Giant Bomb Review

443 Comments

L.A. Noire Review

5
  • PS3
  • X360

Rockstar's bold open-world adventure game wraps macabre '40s grit around gripping detective work.

Steady investigation is more effective than a hail of bullets in L.A. Noire.

Before you approach Rockstar's vintage crime opus L.A. Noire, you should set your expectations and be clear that it is, at its core, an adventure game. Like Grand Theft Auto and its legion of imitators, this game has a sprawling, open city environment for you to explore, but don't expect to grab a Tommy gun and wreak havoc in that city whenever you feel like it. This just isn't that kind of game. Instead, the focus is squarely on good, clean police work: scouring crime scenes for evidence, extracting information from persons of interest whether they're willing to talk or not, building a case, making an arrest. It's a hard-nosed and methodical experience that's not quite like anything else I've played in a game of this scale.

The game's 1947 Los Angeles presents a booming urban jungle full of post-war opportunities for both triumph and tragedy. Like the canon of film noir this game borrows heavily from, it's a world where anyone and everyone is harboring secrets, and even the good guys are more concerned with extracting confessions and generating headlines than with petty trifles like due process. (And that's assuming they truly are good guys in the first place.) Your straight-laced LAPD detective Cole Phelps is a far cry from the anti-heroes and scoundrels that anchor most of Rockstar's games, and a great contrast to this atmosphere of corruption, paranoia, and opportunism. He's a war hero and do-gooder who believes, perhaps naively, that he can actually help clean up his city--though, like almost everyone else in the game, even Phelps has secrets to hide.

Real-world figures like gangster Mickey Cohen make the game feel authentic.

Rockstar usually works exclusively with winking facsimiles of actual places, people, and history, but L.A. Noire's ripped-from-the-headlines Los Angeles is the real deal. The city itself is modeled to a degree of detail that will make its layout and famous landmarks feel familiar to anyone who's spent any time around the modern-day version. You'll regularly find yourself cruising down Hollywood Boulevard, responding to a call for backup at 5th and Figueroa, or investigating a crime scene at the city's classic Egyptian Theater. Likewise, L.A. Noire's storyline concerns itself directly with mid-century Los Angeles artifacts like the Black Dahlia murder, West Coast crime boss Mickey Cohen, and the construction of the city's now-infamous freeway system. The game's atmosphere and tone benefit tremendously from the inclusion of these historical elements and the decades of cultural mystique that have built up around them, giving a great sense of authenticity to the whole sordid affair.

As lovingly rendered as L.A. Noire's open world is, it's incidental to the way the game unfolds. You don't follow one seamless timeline from beginning to end, roaming around the city and picking up missions at will from people with exclamation marks over their heads or something. Instead the game is broken up into 17 lengthy vignettes, each focusing on a single case file and each one feeding directly into the next, often with time passing in between. Phelps will work different desks like arson, homicide, and vice as he ascends the LAPD ladder, and the multiple cases you investigate on each desk contribute to individual story arcs that themselves serve as single acts within the greater plot. You'll get to know new cops and crooks at each desk, but important characters tend to pop up again and again throughout the game, creating a cohesive storyline that goes to some dark places and becomes tense as all hell as it builds toward its climax. The writing is among the best in the business, creating some really memorable and often despicable characters who speak with just the sort of antiquated speech necessary to make the dialog feel appropriate to the setting.

Steely Capt. Donnelly here wants you to bring back a confession--at any cost.

