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Review: L.A. Noire

L.A. Noire is a game over six years in the making. An extended development time can be both a blessing and a curse. The game displays a mixture of both but you certainly can’t fault Team Bondi’s ambitions. It pushes the boundaries in certain respects but can’t quite break free from its more familiar game-like trappings, suffering because of it.

Set in 1947 Los Angeles, the game takes its inspiration from many of the film noir greats yet at the same time seeks to form its own rich back-story and narrative. Instead of opting for the ever-popular Private Investigator, the game centres around the law enforcement career of Cole Phelps, a former WWII hero who served during the US’ involvement in the Pacific War. While the story sees him moving across different desks in the department, the method of investigation remains very much the same.

And it’s these various cases that make up the majority of the game. Gathering clues, following leads, and interviewing people are the very core of the gameplay and will be familiar to anyone fond of police procedurals. The occasional gunfight or chase may ensue but they only occur when appropriate and tend to help the game’s pacing, sometimes adding an extra dose of drama or action, rather than ruin it. While heavily marketed as a Rockstar game and with an overall look much like their other big releases this generation, this is a Team Bondi-led production and ensures L.A. Noire is markedly different in many crucial ways. Anyone expecting a 1940s Grand Theft Auto will be sorely disappointed (and is also a bit of an idiot).

The clue-gathering is very reminiscent of a point-and-click game (specifically of the Law & Order and CSI variety) only with you actually wandering around the scene. It’s never very demanding even with the audio assists off, but it does make for a nice change of pace compared to other titles. There’s something unsettling yet engaging when you encounter your first corpse and are able to check them over for clues and important details. The process is all very methodical, possibly to the point that it might annoy some. Fortunately, this meticulous approach extends to Cole’s police work; his notebook automatically logs all relevant information you’ve discovered. Apparently he’s pretty good at sketching people’s faces and guessing their ages too.

 

No, I'm not looting his body.

As well as examining a scene you will find ‘persons of interest’ to interview and, later, suspects to interrogate. It’s this aspect of the investigations where Depth Analysis’ pioneering MotionScan gets a chance to shine. This technology involved capturing over 300 actors’ performances, using 32 cameras to form a 3D image of facial expressions, including oh-so-telling eye movements. This is supplemented by standard motion-capture for the rest of the body; which works for the most part but does occasionally look odd, usually in wider, less-static shots. All this gives the game some remarkably expressive performances in both cutscenes and interviews.

Interviewing and interrogating involve following set lines of enquiry based on clues you’ve found as well as branching out from answers you’ve just received. After each question, the player is tasked with observing the other person’s response. Because of the fidelity of the performances, you’re not only judging what they’re saying but also their body language; watching for any indications as to whether they’re being completely forthcoming or not.

For the most part, it works a charm; engaging you on a level few games do. As well as encouraging you to keep track of everything you’ve seen, you’re also considering how this person may relate to your case. Once you’ve mulled that over you have to make a decision: Are they telling the truth? Are they hiding something? Or are they outright lying to my face, how dare they? It’s extremely satisfying when you are correct in your choice, and equally gutting when you are not. This would be easy to stomach except for the ambiguities that sometimes occur.

Although it may seem tricky at first, you soon get the hang of distinguishing between an honest an answer and a less than truthful one. It’s the gap between Doubt and Lie that confuses things. While it’s clear that accusing someone of lying requires evidence to prove it, you can’t always be sure where the conversation will head once you press that button and, subsequently, what exact piece of evidence is relevant. There were times I was left wondering whether to select an item found at the crime scene or a corresponding one found at the suspect’s location; as neither appear particularly incriminating on their own. But the game does not group them together. You have to guess which one is correct.

 

Denethor: notorious arsonist.

The other problems are less severe but noticeable nonetheless. Firstly, having that many actors, especially under the conditions imposed by MotionScan, was bound to result in an erratic collection of performances. Whether it was a conscious decision by the development team, or an inescapable effect of having actors relying on their facial expressions, there’s no denying that, at times, the responses can seem overexaggerated or too obvious. It would probably be inaccurate to blame the script or the actors, as both are generally to a very high-standard; I suspect the blame lies in the design. Because the game instructs you on how to detect lies, even including a section in the manual, it might seem cruel to then disregard these ‘ground rules’. Of course not all the game’s various characters are easy to read but it’s disappointing to see that certain people you’d expect to be unfazed by police questioning still have obvious tells (and never employ them to deceive either).

Another fault of the design is how disjointed interviews can become. One moment, Cole can be comforting towards a recently widowed person and the next he can be outright shouting at them, accusing them of being the killer. Obviously, some of these inconsistencies can occur from (incorrect) player choice, including the order they choose to ask questions, but the overall execution, regardless of whether the player judges a response correctly or not, could have been a little smoother.

Not that these sections are bad by any means. There is a thrill to be had in ‘breaking’ a suspect and these face-to-face exchanges do really add to the experience. Certain dilemmas that arise when you are left with two suspects and unsure as to which is guilty stand as some of the game’s dramatic highlights. One case in particular bugged me for days as I felt increasingly unsure I’d charged the right person. It’s just a shame the artifice of the game is too often exposed, with success/failure sound effects you will come to dread (or love) and a little tick or cross given for each line of enquiry,  rather than a more pure approach. I get the feeling a lot of these issues only really stand out because of how much the performances draw you in otherwise.

