Review By Seth Robison
“The story you are about to see is true.
Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”
World War II is over and the United States emerges victorious, relatively unscathed and brimming with wealth, industry and ambition. As the opening narration to L.A. Noire (out now for the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 from Team Bondi and Rockstar Games) describes, the city of Los Angeles is experiencing a boom to rival the gold rush thanks to its bright skies and open spaces. Fortunes beyond just the American Dream are within reach, but that success is often predicated on the ruination of others. L.A. Noire’s 1947 Los Angeles is saturated in that practical mood evoked in the game’s title. The City of Angels may be sunny and open in stark opposition to the traditional noir of dark, gothic streets, but that shine rubs right off, exposing a world of violence, degradation and corruption.
In L.A. Noire you play as Cole Phelps, an ambitious, intelligent WWII veteran and Silver Star recipient just starting his career in the Los Angeles Police Department. Portrayed in voice and likeness by Aaron Staton (Mad Men), Cole Phelps is a cop, not a superhero, a difference that players will understand quickly as the game progresses. It’s your fate to arrive after a crime has been committed, powerless to stop or undo what has happened, from a simple hit-and-run accident to a brutal murder. As Cole you can only do your job to deliver justice and then wonder if that is enough to make things right.
The sandbox gameplay in L.A. Noire largely follows a set pattern, you and your partner, who can be prompted to give you advice or, cleverly, act as a human GPS (aka someone who knows how to get to where you’re going) as you drive to a destination, are summoned to a crime scene which you must first search for clues. Any information that you glean from objects or witnesses directs you to contact family members or associates who you press for a clearer picture of the crime with questions inspired by any evidence you’ve collected thus far. These interrogations are a tricky but fun mix of logic, mind reading and a bit of conflict with the game’s programming. Witnesses or suspects will actively challenge you if you call them liars, and you must be prepared to know what evidence you have to prove your point; simply figuring out the case in your own head is not enough if your virtual self can’t back it up. In a pinch, a system of ‘intuition points’ can be leaned on if the trail gets cold.
This questioning process, either in a relaxed setting like a person’s home or place of business or in the more intense interrogation room, is the key attractive feature of L.A. Noire. Sharp writing and dialog is matched with groundbreaking motion capture technology, bringing a level of nuance to the game’s digital acting performances that all but bridges the Uncanny Valley. In your role as a detective, players must carefully watch a suspect or witness’ behavior, from the tenor of their voice to the motion of their eyes in order to determine if they are attempting to deceive you. Believing their statements or calling their bluffs will open up new avenues in your investigations, leading to the case’s resolution through overwhelming evidence, a confession or a violent chase possibly ending in a shootout.
Despite all your best efforts, not all crimes are going to be wrapped up nicely and you get to experience what it’s like to possibly have to compromise in the name of justice. About twenty episode-like cases make up the core storyline, and as you progress, more details are revealed about not only Cole’s personal life and his experiences during the war, but also about the thin line between cops and criminals.
The biggest issue with the sandbox gameplay in L.A. Noire is that there really isn’t a lot of sand to play in. A significant part of the genre’s appeal is the variety it offers, not just in options to complete the active storyline mission, but just random things to do between those missions. Taken to the extreme in titles like Saint’s Row 2, but perfected by Rockstar themselves. From the original Grand Theft Auto 3 straight through to Red Dead Redemption, there was plenty of things to do to distract yourself, however in L.A. Noire outside of a few collectibles (cars, film reels, and back-story expanding newspapers) and the opportunity to respond to street crimes in progress, there is little deviation from the core experience.
While the painstakingly recreated cityscape is fascinating from a ‘living history’ perspective there is little reason to just drive around an enjoy it. Additionally, the popular sandbox game activity of simply causing mayhem is actively discouraged by the game, in adherence to the player character’s role as a police officer. Furthermore, you are not allowed to draw your weapon outside of shootouts and your case performance rating is docked for trashing your car or the city. L.A. Noire might have been better served by a more linear structure used in point-and-click adventure games like Full Throttle or detective game godfather Police Quest.
