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L.A. Noire Review5
by Brad Shoemaker on
Rockstar's bold open-world adventure game wraps macabre '40s grit around gripping detective work.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.