L.A. Noire ReviewMike Birchall
L.A Noire is, at the very least, a kind of game that has never been seen before. Taking you back to glamorous 1940's Los Angeles, the player steps into the gumshoes of Detective Cole Phelps, a World War Two veteran, as he rises through the ranks of the L.A Police Department, solving crimes and busting criminals in one of the deepest stories ever told in videogames.
For starters, the game is presented extremely well. The shiny outer shell of L.A Noire is a faithful realisation of 1940's L.A, even down to some famous landmarks. This is then doused in the familiar 'noir' style - Detectives are of the hard-boiled variety, the bad guys are cocky, and the women are usually filled with holes or stab wounds. That is to say, I was particularly surprised at how gruesome this game can be - especially working on the homicide desk. Team Bondi and Rockstar pull no punches in the presentation of 'realistic' murder scenes. I never thought I'd say this, but I pray that no 'zombie' DLC will be released. However, these elements do tie together beautifully. They all add to a gritty, realistic style that genuinely shocks the viewer should Detective Phelps happen upon a particularly gruesome scene.
All of this is just the outside - the most important (and very possibly revolutionary) aspect of L.A Noire's presentation is the outstanding Motion Scan technology. Actors aren't only heard, but also seen. 32 cameras record each actor whilst delivering their lines, ensuring the most realistic facial graphics seen in any game to date. Of course, because of Rockstar's vast resources, there are many familiar faces, such as John Noble (Fringe's Walter Bishop) and Greg Grunberg (Heroes' Matt Parkman) as well as Detective Phelps himself, Aaron Staton (Mad Men's Ken Cosgrove).
This technology is tremendously valuable when interviewing suspects and citizens, one of L.A Noire's core mechanics. The player must ask some characters a series of questions in order to gather evidence, or even better, a confession. The player can choose to trust, doubt, or call out the character's response as a lie, provided that you have sufficient evidence. This is where the Motion Scan technology really becomes useful, as the player scans the character's face for subtle indicators that something foul is afoot. This, however, is one of L.A Noire's main shortcomings. After one or two cases adjusting to the system, you'll realise that a straight stare indicates the character is being truthful, and shifty eyes show that you should doubt them, or call them out as a liar. Even this is remarkably easy most of the time. The player can back out of accusing a character of lying before they give evidence. More often than not, the act of accusation itself reveals whether the suspect is lying, as they often blatantly tell the player to use a certain piece of evidence - 'Oh yeah, what can you use to prove that I murdered my wife? My favourite shirt, soaked in her blood? Well, I really hope you don't have that!'
This, however, isn't the main problem with L.A Noire's gameplay. In fact, it can't really be summarised in a single factor. Something made me simply not want to finish this game. A standard 'case', of which there are just over 20, split over five desks from patrol to arson, consists of the following: Your gruff supervisor sends you and your 'I'm too old for this shit' partner off to a crime scene, where there's typically a dead body or two, and several pieces of evidence, as well as a witness to interrogate. Then a convenient piece of evidence leads you to a location where there is another witness to interrogate or crime scene to inspect, or an 'action' sequence that is usually a car chase, foot chase, or some sort of standoff. Repeat this step a few times until you bag your man. Gradually however, after solving case after case, I grew bored with Detective Phelps' exploits. Investigating crime scenes became tiresome obstacles between action sequences that were generally cut-and-paste, save a few set pieces. Now don't get me wrong, L.A Noire tries its very hardest to not be repetitive. The generally linear path that you follow can throw a few surprising turns your way, and there are some cases that truly stand out. However, for every 'CSI' meets 'Se7en' high-octane brain-teasing mega-case, there are three or four 'The Wire' meets 'Watching paint dry' slow-burning cases. There are also two separate stories, told through newspapers and flashbacks, which intertwine throughout the game, gearing up to an impressive finale. By the time I got there, I found that I simply didn't care what happened to Cole Phelps and friends. The story is generally well told and well thought out, but can feel forced down your throat at times, especially after you realise that the game mostly plays itself. Hints for finding clues can be turned off, and valuable intuition points (essentially hints during clue searching and interviews) can be left unused, but there is no real motivation to even pay attention to the story once you get past the first half. This left me feeling detached from the characters that I was supposed to care about most, meaning even key twists and revelations as the game winds towards its finale didn't entice me as much as they should have.
A note should be made, however, for the astounding quality of audio design in L.A Noire. Along with a stellar cast of voice actors mentioned above, the game features an authentic jazz-based soundtrack and brilliant sound effects, as well as fantastic dialogue, which draw you even further into 1940's L.A.
Rockstar and Team Bondi have truly created something wonderfully experimental with L.A Noire. Will it break the boundary between game and cinema? No. Despite being the first videogame featured at the Tribeca Film Festival, the game as a piece of cinema would be a B-Movie at best. This isn't a bad thing, of course. After all, you can't play a movie, and movies have the advantage of not needing to last about 10 hours to satisfy the player. Extremely high production values and innovative technology will draw you into a deep, enthralling 1940's Los Angeles. The story is well crafted for the most part, save a few cracks, but is a long slog. Avoid this game if you're not a fan of long cut scenes or talking. Otherwise, get yourself two suits and get 'em pressed. Good luck, detective.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.