kickinthehead's L.A. Noire (PlayStation 3) review

A modern take on a slow burning genre

Contrary to the "Grand Theft Noir" vibe that it gives, L.A. Noire is more of a modern take on old school slow and methodical adventure games than a GTA open world action game. Using cutting edge technology the game requires you to read the facial expressions of characters you interrogate in order to determine whether or not they're telling the truth or not. Fitting somewhere in between a straight linear adventure game narrative and open world game, L.A. Noire is probably not going to completely satisfy fans of either. If you're a fan of fast paced modern Call of Duty games or GTA then it's very likely you're going to be disappointed by this style of gameplay and I'd recommend you rent it. If however you like point and click adventure games, the chase scenes and especially driving portions of the game might frustrate you. That said, L.A. Noire is much friendlier for the less action focused gamer and at times even goes out of its way to accomodate gamers who would rather advance the plot than try a twitch reflex action sequence over and over again.

Garbage, no one ever checks there, right?
Story is king in L.A. Noire so it's fortunate that for the most part everything is excellently plotted. You play as Cole Phelps, a war veteran starting as a beat cop for the LAPD. The game covers his rise through the ranks as he quickly distinguishes himself amongst his peers and proves himself an excellent detective no matter what department. You'll investigate cases from fraud up through homicide, drugs and arson. The structure of the game starts very episodic, but gradually cases start to interconnect and build up a bigger story. In addition to the main plotline there are a few other story threads including flashbacks to Cole in the war and also collectible newspapers reveal another story arc destined to collide with Cole's story. There are a few plot holes here and there, but they're the exception to the rule in what is a very engaging approximately 20 hour game.

When you boil down the tasks you have in the game it sounds monotonous and repetitive. It is repetitive, but if you're absorbed into the story it's certainly not monotonous. After you receive a case you go to the crime scene to start your investigation by looking for evidence. As you walk around, the controller will vibrate and you'll hear a piano chime indicating you're nearby evidence. Some will be relevant and some will be completely incidental. Some pieces of evidence allow for additional interaction like flipping through books, fitting pieces together, reading brand names, serial numbers and other things that will give Cole his next lead. Relevant evidence is then sorted into Cole's notebook. After finding all the evidence there's a brass music cue that indicates all evidence has been found.

Aside from the evidence, the most prominent feature by far are the interrogation sequences. New motion capture technology allowed the developers to translate the actors' facial expressions and put them onto the game characters. The results are the most realistic facial movements ever seen in a video game. Every forehead wrinkle, crease of the mouth, and eyeball movement is perfectly put onto the screen. As you interrogate you'll be given the option to decide whether they're telling the truth, lying or lying about something in direct contradiction your evidence. Just like old adventure games there is only one right answer per question, which may frustrate players looking to get all the achievements.

It's a lot harder to read characters with small eyes.
Depending on how well you do, the interrogation can go a number of different ways. If you do well then you'll usually be better equipped to make the right decision in the investigation. I played through some cases multiple times and was often surprised how just one wrong answer could reveal a piece of information that would make the difference between convicting the right and wrong person. The first cases have characters who sweat like a pig when they're lying, but by the end of the game you'll be dealing with less savory characters who are much more capable liars. If there's no evidence to work off of, it's usually best to trust your gut instincts.  This is by far the most interesting thing about L.A. Noire because the subtle shades of gray make the investigative work feel very authentic. Many times a character will be lying about something not because they're guilty of the crime you're investigating, but something else they don't want to reveal for entirely different reasons. It's these ulterior motivations and agendas that really flesh out even the smallest of characters and makes them feel like real people. 

As simple and repetitive as the core gameplay can seem, it's a fantastic way of giving the player control over how the story is slowly revealed. I'm not one of those people who figure out the killer from the first ten minutes of the movie, so I hung on every piece of evidence and dialogue as the story unfolded. No matter what you do, the story will go on and even though your game will end the same way as everyone else, the process by which you get there is likely to have a lot of different turns from someone else's game.

There's a light experience system built in. For each correct question you get experience points and as you rank up you're rewarded with hidden cars, outfits and "intuition points." These points can be stored for a maximum of 5. If you're stumped on a question you can use a point to eliminate question options or use the PSN "ask the community" option to see what other people chose (though this isn't always correct). Intuition points can also reveal the location of all evidence in a crime scene. It's best to use them only when you're really stuck since there level 20 is the maximum rank. Experience is also gained from street crimes and landmarks you find around the city.

The other parts of the game are the ones more GTA-like.. Your mileage may vary depending on how much you enjoy those games. The city of Los Angeles has been painstakingly recreated and is quite vast. Reportedly it's the largest city ever to be in a Rockstar game. There're dozens of cars to drive, and many different items to collect. There aren't side missions or factions like in GTA, but instead there are some very quick and short street crimes that you can answer the call of when they come over your police radio. There are 40 of these in total, but most of them can be finished in a few minutes.

