing you along without ever holding your hand.
Yet L.A. Noire is not flawless. The game sags during homicide due to its commitment to a twist that never really pays off. For all the interrogation system's brilliance, sometimes its simplicity leaves you prompting actions you did not expect from your character. They are minor teething troubles in a mechanic and narrative style that's yet to be properly tackled by the video game industry, and developer Team Bondi deserve some breathing space for that.
L.A. Noire's main campaign will run you around 20-hours, depending on how much time you invest into exploration and solving street crimes — side-quests which generate dynamically as you explore the world.
It says a lot that L.A. Noire includes a black-and-white filter that actually improves the game's atmosphere. Similarly to Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire is an open world game. Unlike those titles, Team Bondi's creation is not sewn together by quest-givers and mini-games. L.A. Noire is much more linear than previous Rockstar games, using its open world setting as an atmospheric toolset rather than a gigantic content hub. Racing through the streets of L.A. in period-appropriate vehicles really does give you a kick, and the world is beautifully realised to perfectly capture the tone of the period. Everything from fashion styles to advertising hoardings subconsciously build on the game's atmosphere, adding a brilliant backdrop to the actual focus of the action.
We've always thought that we'd make great detectives. L.A. Noire puts that ambition to the test. What's most impressive is the way it coaxes you through the action without making everything obvious. When searching for clues at crime scenes you are guided by subtle uses of audio and controller rumble. It's enough to make you feel like you're in control of the search, without leaving you scrutinising every pixel for the clue that just might solve the case. Interrogation is similarly subtle. It's never obvious when someone's lying, but there are always tell-tale signs on the suspect's face. A subtle twitch of the mouth, a scratch of the nose, or a raise of the eyebrow all might indicate reasons for you to pursue the line of enquiry. There wasn't a single case where we got every interrogation correct, and that's probably testament to the game's subtlety. Catching criminals is a challenging pastime, and L.A. Noire manages to capture that without leaving you flustered and frustrated.
Each of L.A. Noire's twenty-odd cases has a unique narrative for you to follow, making the game perfectly digestible in episodic chunks, not to mention perfectly suited to DLC. What's great about L.A. Noire is that while you can enjoy the cases based on their own individual merits (the crime, the suspect, the victim, the motive), almost everything ties into a larger narrative involving protagonist Cole Phelps. In fact, Cole's underlying narrative really comes into its own as the game draws to its conclusion, bringing everything full-circle and tying up a series of loose ends. Obviously we won't go into specifics, as the narrative is best experienced fresh, but the way Team Bondi slowly peel off the layers linking Phelps' military experience to a bigger crime syndicate underpinning the entire campaign is impressive.
L.A. Noire's use of MotionScan technology means that Team Bondi relied on real actors to bring the game's campaign to life. There are a lot of recognisable faces you'll encounter during the campaign, and they do a stunning job of breathing personality into the game. It's not just the main characters that have been treated with loving attention, though. Practically every character in the game — no matter how short the cameo — has been wonderfully written, voiced and acted by a real performer. As you watch the cast credits roll at the end of the game, you'll begin to question how much the process cost. It was worth every penny, we imagine.
L.A. Noire is not only a great looking game, but it's also a wonderful sounding game. Packed with licensed and original audio, L.A. Noire sounds as authentic as it looks. That's complemented by the detail stuffed into every corner of its locations. Crime scenes are meticulously recreated, with police banners, photographers and crowds all incorporated into the picture. It's attention to detail that you don't even notice at first, but you slowly begin to appreciate as you get wrapped up in the atmosphere of the world and its setting.
L.A. Noire's interrogation mechanic is undeniably one of the game's most important elements. Looking for clues on suspects faces never really gets old, but the mechanic can take a bit of time to get used to. This is largely due to a lack of refinement in the game's response options. You're given three choices during an interrogation: to believe, to doubt, or to disbelieve. The biggest problem with the mechanic is the 'doubt' command, which doesn't always work as you'd expect it to. For example, on one case we'd already noted a victim was wearing "repaired" glasses, but when we interrogated the victim's wife a little later on, we took particular notice of the lady stating her husband had recently purchased a new pair of glasses. So we 'doubted', expecting Cole to point out that the glasses on the scene had been repaired and were definitely not new. Instead Cole went on to accuse the victim's wife of murdering her husband, causing the woman to clam up and not give any more information. This wasn't an isolated case during our time with L.A. Noire, as we constantly picked 'wrong' answers despite having some kind of motive or reason for selecting them. The game's saving grace is that you can't fail an interrogation because you selected the wrong answer, though it can feel a bit binary when you know that you're selecting a certain questioning line for a reason and the game doesn't acknowledge it.
Cases in L.A. Noire are separated by desks. Desks refer to a specific collection of cases such as homicide or traffic. Unfortunately, while homicide should be one of the most enjoyable desks in the game, it actually shakes out as a bit of a damp squib. The problem with homicide is that it's just far too formulaic. Many of the cases play out in the same way, with a dead female victim (usually a heavy drinker) murdered by their husband. The desk's loosely tied into the Black Dahlia case, which grounds the game in historical fiction. It has to make some narrative concessions for that reason. That ultimately amounts to you building cases against suspects that go nowhere in order for the game to take a plot twist that doesn't really make sense. We think a lot of people will point to the homicide desk when looking for reasons to criticise L.A. Noire in the future; it's easily the weakest chunk of the game.
Rockstar Games and good controls go together like strawberries and spring onions. Couple that with producer Brendan McNamara's background with The Getaway franchise and you have all the makings of a colossal controller crash. That's pretty much what L.A. Noire amounts to. Not only do Rockstar insist on using the DualShock's spongy L2 and R2 triggers for shooting, but they've also chucked the run button up there too. Sure, this makes a pleasant change from Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption's 'tap X' method, but it's bemusing in gun fights. To complicate matters more, R1 is used for cover while Circle reloads your weapon. The rest of the pad does nothing. It's almost like Rockstar forgot about most of the face buttons entirely. The driving is similarly cramped, with both the R1 and R2 trigger buttons handling the hand brake and accelerator respectively. Why not map the hand brake to X or Square, they're not doing anything after all? The control woes are accentuated in the investigation scenes, particularly when you need to inspect certain areas of a victim's body. Here Cole's hand will float irritatingly over the area's you want to select, often flimsily flying over the portion of the body you want to highlight.
L.A. Noire is not flawless, but its ambition is largely unrivalled. The game manages to overcome some pacing and control inconsistencies, ultimately offering an experience that is both innovative and utterly captivating.