The game's episodic structure is effective preicsely because you're playing by police rules, and Phelps is such a by-the-book kind of guy. It would be entirely out of character and context for you to blow up a block full of cars or wantonly go on a shooting spree in the middle of MacArthur Park, and in fact, you can't even draw your gun unless you're placed in a situation where you reasonably need to use it. Repeat: no random acts of violence allowed. I can respect the limits the game places on your open-world freedom; these limits are there in service of the story and maintaining your immersion within it. There seems to be an awareness of those limits in the design, too, since you're not actually required to drive to each new destination; you can set a map waypoint and have your partner drive, effectively fast-travelling you directly there if you just want to get on with the detective stuff. Since you're never in the car for more than a few minutes at once, I found myself doing almost all the driving myself just to take in the city's sights, and because the game does a good job of masking its load times with the driving sequences, making for a more seamless experience. Driving around during a case also gives you the chance to unlock new Los Angeles landmarks and respond to petty street crimes called out over police dispatch, both of which carry peripheral benefits in addition to giving you a break from the case at hand, but I'll get to those in a bit. (There's a lot going on in this game.)

That's all side stuff, anyway. You play L.A. Noire primarily to solve crimes, and your investigations are broken down into a few specific mechanical components that all feed into each other to generate new leads for you to follow. Your first step is almost always to visit the crime scene itself and gather clues, and the game does a great job of letting you get up close and hands-on with the evidence, letting you manipulate suspicious objects, documents, and even corpses directly. The detail on this stuff is fine enough that you can extract really specific information, like a gun's serial number, and add it to the list of people, places, and clues that you manage in an in-game notebook. There are some neat puzzles scattered here and there that have you piecing objects back together or solving clockwork locks and things of that nature, so it's not all just eyeballing an insurance policy for incriminating information (though there is that, too).

You can't build a case without gathering the right evidence...

Then there's the game's most talked-about--and what I suspect will be its most divisive--feature, the conversation system. This is where you ask questions (or demand answers) from suspects or other people of interest, then have to determine whether they're telling you the truth or not, and if necessary, present some kind of evidence to disprove their statements. Yes, it's not unlike Phoenix Wright. In the absence of the right evidence, you have to look at their faces and body language, and also try to get inside their heads and think about their motives, to get the right "answer." There is only one right answer to each question, which will probably put some people off, and I'd agree this would be a damnable offense if failing to catch a suspect in a lie triggered some kind of failure or restart. But instead you'll merely miss out on some piece of information and be required to make up for it in some other way, which changes the course of your investigation and gives the flow of each case a dynamic feel. If you, like me, are the sort of person who exhausted every single dialog choice in Mass Effect, you'll eat this stuff up and wish there were more of it.

The chance of missing information isn't unique to the conversations. The most important thing to know about the investigations in L.A. Noire is that there's a relatively high degree of variability in the way a case plays out. You can't "fail" a case, per se; you'll always conclude it by nabbing someone--again, making an arrest is more important to most of these cops than discovering the truth--even if that someone isn't actually the right person. But the route you take to get there depends on all kinds of factors, like whether you noticed a crucial piece of evidence or not, or what order you chose to visit a list of locations on your agenda. I went back and played several cases again (the game lets you do this easily from a cases menu) and found several clues I had missed earlier, which allowed me to construct a stronger line of questioning and solve the cases more expeditiously than the first time around. A couple of times, I completed cases without even visiting every location or talking to every suspect, since I'd already gathered enough evidence to go after the perpetrator. It's ironic that the worse you perform, the more content you'll potentially see, but this flexibility helped me feel like I was doing my own casework instead of following a single, rigid "correct" path through each case.

...but sometimes you can just let your piece do the talking.

How thoroughly you run your investigation feeds into a five-star rating presented at the end of a case, and this rating directly informs the praise or dressing-down you get from your current superior. (You really don't want to raise the ire of the Irish captain of the homicide squad, with all his righteous sword-of-justice blarney.) More importantly, the rating feeds into a thin RPG layer where you rank up and earn "intuition" points that you can cash in to ease the interrogation and evidence-gathering aspects. You can also unlock new suits for Phelps and a number of fast, fancy cars by ranking up. Doing other side activities like discovering the LA landmarks and completing the street crime missions also generate experience points, so there's a feedback mechanism in place to encourage you to get into the side activities. There are 40 of those petty crime missions, which are usually only a few minutes long and culminate in some kind of quick action sequence after a short cinematic setup explaining what's going on. Expect bank heists, peeping toms, and other undesirable elements of society that need addressing.

