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    L.A. Noire

    Game » consists of 17 releases. Released May 17, 2011

    L.A. Noire is a detective thriller developed by Team Bondi in Australia and published by Rockstar Games.

    marlow83's L.A. Noire (Xbox 360) review

    Avatar image for marlow83

    Almost Incredible

           Before LA Noire was released, I was extremely skeptical. Good facial animation does not a game make, and prior to the game’s release, the good ol’ marketing team never showed much beyond that. But, my skepticism was completely unfounded. LA Noire is a triumph for storytelling in games, with some of the best voice acting I’ve ever heard in any game, ever. It transcends its episodic structure to tell a wonderfully crafted narrative, with characters that you will care about. Oh, and did I mention that it’s fun to play as well? Well, yeah, there’s that too. A little repetition and a fair amount of technical flaws keep the game back from perfection, but the overall experience is too engrossing for that to matter.

           LA Noire’s rather straightforward title sums up the game pretty well: it takes place in LA, and it is told in the neo-noir style that was popularized by films such as The Long Goodbye, Se7en, , and LA Confidential. The player takes control of officer Cole Phelps, a returning hero from WWII who served as a Lieutenant won the Silver Star for bravery. He starts the game as a beat officer, but the initiative and crime-solving ability he shows earns him the rank of Detective. The player follows Phelps as he rises through the ranks of the LAPD (working the traffic, homicide, vice, and arson desks), solving crimes that include grisly murders and drug deals.

           …at least that’s the shorthand, clean, marketed version of the story. The game’s plot rises above the limits of episodic storytelling to create a fairly cohesive narrative, especially in the second half of the game. Really, the development of the plot in the first half of the game is best compared to a television show. Phelps and his partner (who changes with each desk that Cole works) solve various crimes that seem unrelated until the ‘season finale’ of sorts, which ties all of the cases together and closes that desk’s storyline. This set up lasts until the last third of the game, in which the separate cases seem incidental when compared to the machinations of the overall plot, which is full of conspiracy, intrigue, corruption, narration, and all that good ol’ noir stuff.

           At the heart of LA Noire are its characters, and damn near all of them are fantastic, thanks to brilliant writing and performances from the actors. And I mean actors. Thanks to that facial capture tech that the ads have been so proud to show off, the performances in this game are as much physical as they are vocal. Watching the characters talk in LA Noire is like watching actual humans talk, no other game surpasses it (even the highly expressive faces of the characters from Enslaved don’t come close). Even during the normal gameplay, the faces are extremely expressive and show the same little nuances that they do during cutscenes. Still, this tech would have been useless without the aforementioned amazing performances, with standouts being Aaron Stanton as Cole Phelps, Sean McGowan as Detective Bekowsky, Keith Szarabajka as Detective Biggs, and Gil McKinney as the late-game character Jack Kelso. They even got John Noble in this game. Let me reiterate that: John fucking Noble. I can’t stress how much I geeked out when I encountered his character, a wealthy real estate guru. There is the occasional lousy actor, mainly the R & I operator, whose obnoxious drones of “How can I help detective?” get very annoying very quickly. But she is an extremely small minority. The writing is also exceptional, with genuinely great humor and drama. A few lines, mainly near the beginning, are a little weak, but the majority of the writing is fantastic. It’s very believable and occasionally very sarcastic, the latter of which is something I appreciate personally. 

    Again: JOHN NOBLE 
    Again: JOHN NOBLE 

           But what sets LA Noire apart, even above, from other stories told in the noir style is the way that it fills in the backstory of Phelps’ exploits in the war. We never get to see what happened to Jack in that made him so cynical, even though that is an integral part of the story. In LA Noire, we see what exactly happened to Cole in WWII, and it is one of the most harrowing stories of war that has ever appeared in a videogame. It changes the player’s view of Cole dramatically, and it is one of the first games to depict war as a hell where there are no heroes, just men who are all incompetent, evil, or desperate. The war story is told via flashbacks between chapters, and these flashbacks factor directly into the game’s main storyline.

           Another part of the story is told through newspaper articles that are found throughout the game. These newspapers are accessed in the investigation portions of the game, which will be elaborated on later. These newspapers act as activation points for cutscenes that star Courtney Sheldon, a returning soldier, and Harlan Fontaine. This side story is really interesting, if a little hard to follow during the first playthrough. The side plot told through the newspapers is a necessary experience to fully enjoy the main storyline, which makes it odd that these cutscenes are not presented directly to the player. It is an odd flaw in the game that such an integral part of the storyline could be missed entirely. The newspapers are found during the investigation sequences, which makes it less likely that they will be overlooked. Still, these sequences feature one of the best moments the story has to offer, which calls the intelligence of presenting the story in such a manner into question.

