Let’s get things out of the way, this year’s big Rockstar title, “L.A. Noire” is no “Red Dead Redemption,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a disappointment. Those expecting a GTA-style romp through late 1940s Los Angeles should not heed the advice of the game’s closing credits song and in fact “walk away and leave it alone.” Instead a player willing to invest their time into a vintage love letter will experience a revolutionary presentation attached to the modern day equivalent of a Sierra or Lucasarts point-and-click adventure.
Thrown into the finely polished shoes of hard-line do-gooder, Cole Phelps (Aaron Staton), you quickly rise from ambitious patrolman to junior detective in the traffic division. Initially, “L.A. Noire” appears to be a giant collection of episodic content, with core game play revolving around solving cases. The writers have made tremendous strides forward in creating (sometimes) intricate plots that you must solve. Phelps himself however, provides a thematic link throughout the game, with each solved case offering a flashback to Phelps’ time serving in WWII, where players get their first glimpse and how unwavering their hero is when it comes to separating right and wrong.
On the same hand, Phelps is arguably the weakest part of “L.A. Noire,” with only Aaron Staton’s tremendous performance hiding some of the huge flaws in the character. Even the least cynical player will tire of Phelps’ black-and-white view of the world, especially when the cases you solve as you move through the ranks start to show huge grey areas and an overarching mystery begins to form, taking you from homicide to vice and ultimately arson. It’s no real rumor that “L.A. Noire” was cut down in size, clocking it at a massive three-disc package, but originally spanning twice as many. References are made to Phelps’ time in other divisions (specifically burglary,) so to say a good portion of the game was gutted is a safe bet, and with that, I’m quite certain a little more character meat was trimmed.
Still, “L.A. Noire” is a vastly compelling game, provided you enjoy the source material and the adventure/mystery genre. All the staples are present: crooked cops, colorful wise guys, shady conspiracies, femme fatales, and vintage class and style, which is one of “L.A. Noire’s” most astounding features. Team Bondi and Rockstar truly went all out in creating vintage LA and while you are often just blasting by various landmarks, the game does slow down enough for you to immerse yourself in a piece of history. In all honesty, while the game does come up lacking (more on that in a minute) in game play, the production design and motion capture technology for every character, major, minor, and those in the background, do erase the between entertainment and art.
No expense was spared in ensuring the real-life performances of the actors employed to bring life to “L.A. Noire” weren’t anything short of stunning. The game becomes one of the few where you will actually enjoy cutscenes, both interactive (which is essentially what the interrogations are) and non-interactive, because the acting is that solid and believable. It’s just too bad that so much time was spent in making all the supporting characters you meet and interact with feel more formed than the character you’re playing as. It’s not until the game’s final act that all the pieces mesh perfectly and “L.A. Noire” gives gamers the game they expected and deserved. Love it or hate it though, there’s no denying that it’s not stylish and catchy.
To be perfectly honest, the game play of “L.A. Noire” isn’t that intricate. It follows the same model as GTA but with more limitations. You can’t engage in random mayhem and only a few action sequences ever reach chaotic proportions. Instead most of the time you’ll be searching crime scenes for clues (which show up via optional audio cues and force feedback; I strongly recommend using them) and interrogating/questioning suspects. Occasionally you’ll engage in a foot chase, fistfight, or gunfight, and while I found no glaring problems with any, their rarity becomes frustrating in the homicide and vice cases. The less said about the driving in the game the better, it’s clunky and eventually tedious; the developers must have realized this as you are always given the option of having your partner driving, advancing you straight to the desired location.
Interrogations and interviews are where “L.A. Noire” intended to break ground and for the most part they are a welcome addition, albeit clunky in spots. Depending on how well you scoured a scene for clues and interviewed witnesses, you’ll have a chance to grill a person of interest, relying on how they react to questions to determine whether they are telling the truth or lying. If they act slightly evasive or you don’t have the proper evidence to prove them wrong, you’ll have to express doubt; however, should you have proof to catch them in their tracks, calling them on the carpet is the way to go. A helpful hint for new gamers, you can accuse someone of lying and still have a chance to “back up” and change to doubt, I recommend this strategy because Phelps gives a slight hint to what piece of evidence you’d need to support your accusation.