Those types of action sequences also punctuate the story-driven cases when the situation becomes dire enough to call for them. You'll end up chasing a lot of suspects on foot, and you can stop them in their tracks with a warning shot if you can hold your aim on them long enough. Otherwise you'll usually end up getting into a fistfight with them, or gunning them down if they take a hostage. The game does have occasional full-on shooting sequences, operating on a perfectly competent cover-based model, though it should tell you something that there's an achievement for gunning down 100 bad guys and I didn't get it until the last case of the game. The car chases are my favorite aspect of the game's action sequences; the loose, arcade-like handling lets you skid around corners and deftly evade traffic as you try to get close enough for your partner to shoot out a suspect's tire from the passenger side. Then you ram the guy off the road or flip him over. All of this action is relatively basic but hard-hitting enough to be quite entertaining, and these sequences pop up just often enough to provide a nice contrast to the more sedate investigative work.

The noir stylings really help sell the experience.

The game comes by its title honestly, doing just about everything it can to evoke the noir classics from the period that inspired it. That ranges from the typeface used to present each case's title to the fact that you can play the entire game in black and white, which enables the sort of harsh contrast you would expect from the genre. The big-orchestra score feels completely appropriate for the setting and subject matter, and there's a great musical aspect to the investigations as well. When you're out looking for clues you'll get single notes from the piano and stand-up bass indicating there's more evidence to be found, and sustained strings add some discomfort to the interrogations when the tension starts to build between Phelps and his subject. And the game pulls no punches at all. The seedy underside of Los Angeles is an ugly, ugly place: racism, misogyny, rape, pedophilia, mutilation, infidelity, betrayal, and a truckload of grisly corpses (that you'll get up close and personal with) are just some of the elements that underpin the game's cases. It definitely earns its mature rating.

Talking about the presentation, a review of this game would be remiss without discussing the performances, because all the ballyhoo about L.A. Noire's facial animation is not for nothing. Judged purely by their faces, these are simply the most impressively believable characters I've ever seen in a game. It doesn't hurt that the performances range from good to stellar (you'll recognize a ton of character actors from all over the place), but the technology is what enables those performances to really show in every furrowed brow and widened eye. The sheer malleability of these faces--the wrinkles and expressions and nuances that can appear and then disappear before you even process them--is almost unnerving. There are some cases where the body movements look stilted or unnatural in contrast to the startling quality of the faces, but on the whole the believability of these characters plays a huge part of making L.A. Noire what it is. The game wouldn't work nearly as well without them.

The quality of the performances and facial animation is second to none.

Having spent a lot of time with both versions of L.A. Noire, the PlayStation 3 game is the clear-cut winner. Both versions of the game look fantastic, but there were a few instances of painful frame rate drops and objects drawing in too slowly on the Xbox that didn't exist on the PS3. Also, the shadows look a bit more jagged. This is splitting hairs, since both games look good enough that you should just get the one on the platform you prefer, though the PS3 also has the added benefit of being on a single disc to the Xbox's three, and includes an exclusive downloadable case (which I didn't get to try, and you probably won't be able to play either until the PlayStation Store is back online).

L.A. Noire is a bold release, because it defies the expectations not just for the type of game Rockstar usually releases, but also for the type of game that receives this degree of care and proficiency in its execution. The world already has enough open-world action games, but a game which marries that open world to such a methodical style of gameplay, with a budget this big, is a rare thing indeed.

Brad Shoemaker on Google+
443 Comments
Posted by CozmoD

Is it true?

I heard in the PlayStation 3 "exclusive" bonus case you have to find out who stole your identity after the PSN gets hacked.
Posted by Rio

As soon as I've had my fill of The Witcher 2, this is bought.

