First and last big-budget adventure game of the generation.
The late 1940’s are such a fascinating period of modern history. The Second World War was over and most of the soldiers who survived the horrors of the conflict had returned home to their families, but there was still unease in the air, not least because the Cold War was just beginning to hot up. The Second Red Scare in the form of McCarthyism was taking root; with the trial of possible Soviet spy Alger Hiss in 1948 and the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating alleged Communist subversion in the Hollywood. In 1949, the Soviet Union would test their first atomic bomb, plunging it and the United States into both the Arms Race and the Space Race. But alongside these weighty political and worldly affairs, the late 40’s were also a time of great prosperity in America. After being the centre of the Allied arms manufacturing during the war the American economy was booming. For the first time, families could afford to buy a house, a car and even a refrigerator. In particular, the growth of the automobile shot up after the war. The car, alongside television, is certainly one of the most important inventions of the last 150 years. It stands for personal mobility and independence: The ability to drive wherever you like whenever you want, with the world at your feet. Advertisements on radio, television and newspapers showed Norman Rockwell-esque wholesome images of well-fed, healthy people driving down neat streets with white-picket fences, fully embracing the long-sought after American Dream. It is directly into this heady, interesting and dynamic world you are plunged within L.A. Noire, an adventure game with action elements from Team Bondi, published by Grand Theft Auto makers Rockstar Games. L.A. Noire is unlike any game you have ever played before, and I would go so far as to say you are unlikely to play a game quite like it ever again. While there are several elements which occasionally hamper your immersion and enjoyment, overall this is one of the finest narratives video gaming has ever produced and you owe it to yourself to experience what L.A. Noire has on offer.
The setup is interesting enough. You play as Cole Phelps; a former US Marine turned Police Detective who was awarded the Silver Star during the war for his heroism during the Battle of Okinawa. Returning from active combat he got a job as a Police Officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, and most of the game consists of following Cole’s progression up through the ranks of the LAPD policing the mean streets of L.A. You start on Patrol and are soon promoted to Detective, working your way across several different crime desks covering everything from Traffic cases to Homicide and Arson. Phelps is a straight man who plays everything by the book and whilst he believes firmly in the rule of law, that doesn’t mean he isn’t willing to bend a few rules if it means getting to the truth. Indeed, this is partly what makes him such an interesting character. Throughout your journey you encounter an absolutely huge cast of supporting characters, the size of which wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster, all of whom are interesting and unique in their own right. The plot if L.A. Noire is certainly its biggest strength, feeling richly detailed and defined. The way the game progresses is in episode format, so each individual case is self-contained but forms part of the over-arching narrative which spans all case desks. This means that it is a game which can be played in bite-size chunks, but can also be played over longer periods if desired and thus has quite an addictive nature about it. The acting from every front is superb and thanks to the second-to-none facial animations, you can actually see the emotion in the actor themselves, and not simply hear it in their voice as in most video games. My only criticism with the plot would be that the very, very end of the game is rather anti-climactic and doesn’t resolve things properly, but the path leading there is immensely enjoyable. Truly, if you value story in a video game it doesn’t get much better than this.
Gameplay mainly consists of police procedural work. You will normally be given a case and then need to drive out to the crime scene with your partner to investigate. The crime scene will usually have a number of clues scattered around which you must look at and manipulate, which Cole will then respond to. This will help to fill in different aspects of the crime committed and allow you to start to piece together what happened. When examining a clue, you often have to physically manipulate it by moving your mouse around until the view zooms it to examine a part of the object, to which Cole will then make an observation. It’s a simple technique but a surprisingly good one, which helps to put you in Cole’s shoes and make it feel like you are examining the evidence yourself, rather than just accepting what is given at face value. After gathering preliminary evidence and, if there is a dead body, listening to what Coroner Malcolm Carruthers has to say, it’s time to interview the witnesses. During interviews you have a list of questions to ask the suspect, to which you then must ascertain whether they are telling the truth or if they are lying. Thanks to the incredible facial animations, it is normally quite easy to guess when something is lying due to their facial mannerisms or the way their eyes move, although as you progress through the game people will get progressively more adept at lying or planting false leads.
Alongside the interviewing, crime scene investigations and clue examining, there are also the Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar Games staples of driving and shooting. Both of these are executed in a very similar manner to GTA, but the emphasis rests in different places. Most notably, here you are on the right side of the law, so doing anything illegal will detract from your case rating and may stop the investigation all together. So although you can drive like a maniac around Los Angeles smashing into everything you can see and trying to run over the pedestrians, it isn’t advisable if you want to get a good score. Similarly, most of the time when walking around the city, Cole doesn’t have any weaponry and doesn’t pull out his gun unless the situation calls for it. If you shoot a civilian or fellow police officer it’s game over and you’ll need to restart from the last checkpoint. GTA this is not. Shooting sequences are satisfying and the period weaponry Phelps has access to packs quite a punch. Getting into and out of cover is handled in the same way as in GTA IV, so you stick to the side of cars and can shimmy around before firing out around the side or over the top. Driving also feels similar to GTA IV in that most cars have quite floaty handling, but this means you can do some very impressive cornering during a high speed chase. Possibly the most interesting thing about the shooting and driving sections of the game is that if you fail them a couple of times, you’re given the option to skip them entirely. This is a great option to have included, which means that people who just want to see the story through but aren’t good at shooting can enjoy the game as well.
