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 RobotHamster

I'm getting this for free tomorrow, thanks Amazon!

Posted by Theavy

This game is made by Australians but will they be able to buy it in Australia?

Posted by HermanMarte

really really wanna play this

Posted by OllyOxenFree
@Turkish_Heavy said:
This game is made by Australians but will they be able to buy it in Australia?
Nope!
Posted by icytower38

I hope you guys are planning on a quick look

Online
Posted by KuribosShoe
@sofacitysweetheart said:

@KuribosShoe said:

@sofacitysweetheart said:
@Underachiever007 said:
@sofacitysweetheart said:

@TomeOne said:

Damnit, Brad. You just had to start the review by crediting the game to Rockstar and not Team Bondi, didn't you? Now everyone will keep thinking it's another Rockstar game therefore it should be exactly like other Rockstar games.

This. Rockstar can only seem make one kind of game. This doesn't appear to be it.
Really, guys. Next to giving 4 stars to a Lego game and this... its time to put Brad to sleep :x
What's wrong with giving a Lego game 4 stars?
Have you played them? Not only are they all the same, but their entire weight in value is from the franchise they're riding on. They're budget kid's games and the gameplay shows. There's not really an excuse for slapping 4 stars on it and praising the same recycled tepid action and graphics like it's something new and interesting.

Not to mention, TT Games is doing everything that people here criticise Activision for doing with their games. Only they're for kids, so it's acceptable :/

Also, why is Brad comparing this game at every turn to GTA? Just wondering...
Maybe you don't understand how reviews work.  You see, if a person enjoys a game, they give it a high score, and then you, as the consumer, have to decide whether you agree with their assessment.  If you don't, why, you just don't buy the game.  If someone praises a game you don't like, it does not make them bad at their job, it makes them different from you.  We're all different, that's what makes the world such a special place!  Now you run along and play.
A review is more to do with critically accessing and reporting than personal enjoyment. Nice try, though.
From the site FAQ:

We do not use any algorithms to reach our final scores, relying instead on the experience of the reviewer. While fundamental issues such as graphical performance and gameplay originality will almost always be factors in determining a final score, it ultimately comes down to how worthwhile the reviewer found the whole experience to be.

Clearly, Brad Shoemaker found Lego Pirates to be a worthwhile experience.  You did not.  If you disagree with how the site does its reviews, maybe you should not be here.  If I saw some sort of evidence of poor writing or lack of integrity, maybe I'd agree with you.  But it seems to me you're just mad that he doesn't have the same opinions as you.
Posted by 234r2we232
@DonPixel said:
@Meowshi said:

@sofacitysweetheart said:

@Underachiever007 said:
@sofacitysweetheart said:

@TomeOne said:

Damnit, Brad. You just had to start the review by crediting the game to Rockstar and not Team Bondi, didn't you? Now everyone will keep thinking it's another Rockstar game therefore it should be exactly like other Rockstar games.

This. Rockstar can only seem make one kind of game. This doesn't appear to be it.
Really, guys. Next to giving 4 stars to a Lego game and this... its time to put Brad to sleep :x
What's wrong with giving a Lego game 4 stars?
Have you played them? Not only are they all the same, but their entire weight in value is from the franchise they're riding on. They're budget kid's games and the gameplay shows. There's not really an excuse for slapping 4 stars on it and praising the same recycled tepid action and graphics like it's something new and interesting.
Not to mention, TT Games is doing everything that people here criticise Activision for doing with their games. Only they're for kids, so it's acceptable :/

Also, why is Brad comparing this game at every turn to GTA? Just wondering...
Go away.
Team Bondi might as well be called Rockstar Australia in the future.. they are just another studio assembled by Rockstar and the direct influence of they it evident.
  
and Yea at the end who cares? .. I second Meowshi this is the kind of stupid pointless conversation will go for countless post in Neogaf ( don't believe go check yourself ) .. so fuck off. 
"Those guys they're soooo stupid. Unlike us, we're sooooo classy and soooo much better at everything. ...so fuck off yo"

And until Rockstar Australia are making bird collectables for the next GTA game, they're still Team Bondi.
Posted by Dunchad


Sounds good. I guess I'll just have to hope they bring it to PC, since I don't own any current gen consoles.

