Tacky Suits and Fedoras Unite; L.A. Noire Delivers
The news media would certainly agree that there have been plenty of open world representations of the criminal lifestyle in video games; Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption are some shining examples of that actuality. In contrast, few titles have ever attempted to emulate the opposite element of society. Outside of tie-in products featuring comic book superheroes and a few throw-away adventure games branded with the CSI license, crime-fighting is a drastically underrepresented concept within the video game medium.
With L.A. Noire, Team Bondi has attempted to craft an homage to crime dramas of the 1940s and ‘50s, and in succeeding, they have pieced together an exciting and compelling experience focused on resolute detective work and personal vindication. Cole Phelps, the title’s protagonist, joined the Los Angeles Police Department shortly following his time in active duty amidst the storied conflict of World War II. At the start of the narrative, solving a big case earns Phelps a fedora and a seat in the detective office.
There is a lot going on within the overarching narrative driving Phelps’ career. Each promotion he earns throughout the game’s twelve or so hours of run-time lands him with a new, quirky partner and a series of eccentric commanding officers who seem to either love or hate him with progressing intensity. The cases become naturally more complex, ranging from a simple instance of foul play to an extensive series of complex murders inspired by an unsolved, real-world mystery. They are delivered episodically, so playing through one case a night is just as satisfying as stringing a bunch of them together in a sort of crime-solving marathon.
The general gameplay in L.A. Noire is centered on investigating crime scenes, finding clues, and interrogating various witnesses and suspects. The majority of time spent playing the game involves the first of those aspects. Most of the crime scenes are littered with a host of clues and quite a few bits of useless junk intermingled within. This process is handled quite nicely; the controller vibrates whenever Phelps comes near an object that can be investigated, and subtle musical cues put forward information about whether or not you have finished with your task in the current area. Most of these segments are straightforward, but there are a few occasions where clues might not be as clear to pick out as others.
Interrogating witnesses and suspects is perhaps one of the more rewarding gameplay elements presented within this package. It can also be one of the more frustrating. Most people Phelps has reason to question possess some minute piece of information that they aren’t quite ready to divulge, and so it is up to you to pay attention to their words and physical presentation as a method of deciding whether or not they are lying. This is where Team Bondi’s excellent facial tracking technology comes the most in handy. Though visually appealing throughout the entirety of the experience, individual expressions of sincerity and outright anger really shine through as each character’s face comes to life with emotion. Foreheads wrinkle in suspicion, teeth grit in frustration, and eyes gleam with remorse and contempt. It is an impressive new technology, the likes of which have never been seen in games before, and a title like L.A. Noire seems the perfect candidate for introducing it.
Parting from the story, there are not all that many activities to perform within the faithfully recreated portions of Los Angeles presented. The city is open for exploration from the beginning, but it refrains from becoming a sandbox environment you might expect to find in a product with the Rockstar Games brand painted all over it. In fact, with the option of having Phelps’ partner chauffeur him from case to case, it is possible to ignore the world entirely outside of the core narrative. Should you choose to do your own navigating, however, there are some true-to-life monuments to discover, some cars to find and unlock, and most significantly there are some short, everyday police dispatch missions -- 40 in all -- to take part in. Once that is all finished, well, that’s it. There are no rocket launchers with which to shoot down roaming helicopters and no maximum “wanted” level to attain. The developers have even made it pointedly difficult to senselessly murder civilians; a testament to the sort of character that Cole Phelps is.
L.A. Noire is not an industry-changing video game, but it is a very good one crafted with excellent attention and care, and even some exciting new technology that we can all hope to see present as games continue to evolve. I don’t know that there is a lot of replay value to be found within Detective Phelps’ crusade for justice, but there is enough investigating, action, and intrigue contained within the first go-around that the game doesn’t really need to be experienced multiple times. I don’t think this title will revolutionize the way you think about video games, but it will strap you in for one heck of an entertaining, fedora-filled ride.