           The only really negative aspect of the storytelling is that Team Bondi seemed to use the facial tech to cheat in some aspects of the story. Specifically, there is a late game event that is designed to have a serious emotional impact. That impact is still delivered because we can see the pain on the character’s face, but that doesn’t distract from the fact that this scene needed more buildup, preferably in the form of showing more of the character’s personal life prior to this twist. The scene itself wasn’t flawed or beyond belief, but the emotion of the scene was carried by the actors, when the prior character development should have been enough to sell the scene. (I know I shouldn’t go on about a single scene in a review, but it’s a pivotal moment, worthy of attention).

           LA Noire’s episodes begin similarly, with your current chief giving Phelps and his partner a case, and instructing them to go to the first crime scene. The gameplay in these cases is normally split between 4 activities: Searching a crime scene for clues, questioning suspects and persons of interest, driving, and on-foot action. The cases are linear to a degree in that it is impossible to not reach the end of a case, no matter how badly you investigate, but how that end is reached is largely up to the player. The player’s varying performances when interrogating people and finding clues will affect what lead is followed next, and the events of the case will play out differently. The differing, branching paths of the individual cases greatly add to the playability of the game over the long-term, because repeat playthroughs can be different enough to hold the player’s attention.

           The investigatory sections of the game, in which Cole explores crime scenes and the homes of suspects for clues, are similar in some ways to pixel-hunt/photo-hunt games. When Cole enters an area that can be looked through for clues, music will begin to play, and that music will persist until every clue in an area has been found. It is not entirely necessary to find every single clue, but finding every clue can certainly have benefits when trying to follow leads and interrogate suspects. These parts are not difficult by any means, because they essentially consist of leading Cole through every corner of the area waiting for the controller to vibrate, which signifies that there is an item that Cole can pick up or otherwise interact with. Interacting with these objects is generally more interesting, because Cole can manipulate the objects he picks up (which is done via an analog stick), and inspect them for details, like looking for the serial number on a gun, or finding an address in a notebook. Cole will then record these pieces of evidence, along with locations and people of interest, in his notebook. The player will have to complete some mind-numbingly easy puzzle sections in these investigation sections as well, but these sections aren’t as annoying as they might have been, simply because the puzzles make sense in the context of the story at the time they appear.

           The puzzles only get difficult when some riddles (that require knowledge of LA) are thrown at the player to solve about halfway through the game, but if the player wastes enough time, the game will simply hand the answer to the player through some dialogue. This concession is a little disappointing, especially since it wasn’t necessary. We live in the age of the internet. If someone is truly stuck, they can find the answer on a litany of sites, there was no need to spoil the challenge for those who enjoyed being stumped.  

            Still, searching the crime scenes for clues is fun, mainly because the areas aren’t too big, and the secrets and bits of information found during these sequences are interesting enough to compel the player forward.

           The interrogation sequences of LA Noire are easily the most fun and compelling, and the reason for this is twofold.  These sequences truly showcase the beauty of the facial animations, and utilize the technology for gameplay purposes. During interrogations, Cole will bring up his notebook, which contains topics that the player can question the witness/suspect about. The player then watches the interviewee answer Cole’s query, and the player has to respond to them with one of three options. If the player believes they are telling the truth, then they select the option “truth” (Shocking, right?). If the player believes the witness is lying or somehow extending the truth, but they don’t have the evidence to prove it, then “doubt” should be selected. Should the player believe the witness is lying, and they believe they have the evidence to prove it, they should select “lie,” and browse through Cole’s notebook and select the piece of evidence (collected from crime scenes that were investigated earlier in the case) that proves the witness is lying. This system works well, for the most part, since the facial animation is so strong, and being able to utilize personal knowledge of the case to prove a person is lying is extremely satisfying. Being able to use evidence effectively and being able to read the facial expressions are placed on the same pedestal, so to speak, since they are almost equally important when questioning witnesses. Using both those skills together is what makes the system so satisfying. Also, the player gains experience in a ranking system by correctly judging the witnesses’ answers.