The main reason the interrogation system works as well as it does, is once again, the performances of the actors. “L.A. Noire” attempts some feats with digital characters that traditional gaming animation just wouldn’t be able to accomplish and those who find themselves engrossed in the game world, even temporarily, will be able to overlook the shortcomings in game play, namely the repetitive nature of how things proceed. However, in the game’s defense, the fun should not come from finding clues at a crime scene, but putting together the pieces of the puzzle and solving the case with the best possible rating (one to five stars). I’ll personally attest that the cases get tricky as the game goes on, and you’ll definitely want to return to some (if not all) just to lock down that perfect rating (especially when you end up charging the wrong man or woman with the crime).
Like the story itself, “L.A. Noire” approaches shades of being a masterpiece in its final cases, ramping up the variety of action and intensity of investigation that will have you glued to the closing credits. Sadly, that’s only 4 out of 21 cases, which is not to say the preceding 17 are boring, but rest assured, there are some clunkers you’ll want to wrap up minutes after starting. In fairness, a lot of the games negative points are only accentuated by the hype and anticipation surrounding its release. In spite of it’s few, moderate flaws, “L.A. Noire” is great rebirth for the adventure/mystery game. It introduced a lot of revolutionary ideas to the entire art of game design and deserves accolades for nearly sticking the landing. It’s a game definitely worth playing, but replay value comes solely for those wanting to perfect their investigations, solve 40 brief “random” crimes and/or collect various collectibles around the city. The loss of a true GTA/Red Dead style free roam mode definitely pushes the game towards the one play through category, but what a ride that play through is.
- The motion capture work done on actor faces is truly outstanding. Subtle nuances are captured with precision and as lengthy cutscenes go on, coupled with the stellar voice acting you will be sucked into the conversations on screen as if they were actually film footage.
- The vintage world of “L.A. Noire” is lovingly recreated, and if you get a chance to slow down and take in the sights, you’ll see a very beautiful city. Little details like billboards of movie theaters featuring period titles and some vintage store signs are a splendid touch.
- On the other hand, there’s a lot of graphical pop in, but sense this largely occurs when you’re speeding in a car, its not a deal breaking issue. Those who choose to install the game on a hard drive will be less plagued by this issue than those who don’t.
- In-game character models are of lesser quality than facial animations. While movement was supposedly motion captured, there’s a level of stiffness to in-game movement that slightly undermines the realism factor of the game.
- Perfect. That’s the only word to describe the aural experience of “L.A. Noire.” Utilizing real actors was a wise choice and a Rockstar trademark. Staton as mentioned above is phenomenal, but so are supporting characters including familiar voices (and faces) like Greg Grunberg and John Noble, with the latter playing a major role towards the end of the game.
- No slouch either are the effects and music of the game, which are grounded in reality with the limited but useful selection of weapons all having distinct, realistic sounds, while the engines of the various cars might not be mind-blowing, but are never cartoonish. Musically, the game is in line with the time period featuring vintage tunes on the radio (as well as old radio dramas) and some wonderful original songs sprinkled in key cutscenes and over the closing credits.
Setting my personal bias aside, “L.A. Noire” is a must play game. The only question is how much does the average person want to spend on a title that might have very limited appeal past the first play through. If the mystery style of game play only broken up by brief but exciting moments of action isn’t your bag, “L.A. Noire” will come across more as a slow-moving interactive movie. Clocking in somewhere in the 13-20 hour range (depending on how fast you rush through cases), it’s a lot to ask of a player to engross themselves in a story that takes an awful long time to get going and at times feels slightly incomplete.
Team Bondi and Rockstar haven’t quite hit a grand slam with “L.A. Noire” but as a starting basis for future games in the same vein, its still a successful endeavor. For those hooked on the story’s genre and throwback game play, “L.A. Noire” will be a rewarding experience that shows promise of further life in DLC. The bottom line is that like the world of “L.A. Noire” itself, the game is neither black nor white; it has its grey areas and it’s up to the gamer him or herself to determine how those grey areas affect their playing experience. Recommended.