Posted by PrioritySeven
@CozmoD said:
Is it true?
I heard in the PlayStation 3 "exclusive" bonus case you have to find out who stole your identity after the PSN gets hacked.
Topical!
Posted by whitesox

Kudos to Rockstar and Team Bondi.  It seems like this game addresses one of the big issues with similar games under Rockstar (Yes, I know Team Bondi developed it), in that it removes the possibility of an apparently good at heart character such as John Marston killing scores of people as he wanders around the world, only to arrive at his next mission a week later and be greeted as if he'd wasted no time in getting there. 

Posted by DAFTPUNK

great review brad!

Posted by ThePantheon

Awesome review Doctor Shoecrafter

I can't wait to pick up the PS3 version when it hits our Aussie shores this Fri.
Here's hoping the Aussie PSN is up to get that DLC.

Posted by Nekroskop
@Lind_L_Taylor said:
"PS3 game is better than the Xbox version."  I've beenhearing this a lot lately. What the fuck happened, Mr. Softy?!The game sounds interesting, but not for $60.  I thinkI'll wait for a deep price drop before picking this up.Especially since my "console of choice" has the defective version of the game.
How's that copy of Brink?
Posted by Pop

Great review Brad, I was really curious to find out what this game was like.

Posted by Dan_CiTi

While this is not completely Rockstar's work, after releasing Red Dead Redemption last year, I expected no less. Fantastic, I can't wait to get into this one. 

Posted by pekoe212

I also like the fact that this game seems linear enough to carry a strong story, but with enough freedom within that broad path to feel open and encourage exploration. Heavy Rain was enjoyable while I was playing it, but when it was done the experience felt hollow. You are on rails through the whole thing and I really had no desire to play through it again and struggle with the same damn button prompts over and over just to get a different ending (and I tried). I like that in LA Noire you can replay individual cases. No rails there, and no having to replay the entire game.

Posted by Microshock

It sounds good, and definitely like it's worth a play. Seems like the first  non-boring thing to come out of Rockstar that's not GTA. Red Dead Redemption was a borefest, and the story was really nothing special or even good, and even laughable at the end.


BUT 60 dollars? For a single player only game? I don't think so. Like other Rockstar games, it will hold its value for a while though.
Posted by GTFan712

Didn't see that 5-star coming...

Posted by Gerhabio

NEED TO PLAY

Posted by John1912
@Microshock said:
It sounds good, and definitely like it's worth a play. Seems like the first  non-boring thing to come out of Rockstar that's not GTA. Red Dead Redemption was a borefest, and the story was really nothing special or even good, and even laughable at the end.

BUT 60 dollars? For a single player only game? I don't think so. Like other Rockstar games, it will hold its value for a while though.
Troll much?  RDR rocked! Story was not great, but great open world game/overall experience.  You are the type of gamer that makes people cringe.  Whine about a standard price, and the worst part the obligatory no multi player, not worth my money comment.  90% of MP SUCKS, nor should it be attempted to even shove in most games.
Posted by BeautifulSpaceCowboy

Thanks for the review, Brad. Looking forward to playing the game.

Posted by Duffyside

You won't fool me this time, Shoemaker/Rockstar. You may have somehow suckered me into 2 GTA games and Red Dead Redemption, but I'm not gonna be fooled again!


... Will wait for Quick Look.
Posted by Jackel2072
@John1912 said:
@Microshock said:
It sounds good, and definitely like it's worth a play. Seems like the first  non-boring thing to come out of Rockstar that's not GTA. Red Dead Redemption was a borefest, and the story was really nothing special or even good, and even laughable at the end.

BUT 60 dollars? For a single player only game? I don't think so. Like other Rockstar games, it will hold its value for a while though.
Troll much?  RDR rocked! Story was not great, but great open world game/overall experience.  You are the type of gamer that makes people cringe.  Whine about a standard price, and the worst part the obligatory no multi player, not worth my money comment.  90% of MP SUCKS, nor should it be attempted to even shove in most games.
Red Dead Redemption had one of the best story's i have ever had the plesure of viewing. Not even from just a video game prospective either. John Marston was a complex deep man and that game brought up a lot of great philosophical questions, like can a man really change or more importantly will his past let him?  Not to mention the dialog was razor sharp and witty as hell. also one of the greatest ending in a game ever. 