 

Posted by OldGuy
@KuribosShoe: Try as you might, you know you aren't going to win this one... you should probably ignore the big baby...
Posted by MoeQawama

SOLD!

Edited by Nomin

The Stoic North Carolinian strikes again, very eloquent and informative review writeup Mr. Shoemaker.

Posted by JoeyRavn

Great. Thanks A BUNCH, Detective Shoemaker. I canceled my order of the Limited Edition of Alan Wake to pre-order this :@

Posted by Jimbo

Nice.  I hope their ambition is rewarded with decent sales.

If you have to take the cases in a set order, hopefully it won't attract any of the asinine criticism about 'doing open-world wrong', like Mafia did.

Online
Posted by TURbo

Looking forward to getting this game once it drops down in price.

Posted by MachoFantastico

Fantastic review Brad, can't wait.

Thanks for the tip on the differences with the versions, I wasn't sure. 

Online
Edited by ape_dosmil

Rockstar is not one single developer either. There are various Rockstar development houses. The main GTA games are for the most part developed by Rockstar North in Edinburgh, Scotland. Red Dead Redemption was developed for the most part by Rockstar San Diego. Chinatown Wars was developed by Rockstar Leeds. But you talk about them all as Rockstar games. This really isn't that different. It's developed by Team Bondi, but it's still a Rockstar game.

EDIT: It's not just a publisher, developer relationship. It was a joint effort, Rockstar were also involved in the development side on L.A. Noire.

Posted by xxNBxx

Always love reading a Shoemaker review, great job Brad.

Posted by deskp

Relived this game got a good score, i had this game preordered without really knowing alot about it.


Posted by TorMasturba

I'll buy this in a few days and get my girlfriend in on the action, she loves stuff like this in her array of interests of TV shows, CSI, The wire, The Mentalist and House M.D. etc... (I know none of them are Noir, but hey they're close enough to peak her interests ain't they.)

 

She loves to join me on on adventure games and if Brad's way of describing it, which he seems to be at the top of his game today, in this review marries up with what I feel he means then we'll thoroughly enjoy playing this game together.

 

EDIT: We have and understanding that neither of us push each other to hurry up and move in these games.

Posted by MonkeyKing1969

My pre-order should show up soon, but it is nice to see a huge numbers of postive reviews...but I have a funny feeling I would have enjoyed this game a lot even if it did only half of what it set out to do.  I love investigation games!
Posted by StealthRaptor
@Brad said:

@mr_tickles said:

@StealthRaptor said:
Awsome, but how long is it?
Yeah.....that ^^

About 20 hours for the storyline alone, more if you do the side missions and otherwise mess around in the open world a bit.

Good deal. Thanks for the speedy reply!
Posted by raidingkvatch

So fucking excited for when Amazon push this through my door on Friday.

Posted by Afroman269

Holy shit, no one can ever go through a review without finding at least one thing to bitch about. This community is the best.

Posted by DonPixel
@sofacitysweetheart: You got that right troll. 
Posted by JMitch

Glad I switched my preorder to ps3

Posted by yyZiggurat

Great review, Brad.  I'll pick this one up tomorrow.

Posted by ShadowKnight508

I will be getting this game later this week...this great review has convinced me that this game is worth my investment.

Posted by dd2090x2

Great review. cant wait to get my hands on this. now i really hope theres a quick look of this coming up. pretty please. 

Posted by 234r2we232
@KuribosShoe said: 

From the site FAQ:


We do not use any algorithms to reach our final scores, relying instead on the experience of the reviewer. While fundamental issues such as graphical performance and gameplay originality will almost always be factors in determining a final score, it ultimately comes down to how worthwhile the reviewer found the whole experience to be.

Clearly, Brad Shoemaker found Lego Pirates to be a worthwhile experience.  You did not.  If you disagree with how the site does its reviews, maybe you should not be here.  If I saw some sort of evidence of poor writing or lack of integrity, maybe I'd agree with you.  But it seems to me you're just mad that he doesn't have the same opinions as you.
Yes. Me saying he's welcome to give whatever game whatever score he chooses and how I find it difficult to take Brad's opinion seriously is a clear sign that I'm mad. Raagh. etc.

