Reviews - Multi Platform
Written by Ryan Farrenkopf Tuesday, May 24 2011 14:30
L.A. Noire is an ambitious title from Rockstar Games and Team Bondi. It combines elements from so many genres, and brings a few into mainstream gaming. While on the surface it looks like your typical open-world Rockstar game, it is clear that this game breaks the mold. Some have even claimed that this is a huge gamble for the Developer.
So does this bet pay off, or will Rockstar and Team Bondi be left at the horse track? Read on find out.
Developer: Team Bondi
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 (Reviewed)
Release Date: May 17th, 2011
L.A. Noire is first and foremost a game that wants to tell a story. All the sets, mechanics, gameplay, and technology that Team Bondi put into this game is there for the purpose of delivering a narrative. The story follows Cole Phelps, a WWII vet who was awarded the Silver Star for bravery. Phelps starts off as a patrolman for the LAPD, but due to his investigation skills and war record, he quickly becomes a detective and starts rising through the ranks of the LAPD. The overarching story of L.A. Noire covers Detective Phelps' rise, as well as the corruption of 1940's Los Angeles. Throughout the game, the player discovers many clues that hint at something more sinister than a simple drug deal or homicide. You know there is something bigger going on as things don't always add up, but you just can't put your finger on it. The game supplements the in-game storytelling with collectable newspapers that fill in the gaps with cut-scenes. While you won't miss out on any crucial details that prevent you from finishing the game if you fail to find them, they are important in understanding the full story.
L.A. Noire's story deals with a broad range of themes that you'd see in Post-WWII America. It isn't afraid to go into some topics that many people may stay clear from. L.A. Noire deals with issues like racism, war vets trying to reconnect with society, drugs, domestic abuse, the housing boom and adultery. Everything you'd expect to find in L.A. in 1947, but maybe not in a video game. All these themes belong here, and Team Bondi did a great job tying them all into the story.
Each case is its own self-contained story, or so it seems. Many cases wrap up with the understanding that you caught the bad guy, only for you to find out later that there was more going on. However, this is never completely out of the blue; you don't a sense the game just pulling things out of a hat or pulling a M. Night Shyamalan-style twist. Things start stacking up, and you get the sense you are missing something. It seems that for the most part, the developers were very careful to make sure it doesn't feel like the game is holding out on you. The story takes a twist about 3/4 into the main story arc, essentially sucker punching Phelps, and in essence, the player. I have to give it to Team Bondi for pulling this off in such a way that really makes the player feel it. For the remainder of the game, Phelps is determined to recover from his fall from grace.
The story's one weak point would have to be character development. While the characters themselves are strong and do grow somewhat over time, they just don't have the depth you'd expect. Rarely do you see any of the characters' personal lives until it becomes a part of the main story, making it seem a little thrown-in. Overall, the story in L.A. Noire is fleshed out, and when it all comes together it clicks. Things you may have struggled to understand before fit into place. However, the personal story for Phelps feels needlessly cut short and unfinished. It really is an unsatisfying conclusion to this character that you've grown so close to.
When it comes to gameplay, you'll spend most of your time doing three major activities; investigating, interrogating/interviews, and chasing down suspects. The rest of your time will be spent driving and exploring. It should be noted that this game is not Grand Theft Auto; exploration has taken a major back seat to the main story. While the game does allow and even encourage exploration, it is clearly not the main goal. The city of L.A. is not very interactive, and there is very little to do other than find some hidden cars and landmarks. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; this lack of exploration keeps L.A. Noire focused on what it's supposed to be: a detective game. It's a focused story that pulls you in, and let's be honest, running around shooting random people would pull the player out of that in a heart beat.
Investigating is the backbone on L.A. Noire. Entire missions hinge on being a thorough investigator. As Detective Phelps, you have to comb through the crime scene looking for any small clues that might make the case. Fortunately, this is not as tedious as it sounds. L.A. Noire uses audio and force feedback to let the player know when they are near a clue. But don't worry, if you are someone who wants to do all the leg work yourself, then this can be turned off. Once you find a clue, it must be examined further to find more important details. This is all done in-game, with no inventory screen to pull you away from the immersion. The clues you find will then lead you to a new location or person of interest. This system works well and is quite enjoyable, and fans of classic point and click games will feel right at home. While investigating, you have to be very careful not to overlook anything vital as missing a clue can lead to getting the wrong person in the end.
The second big gameplay mechanic is the interrogation (or interview) feature. Once you have evidence, you can go and interview witnesses and suspects about the case. This is when L.A. Noire's most unique feature comes into play; the MotionScan Technology. This is what allows the characters to have such amazing facial expressions. This is because you are watching the performance of the actor on the character, not just some animation. This comes into play because you need to actually read their faces to see if they are telling the truth, withholding some information, or just flat out lying to you. During these interviews you are given a list of questions to ask the individual based on the evidence you find, with some appearing as follow up questions if you got the right answer. Once they've answered your question, you can choose to believe the individual, doubt them, or accuse them of lying. However, if you accuse them of lying you are required to back that up with evidence. If you don't have the evidence, then you can always doubt them. Getting these questions wrong prevents you from getting the information you want. Sometimes it's something crucial like a confession, while other times it's not as important to get right, so you can continue on the case. In fact, most times it's the latter example, as there are usually a few ways to reach the "happy" ending for each case.
