natetodamax's L.A. Noire (Xbox 360) review

Enter the streets of '40s L.A. in one of the year's best games

It's rare for an open-world game with the Rockstar logo on it to put zero emphasis on murderous rampages, but that is exactly the case in L.A. Noire. Rather than focusing on a disturbed individual who's perfectly fine with ending any life form he comes across, L.A. Noire does a 180 degree turn and throws the police into the spotlight. The result is a fantastically crafted open-world adventure game with little emphasis on action and and more emphasis on stellar investigation mechanics and unbelievable facial animation technology that combine to form one of the year's best games.  

 Cole Phelps will find himself investigating some pretty gnarly situations
The protagonist, Cole Phelps, is a former war hero (although his former squad mates may argue that point) who has chosen to continue serving his country in the form of police work. He's a very by-the-books kind of guy. He isn't someone who will break the rules often, and there's a conspicuous professionalism about him. Starting the game as a regular cop, Cole finds himself investigating a murder which ends up getting him promoted to detective. It is at this point where the game really takes off and enthralls you in a 1940s rendition of Los Angeles, a city where just about everyone has something they don't want other people to know, especially the LAPD. These people can potentially hinder Phelps's investigations, but he is surprisingly adept at reading people and picking out the lies in their statements. As you progress through the game, Cole will be promoted to different desks serving different purposes such as homicide, arson, and vice. Each desk not only has its own unique storyline but also its own unique partner. Each partner has a distinct personality, and some might be more trustworthy and easy to get along with than others. 

Cole's efficiency during investigations is entirely dictated by you, the player. Investigations can be broken up into two major parts. First, you must go over the crime scene, examining clues, checking for hints, and interviewing any witnesses who may be present. After gathering as much evidence as you can, you initiate what is essentially the second part, which involves following leads, interrogating suspects, and eventually making an arrest. This process is largely the same throughout the whole game, but each case is entirely unique in its own way; therefore, you never really feel like you are constantly doing the same thing over and over again.  
The cases themselves are linear, but there is some wiggle room in the way you go about reaching the end. Sometimes a piece of evidence you find will reveal a new location that's relevant to the case. In some situations, you may already have a pretty strong lead. Therefore, you might need to decide whether to follow up on that or investigate the evidence more to see if you can gather additional information that may be vital later on. 
The detail on all the objects is great 
An important tool in Cole's arsenal is not a gun but a notebook. Every piece of evidence you find is recorded in the notebook with a description and a sketch. In addition, every person who is mentioned gets an entry, as does every location. Almost everything that you could ever want to know during an investigation is found in this handy notebook, which fortunately can be accessed at any point during the game.  

It is through this notebook that interviews and interrogations are conducted. During a conversation, available topics to discuss are shown. Once a topic is selected, it's important to pay very close attention to how the person responds. After their statements, you must decide whether to believe them, doubt their claims, or prove that they are lying by presenting a piece of evidence you found that directly contradicts something they said. The mechanic seems easy to grasp at first; just watch their face and if they are visibly uncomfortable and avoiding eye contact, they are clearly lying, right? As it turns out, that's not always how it works. As you progress further in the game, the conversations can become devilishly difficult; you'll find yourself having to consider more than just facial movements in order to make a correct judgement. I'd be lying if I said that the game didn't get frustrating at times. I often found myself screwing up conversations simply because I didn't trust a person enough to believe anything that they were saying. Other times, I was too trustworthy, and I ended up believing someone's false leads and incorrect information.  

It's worth noting that interrogations and interviews mainly influence how efficiently you will be able to clear a case. Screwing up conversations can provide you will bogus or zero information, whereas successful ones can reveal a breakthrough that might just lead you right to the suspect's doorstep. It's a thrilling mechanic that is made so amazing by the incredible facial animations. The facial capture technology employed by developer Team Bondi is one of the most breathtaking things I've seen in a video game. Every little movement of the actor's face is recorded and show in-game with astounding results. From raised eyebrows to forehead crinkles to shifty eyes, it's sometimes hard to believe what you are seeing. L.A Noire represents a major step forward in the way conversations are held in video games, and it would be a real delight to see this become the new standard someday. 

1940s Los Angeles looks really nice
In traditional Rockstar fashion, LA. Noire presents you with a massive open-world to explore. In all honestly there isn't a whole lot to do out there, but I found myself having a good time just driving around vintage 1940s Los Angeles and taking in the sights. There are landmarks to discover as well as hidden vehicles and other collectibles, which is pretty standard stuff. The driving itself feels great; you can easily drift around corners and quickly navigate through heavy traffic with ease. Cole can commandeer any vehicle he sees, but when you're in a LAPD vehicle you'll occasionally receive dispatch calls that you can respond to. These are the game's side missions, and each of them typically lasts anywhere from one minute to around five minutes in length. They're incredibly short and there are forty total to complete, but they're still neat little things that you can do in between investigations. If driving really isn't your thing, you can also fast travel to your destination by simply handing the wheel over to your partner.  

Being a cop, you can expect to have to chase and even gun down people who just don't feel like cooperating. The combat system specifically feels very similar to Grand Theft Auto IV, which unfortunately also means that the cover system is still clunky, slow, and awkward to use. Foot and car chases are much more common; the latter of the two is definitely more exciting, however. During the chase your partner will lean out of the window with a handgun and try to pop one of the suspect's tires, but he won't be able to do this unless you get them close and keep the car steady. Although these car chases are always intense and thrilling, you'll probably end up slamming into an unbreakable pole here and there, which always brings the momentum to a grinding halt. 

Characters animate with unbelievable realism 
L.A Noire doesn't break any standards with its visuals, but it certainly doesn't look bad. The game has a very distinct and lovely '40s aesthetic, which is enhanced by the great period-appropriate music that includes some surprisingly fantastic songs that I instantly loved, such as "Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens" by Louis Jordan. Voice acting is superb all around. You'll meet some real scumbags during your time with the game, and all of them are voiced to perfection - creepers sound like creepers, pedophiles sound like pedophiles, violent murderers sound like violent murderers, and so on. Every piece of evidence you find in the game is also remarkably detailed. You can easily read every piece of bloody paper you come across, see the serial number on a gun you dug out of a trash can, determine the caliber of a bullet by examining its shell... the list is endless. 

The open-world of Los Angeles is flawed in a few disappointing ways, though. For one, the framerate can dip pretty low at random times, but thankfully it's usually quick to get back up to speed. I've encountered a very strange and irritating glitch where cars randomly disappear off the road when I look away from them. (In fact, I once had a car disappear as I was getting into it because I turned the camera away from it to look behind me.) Also, the shadows in the game have a really weird grainy look to them, which can be distracting at times. 
These issues seem like minor inconveniences when you consider how amazing the investigation process and story is. From beginning to end, L.A. Noire grabs hold of you and doesn't let go. It's stellar cast of characters and beautifully laid out cases are well worth the price of admission. For those who are concerned with replay value, you need not worry. Every case in the game can be replayed from the main menu, allowing you to see how things could have gone differently if you had discovered a crucial piece of evidence you may have missed on your first time through, or what would have happened if you didn't completely bomb an interview. On paper, L.A. Noire sounds amazing, and it's rare that a game fulfills those expectations and its potential at the same time. L.A Noire is one such case. Don't pass this experience up.

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