And I wouldn't take the FAQ too seriously, as I'm pretty sure every review site has a set of public guidelines. I believe at some point, most of the staff have openly admitted to "not enjoying a game but understanding it's merits". That's how it goes. Please see Jeff's Crysis 2 review.


@DonPixel said:

@sofacitysweetheart: You got that right troll. 

I got the right troll? Is it you? It sounds like you! I'm betting it's you :D
Posted by mostman

Sigh - here we go again with the system choice.  I like achievements - so I like the 360.  I also like things to look their best - so I like the PS3.  Which one.... I had this same issue with Portal 2 and ended up with the 360 version.  

Posted by mr_tickles
@Brad said:

@mr_tickles said:

@StealthRaptor said:
Awsome, but how long is it?
Yeah.....that ^^

About 20 hours for the storyline alone, more if you do the side missions and otherwise mess around in the open world a bit.

There is a reason you ARE my avatar Mr. Shoemaker............


Posted by NewfieBullet

Awesome review, can't wait to pick this up.

Posted by Dudacles

PS3 version it is.

Edited by Cirdain

I CALLED IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WOOOOOOOOTTTTTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! F YEAH!!!

 

bet
-40,000

bonus
× 2.09

return
+ 167,200

+127,200

 
 :)

PS....I wish this was on PC :(
Posted by Hef

Everyone needs to take it easy. "OH BRAD DIDN'T EVEN CREDIT TEAM BONDI ?!?! HE GAVE 4 STARS TO A  LEGO GAME!!"

Seriously.  How crappy are your lives that you actually spend time worrying about this shit.  It doesn't matter, at all.  You know when this site first started none of this shit happened.  That's why I loved this site.  I still do, but these comments are really starting to remind me of gamespot.  In summation: calm the fuck down, you're the only people taking these unimportant issues way too seriously.

Posted by Solh0und

Great review but I'm not planning to pick this up until later this year.

Posted by Alex_Carrillo

Does the PS3 version support 1080p, or is it locked at 720?

Posted by CastroCasper

This excites me. I have been looking forward to this game for a LOOOONG time and every trailer I see it just looks better and better. I was starting to get worried that I might have built myself up too much for this game, but 5 stars is making me think it might just be that good.

Posted by Brodehouse

It seems weird to comment on the character design, because there's really no design, at least not as we traditionally describe video games with.  It's like the difference between characters in animated and live action, if a cartoon looks interesting it's due to the animators, if a person looks interesting it's because of their genes and maybe the costume director.

How does one compare Cole Phelps to a Bayonetta or even a Mario in terms of aesthetics?  Is it truly design, or just casting?  The tech to realize it is of course, mindblowing, but is it really a credit to the art team the way the design of a krogan or a splicer is?

Online
Posted by Robo
@Alex_Carrillo: I believe it is 720p max
Posted by Deathpooky

Can't wait for this to arrive tomorrow.  And very glad to hear it's more of an adventure game than anything.  I was worried it would take too much from GTA and destroy the experience.

Posted by sarahsdad

For Brad, (or anyone that might have gotten a copy early) is there a particular mechanic in the game that lets you know you arrested the wrong person, or is it up to you to recognize this somehow?

Posted by killroyjackson

Understandable


Posted by SaturdayNightSpecials

Interesting. I might reverse my decision not to buy it depending on what I hear tomorrow on the podcast. I really like that it's more of an adventure game.

Posted by FloMo

Excellent review. One thing I would like to know though is whether the Film Reels you can collect (if I am not mistaken) also lead to cutscenes like the newspaper articles.

Posted by Toxin066

Brad, you know how to write a review. From this, I got the info I needed to shift me from a "wary" to a "sold!"

Posted by Curufinwe

Getting a 5/5 out of Brad is pretty damn easy.

Posted by CaptainYes05

Awesome.  Need to clear some backlog first, but this will be mine!

Posted by Bloodlines

Now i have too buy it on friday then. Thanks Brad for shifting me from meh too sold.

Edited by CornBREDX

Wow, this sounds incredible.

When I have the money I want to get this game.

Also, great writing on that review. Now I know what this game is about, at least more so then I did. Sounds like a really cool game.