After you've investigated or interviewed someone, the next big thing is chasing down the bad guys. You do this a lot in L.A. Noire, as it seems everybody runs. But why would you want it any other way. You'll get into many foot chases and shoot outs, and what 1940's detective drama would be complete without car chases? Gameplay wise, these action sequences work like other Rockstar titles. Shooting is pretty straightforward, though actually scaled down somewhat from games like GTA IV. For example, you can't collect multiple weapons, and weapon pick-ups can only happen when a fallen enemy drops one. Unlike your trusty pistol, these weapons feature limited ammo, though the game doesn't indicate how much. This isn't as much of a problem as it sounds, as shootouts aren't all that long. Also, not everything ends in a shootout; sometimes you have to use some good old-fashioned leg work in the form of on-foot chases. These are as simple as it sounds, chase the perp until you get close enough to spam "A" (or "X" on the PS3) and tackle them. Occasionally they'll get cornered, or you could even shoot them. What is nice about these chases is that the general public will point it out if they see the perp run by, which is a nice little touch. I will say this; apparently everyone was in shape in the 1940's (including old, fat people), as they can all scale fences, run long distances, and climb pipes without losing their breath.
Last but not least are the car chases. These are exactly what you'd expect: fast-paced (well fast for 1947 at least) chases through the streets of L.A., with your partner shooting and you trying to knock the car off the road. Sometimes you can take out the driver before the scripted end of a mission, but most times that's not the case. To be honest, I find it more entertaining to watch the perp's car get t-boned by a fast-moving trolley.
There is one other type of game mechanic that occurs much less frequently, and thank god it does. Trailing people is necessary in police work, but that doesn't make it fun. Driving carefully, staying out of sight (but not too far away), and being incognito are all staples of these trailing missions. These missions can almost bring the game to a halt, as you just end up trying to figure out the magic distance you must remain from the perp. It's not terrible, just not enjoyable.
The action isn't reserved for the main story, however. If you'd like to take a break from investigating or interrogating, all you need to do is keep an ear out for one of the 40 street crimes occurring throughout the city. Street crimes are all action, and provide a nice break from the main story. However, just be careful not to take a call when you are in a hurry get the next location, as it can have some repercussions on the case. Luckily, this rarely happens.
If you are not doing any of the above, then you are most likely just driving around. Lots of driving is what you expect from Rockstar titles. It's easy enough to learn and master, but you WILL crash a lot. Unlike GTA, though, you'll rarely run any one down. Pedestrians jump out of the way, sometimes a little prematurely. Using your siren will make life a little easier, but there will still be some cars that just refuse to get out of the way. Team Bondi clearly took the most liberty with driving when trying to create a realistic recreation of 1940's L.A. But for the sake of fun gameplay, it seems like a necessity as most people don't want to worry about traffic laws in a video game.
L.A. Noire is a massive game, and Team Bondi has done an amazing job bringing Post-War L.A. to life. Eight square miles is a lot of ground to cover, and they did it beautifully. From the landmarks to the post-war construction boom, it really feels just like it should. The only problem with all this beautifully recreated real estate is that the game doesn't encourage open exploring. The world is open, but closed at the same time. This is mainly due to the fact that until you beat the game, you are always involved in a mission. While you can always take a break from a mission when it's not crucial, you just don't feel encouraged to. And even when you do get to explore, there isn't a whole lot to do other than look at landmarks. All this being said, it isn't necessarily a bad thing. The streets of L.A. are more of a set piece than a character; it's there to support the story. You don't necessarily feel robbed, but it just would be nice to be able to buy some ice cream from one of the street vendors or something to that effect.
When the first video of L.A. Noire surfaced back in 2006, it was very stylized with harsh lighting and dark shadows. However, that is not the game we have today. L.A. Noire's visual approach is realistically pulling off the look of 1947. If you are looking for something a little more noire, then you do have the option to play the game in black and white. Personally, I enjoy the colors of the late 40's. Graphically, the game looks like a well-polished GTA IV. The world is highly detailed and the performance is smooth, with the frame rate rarely dropping. There were a few graphical glitches I encountered during my playthough, though it was nothing major and didn't effect gameplay. So don't worry, this isn't Red Dead Redemption.
The biggest achievement with L.A. Noire's visuals is the MotionScan technology. As I mentioned earlier, you rely very heavily on this. In fact, the entire game revolves around this piece of tech working. The bottom line is that it works beautifully, and you can clearly read every nuance of emotion on the characters' faces. MotionScan is what pulls you into the game and gets you attached. Many other games have tried to bridge the "Uncanny Valley" before, but as they get more and more realistic, we are able to pick out the one or two oddities that make it look foreign to us. With L.A. Noire, this is not the case because these faces are real, as they are the faces of the actors who portray these characters. While this tech may not be for every game, it certainly works for L.A. Noire.
L.A. Noire is a game that sets out to achieve a great deal, and for the most part it surpasses expectations. It truly is an almost perfect blend of genres, and can hopefully revive the long gone detective games of the past. The technology behind it is impressive and drives the game to a whole new realm of realism and believability, and it is only in it's infancy. While the story starts strong, it does leave you hanging with the feeling that things are unresolved. The bottom line, though, is that L.A. Noire is an amazing game, one that really anyone can enjoy. What Team Bondi and Rockstar games achieved is a masterpiece of gaming, even with room for improvement.
92 out of 100