Mixing up the pixel hunt evidence search, which is thankfully aided by a little controller rumble when you near an examinable object, and the interrogations, are sequences in which you need to tail suspects on foot or in your car, simple puzzles that uncover clues and shootouts. There is plenty of the latter, hopefully a lot more than is in a typical cop’s career, and they are staged well as part of a case or a street crime. A simple cover system will keep you alive as bullets plink around you and shatter windows, but rounding corners in cover or moving between cover is a tricky proposition. The same system is used in the game’s stealth segments, leading to a lot of error. Post-War Los Angeles isn’t home to a lot of giant robots or lizard men so even without a lock on system your service pistol performs well, but some familiar WWII surplus ordinance is available including an M1, a Thompson submachine gun, a BAR and others.
A mystery genre game is extraordinarily rare, and a mature, compelling and well-written one is rarer still. While outside of DLC (which is confirmed as coming at least between now and the end of July), L.A. Noire’s long term replayability will be affected after you’ve cracked every case, this is a must-play not just for sandbox action/adventure gamers, but for fans of video gaming as a medium. The look, the sound and the tone of L.A. Noire will linger if not in consoles, then in memories.
Review by: Courtney Woods
At its best moments, L.A. Noire is L.A. Confidential the game. In many ways, Cole Phelps, the protagonist of the game, is a nice mixture between Guy Pierce and Russell Crowe’s characters in the celebrated film. On the one hand, he is a war hero, who wants to solve cases by the book and is regarded by most of his fellow policeman as the rising “Golden Boy.” However, Seth is on the mark when he says that Phelps is “a cop not a superhero.” His job is to solve crimes that have already been committed with the goal of stopping future ones. But politics are constantly at play either in the police station, the mob, or Hollywood (Considering that this is the late 1940s there isn’t much of a difference).
The lack of control that Phelps has over some of the cases is sometimes akin to what the player feels when controlling Phelps, the character. As Seth pointed out, rounding corners in cover is quite difficult, making the stealth segments frustrating. In certain situations, if you continue to fail in an “action sequence” including some of the stealth segments, the game will ask if you wish to skip this section with no consequence to the story. This seems like a nice alternative, especially for more casual gamers, but it is misleading. Most would assume that if they skip playing the action sequence they would still be able to see some summary of what took place, but the game just moves you to the next point in the story. It also takes off points in your final report. There are consequences to not playing these sections, which would be more understandable if the cover controls were more consistent. On the other hand, combat and shooting controls are pretty straightforward and enjoyable.
At its worst moments, L.A. Noire is a confused opposite of Grand Theft Auto. While the Los Angeles cityscape is incredibly well done, driving around in it might be more trouble than it is worth. The cityscape is so fully developed that you are not just focusing on staying in the lines, but also stopping at red lights and avoiding pedestrians and bad drivers rather than causing mayhem. Like the cover controls, the driving controls need to be made tighter or there needs to be fewer obstacles in the often frustrating chases. Rockstar is known for their sandbox games, but like Seth said, in L.A. Noire there isn’t a lot of sand to play in. Forty street crimes are not enough incentive for many players to risk decreasing their final case score to play.
Despite the driving and cover controls, the core story investigations are well written, concise, and will make you seriously think more than your typical video game. In the fun and intense interrogations, as Seth mentioned, if you are at a loss on whether to choose between Truth, Doubt, and Lie, you can use “intuition points.” By using an intuition point you choose between eliminating an answer or ask the community (“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” anyone?). These segments are what makes L.A. Noire truly special. The facial capture technology allows for a wide range of expressions and emotions that have never been seen before in a video game. It surpasses last year’s detective game Heavy Rain both in the detective aspects and in graphics.
If the question is whether or not you should buy L.A. Noire, the answer is absolutely. The game is a staple for video games as an art form. The detective gameplay, from gathering clues to conducting interrogations, and the facial capture technology have set a new standard for this rare genre.