Even "light" aim assist is very generous.
Usually they boil down to chasing targets down, shootouts and car chases. The gunplay is very simplified in this game with no HUD for your weapons, ammo counters or arsenals. The default gun settings have an aim assist mode that basically guarantees when you come out of cover you're already aiming at an enemy. This expedites action sequences and is probably something action game fans will find wholly unsatisfying. But for someone more focused on the story, it's a welcome decision. Hand to hand combat is almost an after thought with all fights involving button mashing and some light dodging. These sequences are the part of the game that in terms of face/body disconnect look the worst by far. Cars handle much like in a GTA game and were by far my least favorite part of the game because of the learning curve for driving and the fact that I almost never ever wanted to look behind my car when reversing, but the game is designed to reverse camera angles then. If you so choose you can let your partner drive to all locations which brings you there instantly. If there's some dialogue, the game will let it play out before transporting you to your designated location. 

At the end of each case you're given a rating from 1-5 stars based on how many questions you judged correctly, how much evidence you gathered and the property damage you caused while on the case. Seeing as you're a cop it's not the kind of game where you go around willfully destroying everything (though there is an achievement for doing that). In fact, the pedestrians are very resilient and I'm pretty sure won't die no matter what, but I never tested the limits of how many times I could hit one guy.

Finished cases can be easily replayed via the main menu if you want to improve your rating or go back and do more street missions.The game helps you out with notifications for street crime you've finished and also newspapers you've found, but for other items you're collecting there's no easily accessible list of what you have which means I won't be going back in without a map and a FAQ. It would've been nice if they had a reward which was a map of collectibles like in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood.

L.A. Noire is a great looking game, but it's not without its flaws. The facial motion capture is a victim of its own success because by comparison the body animation can look quite stilted and awkward at times. At worst, the characters look like stuntmen in movies who have had their faces replaced with the actors' face. When it happens, the visual disconnect really breaks the illusion. But if you focus primarily on the faces it's very impressive to look at. From what little I know of the time period it appears to have been excellently reproduced from the building exteriors, clothing and cars.

Black and white isn't just saturation turned down.
This being a film noir game they've also added an option to play the game in black & white. I did a comparison with turning the saturation down on my TV, and the black/white mode makes the contrast higher and looks quite good, but the game is still rather gray. I wish that the game had better lighting contrast typical of film noir films. The main menu is the best looking bit of black/white in the game with the dark shadows and bright light contrast. I wish there could've been more of that visual style in the game. 

Most of my complaints about the game stem from the GTA-like elements like the driving, unforgiving collecting and also very light checkpointing in the game. I'm guessing the developers didn't want people stopping the game for the sake of 100% completion, because this gives the game replay value. Still, they must've known that people were going to quit and retry missions in order to get all the questions correct, but the game isn't set up to do that with any efficiency. If you mess up and want to try again there are cutscenes you have to rewatch (not all of which are skippable), evidence to recollect and of course the questions to answer. I think it would've been a good choice to add more checkpoints. At the very least, a checkpoint after evidence is collected. 

I think it's also time for Rockstar to retire the ambient dialogue of people around you. It used to be kind of interesting that everyone on the street had something to say, but in the context of L.A. Noire it's just weird and downright unrealistic.  Maybe people in L.A. are very chatty about every person they see on the street, but I think it's more realistic if every single person that sees you makes some mention of your name and accomplishments.  

Pretty much everything else is top notch. The acting is excellent all around, and real kudos to the director for getting good performances out of actors isolated sitting in a chair surrounded by HD cameras. It can be hard enough to marry motion capture with actors in a sound booth with no other actors to play off of, but this extra step for the facial capture must've made it that much more difficult. Sometimes the tone and energy can go up and down without any warning, but all things considered it fits together very well. The sheer scale of scanned in faces for the game is staggering with every minor NPC having facial motion capture. Yes, there is a disconnect between the fidelity of the face and body, but it's still a very impressive achievement.

L.A. Noire is a very exciting evolution of the adventure game which has traditionally had very little innovation of its mechanics, but I hope that other companies take some cues and find more ways to make modern takes on point and click adventure. I don't think that this sort of facial motion capture would be good in all games, because in certain games it feels better to have stylized humans, but it's interesting technology that if used correctly could really enhance video games and take them in exciting new directions. I could see games like Heavy Rain adopting this technology well for sequels.

So once again, if you like adventure games and want some more action in them, then definitely play L.A. Noire. If you're looking for another sand boxy GTA game with a world to cause wacky hijinks and destruction then do yourself a favor and look elsewhere. At the very least the game has to be seen just for the technical achievement alone. Your enjoyment will depend on your attention span and your personal requirements for gameplay/story ratio.


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