           However, the questioning system does have its flaws. The expressions when people are nervous are believable, but when they believe they’re fooling you, they smirk and make the goofiest expressions, and it looks a little terrible. This is mostly a problem in the beginning in the game, when it is easier to tell when people are lying (to ease players into the system). It makes logical sense to make lying obvious in the opening hour of the game, but it still is a bit to blatant to be acceptable. Also, there is a fair amount of repetition in the animations you’ll see during an interrogation. When a character finishes their answer, they go into one of their default “I’m lying” or “I’m telling the truth” animations, and these default animations sometimes get repeated over the course of a single conversation. It’s not a huge issue, but it occasionally broke the immersion reminded me that the facial expressions are first and foremost a game mechanic.

           The evidence gathering and questioning systems are related in the intuition mechanic, which can either be used to reveal all of the locations of clues in a single area, or eliminate one of the answer choices from a single question during interrogation. Intuition can be handy, and it is limited to where it doesn’t feel as though the game is doing too much hand-holding. A single intuition point is given out for ranking up a level, and only 5 intuition points can be held at a time.

           The driving portions are relatively strong as well. The controls for the driving are almost identical to GTA IV (Cole can even flash his badge and take a civilian’s car, using the same button that Niko did to steal cars), but the cars control far better here than they did in . They are less squirrely, and generally easy to control. You’ll usually take part in three activities when driving: Getting from point A to point B without any trouble; bringing down criminals in high speed chases (probably some of the most exciting parts of the game), and tailing other vehicles. The point A-point B driving is fairly uneventful on its own, but it does provide an opportunity to enjoy the game’s excellent recreation of . Still, the player can opt to have their partner rive them to the next location, and any dialogue that would have taken place during the drive is shown in a little cutscene of the two characters driving. And if the player should opt to drive themselves to the next area and get lost, a button can be hit that makes Cole’s partner call out simple, easy to follow directions of what do at the next intersection.

           The chase sequences are similar to that of GTA IV, in that the goal is to disable the car of the person you’re chasing. However, these sequences are far better than they were in GTA, thanks to better car controls overall and more spectacular ending crashes. You can bring down the enemy in these sequences by either using your car to wreck theirs, or by keeping your car close enough for your partner to land some well-placed shots, disabling the opponent vehicle. The mechanics of these sequences are solid, and the cars feel weighty enough to give the crashes some serious impact. The other significant vehicular activity is tailing other cars, which works fairly well. These sequences require that the player drive fairly calmly, so not to attract attention to oneself. You partake in this stealthy riving until the suspect reaches their destination. These sequences are just forgiving enough to be fun, and just enough of a challenge to be interesting.

           The on foot action, sadly, is inferior to all of the other parts of the gameplay. The on foot action sequences are split between cover-based shootouts, chase sequences, tailing sequences, and brawls. These range from good to frustrating, with the tailing sequences being the worst, easily. The shooting itself is actually pretty good, even though the aiming assist is a little too generous on the default setting. Also, the shooting is a little slow on the default sensitivity, but this can be changed and rectified easily. Overall, the gunplay has a nice tactile feel to it that makes it stand out from other third person shooters. Combined with the very limited health of Cole and his enemies, this leads to some very intense shootouts. Some of the climatic gun battles in particular, are more intense than many I’ve seen in more action-oriented games. I don’t think a game has ever made a one-on-one gun battle so cool before. 

    Less this... 
    Less this... 

           Where the cover-based shooting falls flat is that whole “cover” part. Because there is not a fixed camera angle behind Cole, moving Cole between pieces of cover is often a frustrating process, and it is difficult to move Cole between two nearby pieces of cover, because of the somewhat finicky movement controls. It’s nowhere near as bad as controlling Niko in GTA, but it can still be pretty aggravating. Also, the cover system flaunts a mechanic where it is possible to move between two nearby pieces of cover in one fluid movement, and not by unsticking from cover and manually moving Cole between the two bullet-blocking entities. However, this system barely works, since the combination of buttons it takes to pull the move off is awkward, and the game will normally not allow you to perform the action in places where you feel as though you should be able to. This wouldn’t be as serious a problem if it wasn’t already difficult to move to different cover positions via the normal movement.

           Controlling Cole is not a problem in the chase sequences of the game, which work about as well as their automobile counterparts. These chases involve running along rooftops and through streets, and are very entertaining. Cole will automatically scale obstacles, in a manner similar to that of Assassin’s Creed almost (except far more believable, you know what I mean), The chase sequences are linear, and end with the suspect being tackled, shot, or scared by a warning shot, and all of these are satisfying in their own right.