Ok im done i just had to defend one of the more deeper story driven games i have played in a long long time. 
Posted by TheDudeOfGaming

PC?...Yeah of course not...Well fuck it Rockstar, i may not have gotten an Xbox360 when RDR was released...but now i have to, fuck. 

Good review in any case. 

Posted by Gregomasta
@EgoCheck616 said:
BRING IT TO PC!
I need some 60fps love.
I agree.
Edited by bkbroiler

Going to buy this, but I hope it doesn't have any of the usual over the top characters in Rockstar games. I know it's a different team, but... 


also, I hope the "mature content" is actually handled maturely. I don't particularly need to see pedophiles and racism in my games just because the developer can put it in there. This game is gritty, ya'll! Check out this kid-fucker! And this guy chucking around the n-word!

Also, wish I had a PS3 for this game. And for many other things. :)
Posted by Xpgamer7

Why I love both innovation and Rockstar.

Posted by Lepton

So it's an over-glorified FMV game?  Makes one wonder why they didn't merely film the whole thing.  The uncanny valley has swallowed this game whole.  Way too much resemblance to known actors without the fidelity of their actual appearances.

Posted by Quacktastic
@Lind_L_Taylor said:

"PS3 game is better than the Xbox version."  I've beenhearing this a lot lately. What the fuck happened, Mr. Softy?!The game sounds interesting, but not for $60.  I thinkI'll wait for a deep price drop before picking this up.Especially since my "console of choice" has the defective version of the game.

" This is splitting hairs since, both games look good enough that you should just get the one on the platform you prefer "
Edited by Dylabaloo
@GTFan712 said:

Didn't see that 5-star coming...

You sound like you're disappointed, would you rather it crashed and burned and got 2 stars? I for one am glad Brad liked this game that i'm looking forward too. Maybe you should read the review and or wait for the game to be released then come back with why you think this doesn't warrant 5 stars from Brad.
Posted by nemt

Thanks for not having a weird looking shemale do the review, guys.
Posted by Askherserenity

I want the Quick Look already!

Posted by doe3879

a review without a quick look is not a full official review

Posted by Lepton

Ok, just watched some walkthroughs on YouTube and I have to say, "Why, oh, why the crappy driving sequences?"  Totally, totally immersion breaking.  Literally strangles to death and then craps on the cinematic presentation. Car-chase view.  Terrible driving mechanics and physics. Mini-map.  Mission title.  So terrible.  So hokey.  What a shame.

Posted by Moofey

Can't wait to pick this up tomorrow morning. With the couple of reviews that I've read so far it's something to look forward to.

Posted by Demon_Sandwich

nice to see risk are still  being taken

Edited by smcn

though it should tell you something that there's an achievement for gunning down 100 bad guys and I didn't get it until the last case of the game.

One hundred dudes is a hell of a lot for one guy with a pistol.
Posted by GTFan712
@Dylabaloo said:
@GTFan712 said:

Didn't see that 5-star coming...

You sound like you're disappointed, would you rather it crashed and burned and got 2 stars? I for one am glad Brad liked this game that i'm looking forward too. Maybe you should read the review and or wait for the game to be released then come back with why you think this doesn't warrant 5 stars from Brad.
It's not that I was surprised that Brad gave it a 5-star, simply surprised that it is a good game. I've only seen a few ads for the game, and simply from my perception of the ads, I didn't expect the game to be as good as Brad found it to be. Not disappointed at all, but rather pleased, as I'd like any game with John Noble's likeliness do well.
Posted by Yalbit

Great review Brad, can't wait to pick this up.

