L.A. Noire Review: Success is a double-edged sword

When someone tells you Rockstar Games is working on something new, assumptions are made, and in the past, have been mostly correct. Rockstar’s craftsmanship has flourished from their first encounter with open-world gameplay in Grand Theft Auto 3.  L.A. Noire breaks that pattern and offers a variety of drastically different mechanics that arguably counter the freedom of their past work. For the avid fans of the GTA series, this is a game that’s not the same style, or even same genre for that matter. L.A. Noire is an adventure game first, and a stereotypical Rockstar game second. Partnering with Australian developer Team Bondi to create such a different game with a unique style was a smart choice, but it’s obvious that this was a learning experience that has yet to be perfected.

At this point leave all your knowledge of the Grand Theft Auto series behind. L.A. Noire presents itself in an entirely different light and its important to interpret this game as something all new.

Detective Cole Phelps is in your control during this dark tale. Phelps, played by Mad Men’s Aaron Staton becomes the only character in this universe that requires the truth to feel that he has done his job correctly. His only goal is to provide justice for the streets of L.A. and will go as far as humanly possible to catch the twisted individuals behind it. He’s a hardened war veteran that stows away his troubling past, only to be revealed over time as the stakes rise. His character is subtly defined and becomes more multi-faceted as the criminal acts do. While his personality is not as strong as Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston, his story arch is just as interesting. His attention to detail, and stubborn nature is learned throughout the gameplay.

L.A. Noire’s finest moments are during the quiet, brooding investigations that have you scouring the environment for unnecessary flaws and perplexing causes of death. The game doesn’t hesitate to let you interact with nearly every item in the area, including the victims of the crime. Some of the most thought-provoking moments stem from crouching over a dead body, carefully going through the pockets, and gently moving the hands and head to reveal vital information. This is also where the most graphic imagery is presented. LA. Noire does not shy away from showing you everything, including sickly wounds, and full-on nudity. Never did I feel the game was showing any of the material in an immature way. Needless to say, all the descriptors below the Mature rating are used in an intelligent manner. Much like bulk of the clues in L.A. Noire, the maturity is left to the player to digest.

Walking around the crime scene perfectly simulates the same feeling of watching an episode of C.S.I., but leaves the discovery element as your own personal excitement. This is where the adventure game elements become clear. You will find yourself carefully prodding through every object you can get your hands on. Not all of the objects will be vital to the case, but the characters will help guide you with remarks like “This isn’t relevant.” If you take your time, no clue will be left uncovered and your job to lock the culprit up will be much easier. In the event that you do miss some clues the game won’t call you out, but simply make you work harder to accuse a suspect. As you progress, the importance of the information provided by your investigation will become increasingly helpful during the inevitable interrogation sequences.

To talk about the interrogation segments we have to address the most advertised aspect of L.A. Noire: the facial technology. Thirty-two cameras are used to capture the actors every facial tic with a supreme amount of accuracy. The result is absolutely astounding. The characters in L.A. Noire benefit immensely from the effort put into the animation. Every sly look, and sneer are represented without flaw. With the advent of this new technique video games have taken another step towards unprecedented realism. The only minor annoyance I have is the amount of clarity in the faces when you are up close. The details of the faces look blurry, leading me to believe there is still room for improvement. You shouldn’t be shocked when this type of animation is present in tons of games going forward. I would go so far as to say this closes the book on advancements for this generation of consoles. All it took was a type of game that could have a great excuse for using it; one that makes or breaks one of the core mechanics.

The interrogation sequences form the crux of the flaws in L.A. Noire. Once you have the most suspicious suspects in your control you must use the knowledge you’ve gained to decide their fate. You will rely on three things during the time spent grilling a potential criminal: face-reading, evidence, and your gut. Telling whether or not the suspect is lying at first is rather easy, but later on proves to be exceedingly difficult. Nervous eyes darting around, fidgeting, and discreet answers all work against the person in question. Most of the time it’s safer to doubt the suspects statement, especially if you lack evidence to back your accusation up. If you think the truth is spilling out of them, then you can trust their words. Very rarely will “Truth” be the answer though. Most of your time will be spent looking through your trusty notebook for incriminating evidence.