If the game were solely focused on the casework it might be quite dull. Fortunately, it features an intelligent, multi-layered script that explores real-world issues that affected L.A. at that time (even featuring figures such as the notorious Mickey Cohen) as well as story arcs revolving around a few principle characters. While this might sound similar to one of Rockstar’s more recent efforts, the ‘plot’ of the game tends to boil away in the background rather than lead proceedings. The various elements are presented in a few different ways, from flashbacks of Cole’s military service to vignettes triggered via newspaper headlines found while clue-searching, and it helps to build intrigue, especially once the pieces start to fall into place.

 

"Hope this is not Chris' blood."

Along with the writing, the effort that went into recreating the look and feel of late 1940s L.A. is astounding and it really shows in the game. The landmarks, vehicles, clothing, architecture and soundtrack, right down to the traffic patterns (supposedly) all add up to a great sense of atmosphere. It’s quite amusing that even the ‘irrelevant’ clues are often lovingly recreated knick-knacks from the time; the style of cutlery, a specific brand of washing powder or relatively ornate hairbrushes.

It’s just a shame that the city is never fully utilised in the main part of the game. I don’t mean I wanted something akin to an epic GTA-style shootout in Union Station, just that the single-minded focus has you passing through the city rather than getting you attached to it. Considering the game’s themes and inspiration, perhaps that was the intention. But players hoping to get a better look at their surroundings won‘t be disappointed. In typical sandbox fashion, there is a free-roam mode, which unlocks once you’ve cleared a desk.

Rather than driving around, causing mayhem during cases, and subsequently lowering your final ranking, this is where you can explore to your heart’s content; especially likely if you’re going after all the game’s achievements/trophies . ‘Street Crimes’ (40 short self-contained action segments) will still appear if you want to save those for later as they tend to distract from the main story and can see you heading miles off course from your investigation if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like to skip journeys (i.e. an idiot like me). A word of warning though, they are split up over the various desks, meaning you’ll need to enter free-roam for each in order to see all of them.

 

The game features many authentic cars from the period. Here we have a dull grey one, a shiny grey one and a dark grey/possibly black one. Oh, look, there is a thing in the background too.

In addition to the side-missions, there are 50 film reels to collect (I haven’t found a single one), 30 landmarks to go see and 95 different vehicles to drive. If you bought the game new, there are also 20 badges scattered around for you to find; as a nice touch, the game case even includes a little envelope of film negatives to aid you in your search. There isn’t a great deal to do compared to a GTA game or RDR but then the game is certainly more focused on a gripping narrative than countless distractions.

While there is an ongoing story, it’s a game that’s best enjoyed in smaller sessions. The twenty-one cases are generally quite lengthy in their own right and just ploughing through those would probably net you a total playtime of around 22 hours. I can’t say I felt the game was too short but I do wish there were a few more cases. The DLC bonus case actually slotted nicely into the story but too many would ruin the pacing somewhat. Which brings me onto my final criticism.

For the most part, the plot of the game holds your attention. There is a nice slow build for most of its duration but the denouement lets it down a little. Without giving anything away, the game suddenly becomes very caught up in its story-telling and you can’t help the feeling that you are merely being made to play through cutscenes. One segment involving the Hall of Records stands out. It doesn’t help that a couple of the twists in the story don’t always sit well either.

You could argue that the game is too insistent on keeping you ‘on-script’ to the detriment of a more engaging experience. Often you’ll find yourself hopping from one place to the next on demand. And if you do head somewhere else before the ‘appropriate’ time, the game will find some way to hold you back until it’s ready to reveal that part of the case. It’s worth mentioning that you can’t even fail a case; you will receive a low ranking however. If you miss leads or clues, the game finds ways to give you that information. If you were being reductive, you could argue the game amounts to nothing more than finding clues and then asking questions. It may seem very casual gamer-friendly, but I can’t imagine it’s easy to create cases that are incredibly flexible. Nothing about the gameplay in general is particularly broken or flawed; you can even skip the sometimes-clunky action sections if you fail them after a few tries, with game assuring you that you won’t be missing anything. Even if that does appear to make them seem almost redundant.

All this may sound fairly negative but, if you’re after something to scratch that crime-solving itch, you could do far, far worse. In a marked departure from other games of this sort, it’s one that lends itself well to being shared with others; either with them as an audience or discussing your own take on particular instances in the game.

I guess I should include a picture of Cole before I finish this review. Woah, look at that explosion!

L.A. Noire could also prove to be an important landmark in modern gaming. The MotionScan technology, while not perfect, really does provide a great step-up in game presentation; one that should definitely be sampled. Conversations and cutscenes  in other games since just haven’t been quite the same. It may be a costly and time-consuming process but the benefits to future projects are plain to see. Whether it’s a sign of what’s to come in the industry or a special little snowflake among a load of slush (how’s that for a metaphor, huh?) remains to be seen. Overall, it’s a game well worth playing, even if it’s just because it offers an experience almost unlike anything else out there.

 

Developer(s): Team Bondi, Rockstar Games

Genre: Action-adventure, police-procedural, sandbox

Time: 20-22 hour campaign (depending on assists). Add on a few hours for side-missions and item-collecting.

Gripes: Hand-holding gameplay, too narrative-driven at times, occasional interview frustrations, disappointing finale.

Get it for the: Great sense of atmosphere and setting, intriguing story and characters, unique experience, a look at exciting new technology.

Full disclosure: Xbox 360 version purchased. Played without any assists or scenes skipped for a total playtime of 25 hours. This includes the DLC case ‘The Naked City’ as well as completing 28/40 side-missions and hunting down 8/20 DLC badges.

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