Posted by bobber205

Completely ignored this game and saw the 30 second ad on youtube. Was completely sold. My god. With that trailer and this review... whew. Couldn't resist.

Posted by Peanut

It's really annoying how everyone just keeps labeling this a Rockstar game, despite the fact they're just publishing the thing. It'd be like if people called CoD an Activision joint. Give the actual developers their fucking due.

Posted by Xsheps

Definitely getting this. . . for 360.    Was going to get for PS3 until that system became a security nightmare.

Posted by Cody218
@Peanut said:
It's really annoying how everyone just keeps labeling this a Rockstar game, despite the fact they're just publishing the thing. It'd be like if people called CoD an Activision joint. Give the actual developers their fucking due.
Agreed, this has been irritating me leading up to this games release.
Posted by watersini

Quicklook. I love the idea, but I also hate watching cutscenes. However, rockstar games are consistently good so I might have to get this.

Posted by ErisRon

Hey, Brad. Great review! Thanks for this. Kudos to your writing. Really impressive.
Posted by ArmyCrow

Just one comment from me and it's a thank you for putting in the comparison piece at the bottom. So many places I've looked on the net to find out a simple fact - which version runs best out of PS3 and XBox (being a dual owner) - and so many places I find that this simple question turns into a fight out between fanboy imbeciles who just want to flame the other system and it's users for being less of a human being for not agreeing with their chosen platform. So, with this in mind, can I ask a simple question: If it's at all possible when games are released, for those of us fortunate (not set in their ways) enough to own and enjoy any and all flavours of computer system, can you do a brief comparison just so we know which version is best to get?


Cheers!
Posted by Blensoe

Great review. I'm looking forward to this. 

Edited by Brackynews
@ArmyCrow said:

So, with this in mind, can I ask a simple question: If it's at all possible when games are released, for those of us fortunate (not set in their ways) enough to own and enjoy any and all flavours of computer system, can you do a brief comparison just so we know which version is best to get?

I agree with everything you said, but have you noticed this to not be the case here on GB? When there's multiple platforms listed in the top box up there, I've never found the review to not mention the platform differences, at least in passing (more similar than not, usually).
Great read Brad, glad you're back in full effect and good form. Now, get back to Final Fantasy IV! (or Red Dead, your choice. ;)
Posted by ahoodedfigure

Was going to ask if you could still play it by switching off the color, but it looks like they already thought of that as a feature. Excellent.

Strange how a font can evoke so much, like when I'm looking at a book printed in the fifties or sixties and it feels like from a different era just because of the shape of the letters, even if it were talking about the internet or space travel or rocket packs.  We have rocket packs, right?

Posted by Sprizmo

 I can't wait to get my hands on this. I love Noir as a genre and its great to hear this game is everything it should be..

Posted by dropabombonit

Great review, can't wait to get it on Friday here in the UK

Posted by barnman

Great review and i think that the game is great too

Posted by MysteriousBob
@lepton said:
Ok, just watched some walkthroughs on YouTube and I have to say, "Why, oh, why the crappy driving sequences?"  Totally, totally immersion breaking.  Literally strangles to death and then craps on the cinematic presentation. Car-chase view.  Terrible driving mechanics and physics. Mini-map.  Mission title.  So terrible.  So hokey.  What a shame.
Then uhh... watch a movie. This is a video game. I want to play a game. What do you want? The game to force you to use that GTA3 'cinematic' camera. No thanks.
Posted by MysteriousBob
@Duffyside said:
You won't fool me this time, Shoemaker/Rockstar. You may have somehow suckered me into 2 GTA games and Red Dead Redemption, but I'm not gonna be fooled again!

... Will wait for Quick Look.
Yeah, what a prick- making you play great games! The nerve of it!
Posted by radioactivez0r

Super excited for the Ultra Complete Edition to release at a discounted price in Fall 2012.

Posted by swamplord666

great review with great writing as always Brad :) looking forward to this!