The open world feel of Grand Theft Auto along with the crime solving motif of CSI and add in the most realistic facial and character animations ever in a video game along with cameos of dozens of well known actors? Yes please. Sign us up.
Saying that L.A. Noire has a lot of hype to live up to would be an understatement. Luckily Team Bondi lived up to the Rockstar seal of quality to deliver a unique experience unlike anything seen in this or any previous generation of gaming.
Being a detective in 1940s LA isn’t an easy task. Players need to search for clues, interrogate suspects and witnesses, chase down criminals both on foot and by car, mix it up with some good old fashioned fisticuffs and engage in the run of the mill shoot out on the streets. There is definitely some variety to keep your 40 forty hour experience in L.A. Noire from getting stale.
Investigations are the easiest aspect of the game as players comb the scene picking up on audio clues and vibrations from their controller to find evidence that could pertain to a case. To prevent players from missing out on evidence on a crime scene, the game will continue to play a specific piece of background music until all items have been found. While there isn’t much challenge to this aspect, it does give some credibility to the time that must be spent by detectives walking over every inch of a crime scene.
Next up comes questioning and interrogation. Based on the evidence found on scene, players ask questions pertaining to the case to various witnesses and suspects. Players are then given the option to select Truth (if they believe the response given), Doubt (if they think the person is leaving out information) or Lie (if they have a piece of physical evidence to show that the statement being made to them is indeed false). The game gives visual clues like avoiding eye contact with the player or becoming restless in their seat. While investigating a scene was easy, this aspect becomes quite challenging when the subtle difference between Doubt or Lie can make or break the course of the interrogation. Players can use their Intuition points (gained by leveling up) to find out what the rest of the Rockstar community chose or to eliminate one of the options when they need some extra help.
As far as dealing with the progress of cases, players are graded on a one to five star scale depending on their skill in investigating locations, following leads, finding evidence and getting a confession. It appears that it is actually not possible to fail a case as some Deus Ex Machina always seems to pop up and help you confirm who the culprit is. However, getting low stars in cases will lead to getting a reaming from your ornery Irish captain.
In addition to the calmer pace of investigations, the game has various action sequences throughout. Gun fights are very commonplace in 1940s LA and street officers are blown away at the drop of a dime. The player’s character Cole Phelps quickly racks up enough kills behind his badge to make him the biggest mass murderer in history behind Nathan Drake of Uncharted. Gun battles revolve around a basic cover system with a standard popup autoaim. For the most part, these segments are not challenging but are fun none the less. There are however hostage situations which call upon a player to take out a criminal holding a human shield in front of them without shooting the hostage themselves or allowing the crook enough time to blow the innocent away on their own. These require some timing, skill and speed on the player’s part to accomplish.
The game’s driving does feel much like the Grand Theft Auto series as it is fairly loose in terms of control and results in players smashing into everything under the sun, nearly mowing down pedestrians and getting caught in behind trees and light posts which seems to be invincible compared to the weight of the car smashing into them. Unfortunately, unlike GTA, players aren’t encouraged to drive like lunatics in L.A. Noire and doing so will hurt their overall star rating at the end of cases for vehicular and property damage as well as injuries.
Story and Presentation:
While Rockstar had developed a reputation with their GTA series for wholly unrealistic stories and stereotyped characters, L.A. Noire follows the tradition of Red Dead Redemptions for reigning it back in. The characters feel believable and the scenarios incorporate just enough fantasy to keep them interesting but are grounded enough in reality to make them intriguing. For the first time, Rockstar tackles topics such as rape and child molestation in a respectful manner. Players are given the opportunity to care about these victims and the trauma they have endured as well as the deep tragedy of their deaths. Finding a body is no laughing matter as it would be in a Grand Theft Auto title.
Having a series of individual cases that tie in to one overarching story arc is a fantastic method of storytelling for this title. Players are given the opportunity to focus on what is in front of them but not feel like the Black Dahlia killer story is being shoved down their throats. Hints of copycat killers and thinking they have finally put the real criminal to justice give the story time to breathe, allowing for an incredibly satisfying experience.
Occasionally there are some hiccups in the tone of the story during investigations. One would think that hitting doubt might lead Cole to ask a more probing question. Sometimes though, and seemingly at the most awkward of times, Cole takes a harsher tone and basically calls the person he is interviewing a liar. This feels increasingly off when it occurs during the interview of a adolescent rape victim.
Graphics and Sound:
The characters in L.A. Noire are some of the most beautiful animated models seen in gaming. Using the MotionScan technology, all the subtleties of the expert cast’s performance are picked up and brought to life on screen. This is especially apparent in the facial animations. In a later case when you have to tell a man his wife has been murdered, it is impossible not to recognize the mannerisms of Heroes’ Matt Parkman in the performance of Greg Grunberg. There are times that it becomes increasingly hard to differentiate the characters in the game from their real life actors.
Most impressive is the performance of the game’s star Cole Phelps, played by Aaron Staton of Mad Men fame. His delivery is spot on to what the character calls for. He can throw down when need be as well as show compassion for grieving individuals.
The vocal performances go against the grain of what normally takes place in video games as they are actually fantastic deliveries. If someone were to listen to the game, it could be believable that they were listening to a movie or prime time television show. This speaks to the quality of both the direction of the game as well as the expert casting associated with it.
In a year that has shown both fantastic strides in new technology and a widening perspective of what can actually take place in a “video game”, L.A. Noire is a fantastic fit. L.A. Noire not only brings forth a new genre with third person action and investigation, it does so in a way that leaves players wanting more. Players will no doubt be clamoring for more cases for Cole Phelps to play as DLC or expansion packs. L.A. Noire is a testament to Rockstar quality and is a must play for anyone during 2011.
XBox 360 (Also on PlayStation 3)
Developer: Team Bondi
Publisher: Rockstar Games