The Los Angeles of 1947 is easily, by and far the most detailed digital representation of a city ever created in a video game. For one thing, the area covered is vast, covering eight square miles and ranging from Downtown LA in the east to the glitzy realm of Hollywood in the west. The attention to detail in the recreation of period Los Angeles is obsessive almost to the extreme. A perfect example is Union Station, where the entire interior concourse has been fastidiously recreated, yet you visit it perhaps only once in the game. Whole other buildings with interiors are lurking in the city which you may never go inside during the course of your playthrough and as far as I can tell, the whole district of Chinatown isn’t visited at all. Almost all landmark buildings which were standing in 1947 have been incorporated (including many of which are not labelled on the map, such as the Hall of Justice or the LA Stock Exchange), and the street plans accurately mirror those of real life LA. Hundreds of other buildings have their own unique signage and advertisements, which you wouldn’t notice unless you drove by slowly or wandered around on foot. Aside from one or two inaccuracies taken for the sake of artistic license (for example, the set of D.W. Griffiths’ 1916 silent epic “Intolerance” was actually torn down in 1919, but in the game it is still standing), LA feels like a living and vibrant city where it is a joy simply to drive around admiring the scenery.
When it comes to sound, on the voice acting front I would be the first to recommend L.A. Noire for an Academy Award. Considering the complicated facial capture that when into creating emotive and believable faces for all the characters, this can perhaps be considered the first game where the actors haven’t simply voice-acted, but acted in person. Kudos must naturally go to Aaron Staton for his portrayal of Phelps, as well as many of his fellow cast members from the TV show Mad Men. There are only one or two minor characters who can’t quite act as convincingly, but generally speaking you can see the emotion in the character’s eyes when one is told that his wife was murdered for example. Solidifying the sense of presence the game establishes so masterfully is the horn-laden orchestral score, which sounds right out of a James Cagney film, and the in-game radio station KTI. Unlike the GTA games, L.A. Noire only has one radio station, and its content is not overtly humorous. Instead, it intersperses genuine radio programmes of the era (such as the sitcom The Bickersons or The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show), as well as news bulletins featuring clips from stories which were hitting the headlines at the time (including a speech from President Truman). Although the announcer and KTI itself was created for the game, the old-time sound quality merges seamlessly with the genuine radio elements, and the faux adverts for products like Cola King and Alaco Gasoline could easily be believed to be real. Throw in some period songs and you have a typical authentic 40’s era radio station, and that is utterly marvellous.
If I had to level criticisms at L.A. Noire, they would be incredibly minor ones. Considering there is a functioning Pacific Electric Tramway system operating around virtual LA, it’s a disappointment that you can’t actually use it. The same can also be said of the complicated bus system, which have a number of terminals dotted around the city and which you go to in a couple of missions. This is merely me talking as a role-player though, only because I want to feel like I’m in Phelps shoes. There is also a big narrative jump in pacing between the Homicide and Vice desks, but that may be because the integral plot of the Homicide desk is so strong that it’s difficult for Vice and the cases following it to live up to expectations. When you consider that two whole investigation desks (Burglary and Bunco) were removed from the game when development time was running out, you can see that Team Bondi originally planned the game to be even longer, and this is already an epic length game to begin with. In terms of the quality of the PC port, there are no problems to speak of. The game runs smoothly aside from a couple of hiccups here and there, and there is a plethora of options to either tune up or tone down the graphical settings to your whim.
When it all comes to it, the thing which really makes me adore L.A. Noire is its fastidious attention to detail. A perfect example is that during one case, Phelps is on his way to interview a witness and is in the car chatting to his current partner, Rusty Galloway. Rusty casually mentions to Phelps whether he has heard the news of what’s happening in the China: The Chinese have been selling off the food aid the US has been sending. Phelps says he has, and that the Chinese are selling the food aid because they’re trying to fund the war against the Communists. Phelps mentions that armies still need food to fight wars though, and remarks that he thinks the Communists will win because the ordinary people going hungry will turn against the government. This indeed does happen in 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party overthrew the Kuomintang and forced the nationalists to flee to Taiwan. This small conversation, which happens just once during the game, perfectly encapsulates the central issue of the Chinese Civil War whilst also being a character-building moment for Rusty and Phelps. L.A. Noire is stuffed full of such moments, and this is a big part of what makes it such a joy to play through. There probably will never be another game quite like L.A. Noire, but goodness knows I sure hope there will be.