L.A. Noire (360)

By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Sunday, June 5, 2011

Graphics: 9.50
Sound: 10.00
Gameplay: 9.00
Replays: 7.00
Gamelength: 8.50

L.A. Noire is a game that has intrigued people ever since word of it first leaked out back in 2004. Developed by Team Bondi, an Australian developer created by the former Director of Development for Team Soho (The Getaway), L.A. Noire is a combination of the third person action games that Rockstar Games has become known for with some of the open world elements of Grand Theft Auto/Red Dead Redemption and a heavy emphasis on detective work. Much has been discussed about the game’s motion capture technology and crime scene investigations, while a lot less had been known about the narrative and action sequences. Everything comes together quite nicely in the final product, and while there are some occasional flaws the game is a stunning achievement that is one of the year’s best.

The game takes place in Los Angeles circa 1947, when corruption and crime were mixed with fame and wealth. Players step into the shoes of Cole Phelps, an up and coming police officer (and later detective) who served in World War II but has a bit of a shady past and wrongdoings that he feels he must atone for. The story is told through in-game cutscenes, flashbacks that chronicle Phelps’ time in the military and in-game banter between the characters while driving and walking around. For the most part, each case has its own individual plot that wraps up once the players have solved it (aside from the Homicide desk where players chase a serial killer and each case is related) and much of the plot development revolving around the main character doesn’t happen until a good ways into the game. Although some could argue that Phelps isn’t as likeable of a character as some of the others that have starred in previous Rockstar titles such as Red Dead Redemption, I found that he still had you rooting for him and the interactions with all of the other side characters more than made up for it. The way that the plot is structured reminds me of many of the crime dramas that are currently on television, as each case/episode is resolved but character development progresses as things move forward and I think that could make the title appeal to quite a few people.

The graphics help to pull you into the world of Los Angeles in the 1940’s. Team Bondi has done an excellent job of recreating the city from that period of time as there are recognizable landmarks that the player can discover throughout the game, although they have condensed things slightly to make it a little easier to get around (players are aided by a GTA style mini-map as they drive around and can set markers for where they want to go). The game looks stunning as both the cars and characters display a lot of detail and the city itself has a lot of interesting sights. You can tell that a lot of work has been put into making the engine work with whatever players want to do, as you can cause a traffic jam with 6-8 cars and they will all still be on screen without any slowdown as you walk around. But what really steals the show is the facial motion capture which has resulted in some of the most realistic faces ever seen in a video game, as it allows the full range of emotions to be displayed so that players can make judgments (more on this later). There are little quirks here and there, such as not being able to use a turn signal when the AI can and some occasional glitches but the facial details and overall scope of the world are impressive. Plus, the fact that you can go into the options at any time and choose to switch to an entirely black and white game to give it that noire feel is a nice little touch.

Going along with the stunning visual design is some standout audio work. Team Bondi has gotten some great actors to lend their talent to L.A. Noire, and those of you who watch Mad Men will realize a lot of familiar faces throughout the course of the game. Given that the motion capture places a lot of emphasis on emotions and tiny details it was important that the game have convincing actors in the role of major and minor characters, and this is exactly what has happened. Additionally, the team has worked with composer Andrew Hale to write an original score that mimics much of the music that was popular in the 40’s. There are a few licensed tracks, but for the most part the game favors original material that suits the overall feel of the game perfectly and players may spend a good deal of time just driving around so that they can hear the various tracks and commentary on the car radio.

Much of your time in L.A. Noire is spent driving around the city, investigating crime scenes, and chasing/taking down suspects. After you receive your assignment your first order of business is to get to the crime scene and other locations. You can drive there yourself or choose to let your partner take over and let the game take you there on autopilot. As you are a police officer, you are expected to not hit pedestrians or other cars and can be penalized for doing so. Any player that tries to approach the game as a Grand Theft Auto open world title will quickly be disappointed, as the amount of things you can do in your car are limited, but the vehicle handling feels accurate for the time period and despite the sheer amount of time you spend in your car things don’t get so repetitive that you want to turn the game off. Once you have reached the scene of the crime, you walk around and investigate different objects (what you can interact with is signaled by a vibration, but you can turn this off if you want to explore without any hints). The more evidence that you collect, the easier it is to question witnesses and suspects. When talking to people you can choose to accept their statement as truth, cast doubt on it, or expose it as a lie using evidence based on their facial expression and whether they are making eye contact or not. This is difficult at first and while you can’t fail a case if you mess up it is a little disappointing that there is only one correct answer. Despite the fact that the interrogations are a bit limited, they feel unique and no other game has really done anything like this that I can think of.

Occasionally Phelps will have to pursue a suspect and either take them out on foot, pursue them in a vehicle while his partner attempts to shoot out their tires, or engage in a gun battle or hand to hand fight. As this is a story driven game and you are an officer of the law, these cannot be done freely and only occur when the game gives you the opportunity. The hand to hand fighting is fairly simplistic but satisfying, and allows you to block, punch, grapple and do a finishing move. It doesn’t happen that frequently as many times running after the suspect/getting into a gun battle is more common but when you are pushed into a fist fight it feels natural. The way that the guns work feels similar to Red Dead Redemption, as you move from cover to cover, wait for the enemy to stop firing or peak their head out from behind cover, and press the aim button to automatically lock onto them. None of the shooting sequences seem particularly difficult but they are fun and some of the environments that the game puts you into for them make them memorable (although it does seem that no matter where you hit an enemy with a bullet they die from the impact and this seems a bit strange).

Aside from the main story cases, players can wander around Los Angeles and respond to various street crime cases. These are mainly robberies and domestic disputes, and while they do serve as a nice distraction I did find them to be rather disappointing as towards the middle of the game almost every single one turned into a chase or gun fight. There didn’t seem to be a good way to really apprehend the suspects, and quite often the street crimes are solved by putting a bullet in the enemy and letting the coroner take their body away which is unfortunate. If a sequel is made I would like to see these side missions handled a bit differently, as a few more options for handling the situation would go a long way. The other things players can do are basically for achievements/completions, as they can discover different landmarks as they are driving past them, collect different cars (I forgot to mention that as a police officer, you can take anyone’s car that you want), and find cleverly hidden film reels. The game has fairly low replay value once you’ve completed all the cases and I’m not sure how many players will want to collect absolutely everything, but expect to get a decent amount of play time out of the game no matter how much you choose to do.

L.A. Noire is the type of game that you’ll want to play for hours on end while it lasts, and while the interrogations and street crime cases could use a bit more options the title is genuinely engaging and worth seeing through to the end. The scale of the city and the motion capture technology are definitely groundbreaking for this type of game and it will make you want to see more titles using this type of realistic character emotions in the years to come. Just don’t go in expecting an open world Grand Theft Auto type game, as L.A. Noire is a very rigid story driven experience that uses its set pieces and missions to keep the player engaged rather than giving them an open sandbox.

Full Disclosure: Review copy provided by Rockstar Games

Overall Rating: 9.00

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