The difference between “Doubt” and “Lie” is a fine line. If they are lying you must posses real, hard facts to throw back at the suspect. Doubting them on the other hand, can easily cause confusion and frustration. Phelps’ remarks are never hinted at before you decision. Sometimes he will be congenial, but every now and then he would scream at them, jumping to conclusions. For the first quarter of the game I felt extremely frustrated, because without knowing the game beforehand I had no idea what Phelps’ reaction would be. As you play longer he is easier to predict, but at first, it felt like I was having a harder time predicting what Phelps would do rather than reading the suspects. A small taste of what he would exclaim, like most player-driven dialogue in games, could have changed this.

The combat of L.A. Noire is reminiscent of both Red Dead and GTA. It attempts to be a solid first-person shooter, but stumbles over some of it’s own strengths. The movement is slightly sluggish, but tends to help during the investigation sequences. Getting stuck on the corner of various objects was easily avoidable, but can be the difference between catching or losing a fleeing suspect. First of all, running is mapped to the same button as pulling the trigger. Thankfully, ammunition is never a problem, because you will prematurely fire you gun often while your learning the controls. When you hold in the left trigger Cole will lock onto enemies if your reticule is already near them. If it’s not, then prepare yourself for awkward flailing and cheap deaths while you try to harness the wonky camera. Most of these situations occur in tight rooms, but in the second half of the game shootouts take place in confined areas. If you find your having trouble, the game will let you skip any of the action sequences after three or so failures without a penalty.

Your pursuit will not always be on foot. Jumping into your vehicle is a whole other story. The adrenaline of speeding through stop lights, avoiding traffic and trying to get your partner a clear shot of the opposing car’s tire is exhilarating. Thankfully the handling is just free enough to let you slide around corners and avoid any unwanted destruction. When multiple cars are introduced it gets even more intense, and you will find yourself slamming into you enemies’ cars to shove them off the road. It’s so much fun, that I wish there was way more of it, but alas, I may be the only person willing to play a game that consists solely of car chases. It’s unfortunate that Racing through the streets of L.A. without a destination is more enticing than driving to the next story location.

After you have picked up on some leads you job is to go investigate them. The problem is that the map of L.A. Noire, while full of an insane amount of detail, is so large that taking the option to have your partner drive, instantly arriving at your destination, is hard to refuse. The game never forces you to take to the streets and roam around, but only leads you from each specific area to the next. It’s a shame they don’t force you to go sight-seeing because almost all of the various areas look meticulously created to evoke an immense sense of realism.

The only reason I took the time to drive was to hopefully participate in the game’s 40 side-missions. As you travel, the police radio will alert you of any crimes nearby. If you want to take the crisis into your own hands you must press “X” to confirm your choice. Unfortunately the locations are always out of the way. Each mission is a separate event that makes up for the time spent driving to it. One asks you to calm a suicidal man and prevent him from jumping off a building, and another has you dealing with a bank heist guns blazing. The missions help fill the world with more personality and create a constant sense of conflict in L.A.

Speaking of conflict in L.A., the tone of the city is excellently represented in typical film-noir fashion. You can even flip on a black and white mode to get a real feel for the 1940s at its best. Even during the investigations light sound cues will play when clues are near. A distant sound of a stand up bass, or single piano note plays as you stroll around the scene. It works hard at immersing you and it never fails. I am a sucker for the dark, gritty feel that noir offers, and by the end of the game I wanted to go back and take much more in.

L.A. Noire lives in it’s own world amongst all other games. The open-world element is entirely subdued for a heavily engrossing storyline. The incredibly realized and accurate depicton of L.A. effortlessly lends to the tone of the story. The characters, with the help of the Motion Scan technology, are more unique than those in other games. Along with all the positives, it is apparent that this kind of game was a learning experience. Some of the parts don’t feel completely refined like so much else in the game. I would argue, in terms of perfection, it’s Rockstar’s weakest game in the past few years. Regardless, L.A. Noire is a jaw-dropping,  experience that other games cannot replicate, and can only attempt to adapt as time moves on.

A double-edged sword if you will.

This review was based on the PlayStation 3 version of the game.


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