           The tailing sequences are a totally different story. These are frustrating trial and segments, and succeeding in them is a matter of memorizing where the suspect you’re tailing is going to go, and knowing exactly where to hide at all times. It’s just horrible. Luckily, these sequences are few and far between. Brawls don’t fare much better, and normally just cases of button mashing your way to victory.

           Also, while driving around LA, little side missions appear randomly on the minimap, and are announced by the police radio channel. These side missions are usually little shooting missions, that are occasionally a little more in depth. Really, these get repetitive quickly, but, when taken on sparingly, can provide a little break from all of the detective work. At around the halfway point, though, these random missions begin appearing in bafflingly far away places, and it quickly becomes less than worthwhile to drive all over creation to shoot guys for a few minutes.

           Ultimately, the gameplay in LA Noire really works because of the game’s phenomenal pacing. The action is impactful until the very end because the game doles out just enough of it at a time to make it feel consistently fresh and fun. The game manages to balance its slower sections with the faster, violent sections, and it feels as though each case reaches its crescendo at the optimal time. The slower sections may turn some people off, but, in all honestly, these are people who wouldn’t appreciate the game in the first place. The missions start to feel a little by the numbers around 2/3 of the way through the game, but right about this time the game throws a pretty serious curveball that remedies this effect. For the last third of the game, all of the gameplay components described above are changed up just enough (in relation to the objective, scale, or mechanics) to make them interesting until the end. 

    ...and more this 
    ...and more this 

           The graphics, from a purely artistic perspective, are absolutely glorious. What LA Noire should be considered as is one of the great period pieces. Its recreation postwar 1940’s is simply stunning. The sheer amount of effort into recreating the city is apparent in all the little details, and the game is far better for it. The Noir stylings of the game are excellent as well, with great lighting, music, and overall ambiance. In a brilliant touch, there is even an option to play the game entirely in black and white, which looks awesome.

           However, from a technical standpoint, the visuals fall flat at times. At first glance, the textures are detailed and crisp, and the character animation itself is fine (the animations for ascending and descending stairs are particularly good), though it does pale in comparison to the facial animation. There are numerous technical oddities, including the occasional hitch in the facial animation, a weird haze that appears around characters, that usually appears while they go up a flight of stairs, and the occasional blinking texture. The game’s tendency to zoom in on objects makes them look a little blurrier and more pixelated than they would otherwise. There is a fair amount of texture pop-in as well, especially in the later stages of the game. The two most egregious technical issues are the framerate and a certain quirk with the faces. The framerate (at least in the 360 version) fluctuates wildly, not to the point where it looks like a slideshow at times (like in Halo: Reach), but it drops often enough to be a serious problem. Also, there is a very strange issue with the faces during the non-interrogation sequences. When a character finishes speaking a line and they return to their default facial expressions, there is no animation for the transition. What happens is the characters’ faces fade into their default expression, and it looks like something out of a weird acid trip. It’s hard to notice, but when you do, it looks horrid.

           With all that I had to complain about LA Noire, you would think I would give it a lower score than a 4/5. However, this is one of those rare games that, to me, is truly greater than its faults. While I don’t like the subjective to influence my reviews, the action and storytelling is so effective that it outshines the technical flaws in my eyes. What LA Noire tries to be, a gripping, violent, crime thriller in the form of a humble video game, is what it succeeds in. LA Noire may not be quite the technical revolution some people expected, it is absolutely a revolution in storytelling. It is superb. 

    Other reviews for L.A. Noire (Xbox 360)

      CSI: Los Angeles 0

      As I continue to work my way through reviewing the substantial pile of games I’ve played this year, this week I find myself encountering another Rockstar Games offering: L.A. Noire. In this interactive crime drama, you accompany detective Cole Phelps he slogs through a morass of dirty cops, corrupt politicians, and mutilated corpses in an attempt to bring order and justice to 1940’s Los Angeles.Design 3 / 5At first glance, L.A. Noire looks like a typical Rockstar Grand-Theft-Auto-style game, in ...

      6 out of 6 found this review helpful.

      Conceptually Intriguing, Strikingly Shallow 0

      LA Noire is more concerned with showing you everything it has to offer than demanding any critical thinking from its players. If you become engrossed in the story and just want to see unfold, this probably won't be an issue, but those looking to solve complex logical puzzles are going to be disappointed.LA Noire does do a lot of things well. The technology on display is wonderful, accurately capturing the details of facial movement to a amazing degree of believability, and the atmospheric qu...

      40 out of 61 found this review helpful.

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