GAME REVIEW – L.A. Noire (PlayStation 3)

By Ian McCabe

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It’s that time of year again, the time where Rockstar Games throws the gaming world into a flutter with its latest release. This year they, along with Team Bondi, have decided to break the mould with their 1940s detective adventure, L.A. Noire. Much has been made of the game’s use of facial technology prior to its release; add Rockstar’s impressive track record with the likes of GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption and expectations were bound to be high. So, let’s don our best fedoras, get our notepads ready and put on some Ella Fitzgerald tunes as we explore L.A. Noire…

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Los Angeles, California, 1947. They found another victim last night. Add it to the pile, I’ll get to it later, after all it’s just another day at the LAPD.  I pull up outside of a suspect’s house and dust my partner’s cheap cigar ash from my $30 suit. I flick through my trusty notepad and refresh my mind with the case clues, making sure to ignore my cohort’s Scotch-tainted moans as we approach the door. I can sense this is going to be a tough one, but before I can even ask the first question, the suspect panics and flees. I grab my gun and sigh. Nice try, buster. Yep, just another day at the LAPD.

Excuse me whilst my inner detective gets a bit carried away, but L.A. Noire is unlike any video game you’ve ever experienced. It feels and plays like a hardboiled detective movie. Yes, that’s right it plays like a movie. There’s little running and shooting here. Rather, the emphasis is on your ability to find clues and read suspect’s faces. Are they telling the truth? Or are they fibbing? The answer lies within their facial expressions.

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With the use of MotionScan technology, Rockstar and Team Bondi have created something striking and realistic, with performances from actors you might be familiar with from Stateside TV, such as Mad Men and Heroes. And they really are performances; the actors haven’t been hired merely for their voice acting. You can see every little eye twitch, lip purse and gulp, creating a truly cinematic – and initially unnerving – experience. This is what sets L.A. Noire apart from any other game to date.

You play Cole Phelps, an ex US soldier turned LAPD cop. You’re a good cop too, one of the ‘finest case men around’ in an otherwise corrupt 1940s Hollywood. You move from desk to desk, including Homicide and Arson, gradually being promoted as the game goes on, getting a new partner with their own story each time. Unlike other Rockstar games, you’re on the straight and narrow here, which means no option to randomly pull your gun and shoot strangers in the street. But you’re a cop now, so what do you expect?

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The story is much more linear this time around too, although the world is still open to explore, but without the usual interactivity seen in games such as GTA. This is a shame because the designers have done a beautiful job of replicating 1940s Los Angeles, from the L.A. river down to the old Hollywood hills. It often just feels like a backdrop rather than an interactive city such as Liberty City. The building interiors, the range of cars, billboards and the way people speak and dress all create a sense of the era. It would have really been something to be able to explore it in more detail.

L.A. Noire challenges you to think like a real detective, scour every little area of a crime scene for clues, question witnesses and interrogate suspects. And it is a challenge. It’s impossible to fail a case, but you can make solving it a lot more difficult for yourself. Miss a clue or botch the interrogation of a suspect or witness and the investigation becomes trickier to crack. Still, being unable to fail a case actually detracts from the personal experience. You may feel like your choices and decisions are having an impact on the case and story, but when all is said and done, it’s all pre-determined and they matter little. You can, on the rare occasion, be given an option of which suspect to charge and pick the wrong one. But, other than a dress down by your boss, it has little impact on the story.

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Action is also rather sparse, other than the odd shootout, foot pursuit or car chase. It’s dialogue heavy and the story unfolds at a slow and methodical pace, which may displease some gamers, especially those with short attention spans or those looking for a 1940s GTA. There’s a lot of sifting through clues and crime scenes, a few thought-provoking puzzles and plenty of back-and-forth RPG-style dialogue. You really have to think in L.A. Noire.

Adventure game fans should feel right at home: L.A. Noire has much more in common with point-and-click games like the Sam & Max series – at least on the gameplay mechanics side – than its Rockstar brothers. The closest comparison has to be Heavy Rain, just without the emotional depth and emphasis on decision making. What action there is shouldn’t challenge hardcore gamers; it’s pretty simplistic, even for casual gamers, although the controls are quite clunky. There’s also an option to skip the action sequences after three failed attempts, a bit of a copout really – see what I did there?

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Each story case follows a similar course. Phelps and his partner are given their orders and you drive to the crime scene – or quick jump by asking your partner to drive instead, but be warned you will miss out on dialogue and seeing some striking scenery if you do this. When you arrive you’ll be given a quick prep-talk by the coroner and/or reporting officer and then set free to explore the scene for clues. This often includes studying dead bodies, some of which are completely naked and extremely graphic, yet maturely handled. A musical queue and controller vibration indicates whenever Phelps is near a clue, even if they aren’t at all relevant to the case. It’s actually quite funny to see Phelps so intently studying pieces of random trash, don’t ask me why.

The search for clues is simple yet somewhat liberating when you begin to piece them together, however after a while the process becomes a routine and you’ll find yourself going on autopilot. Perhaps this is purposely done to realistically portray actual police work, after all in the real world it’s not all about chasing the bad guy with that long arm of yours, you know? Phelps will note down every relevant clue in his trusty notepad, which is the most important tool in the game as it holds the key to pretty much everything and is more than helpful during interrogations.

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Each case is unique and interesting in its own way, even if solving them feels like déjà vu over and over again thanks to the game’s episodic format. Find a suspect, go to their house, they’ll likely flee, you catch them following a game of fisticuffs, you search their house, tap on a few objects, ask them some questions and then haul them off down town. It often feels so paint-by-numbers that after a while you’ll be shocked when the suspect doesn’t make a run for it.

When interrogating a suspect, Phelps must determine whether to believe them if they seem legit, doubt them if you have a hunch that they’re hiding something or accuse them of lying, but make sure you have the evidence to prove it – it feels great when you do, especially when they look so smug. The more questions you get right with each witness/suspect, the more forthcoming they’ll be, thus leading to more information and leads, although you’ll be surprised by how many forthcoming witnesses want to lie to you.

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It’s all a lot more challenging than it looks. For supposedly being one of the best cops on the LAPD, I wasn’t too hot with the one-on-ones. Don’t fret though, every time you gain a rank – essentially a level-up gained at certain points throughout the game – you’re rewarded with ‘intuition points’ which can be used to help with interrogations and crime scene investigations. It’s almost like the three lives from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, just without the ‘Phone a Friend’ option, although no one is stopping you doing that.

It’s within these interrogations where L.A. Noire really shines; they are the driving force of the game. They can often be quite lengthy, but they provide a unique challenge as close attention needs to be paid to every line of dialogue and every facial twitch and eye movement. It’s an inventive new mechanic and it’s difficult not to feel like you’re looking at the future of gaming.

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Still, it’s not without its flaws. The line between lie and doubt is often too blurred for its own good. When the selling point is that a character’s facial expressions should indicate if they’re lying or not, they need to do a better job of being distinctive. More often than not a character will go from being cool and collected with an unbreakable stare to suddenly developing a bad case of the shivers and an unhealthy interest in the corners of the room. You’d think that would mean the suspect is lying, right? Not always the case. The character animation is striking, but still with its teething problems. The realistic heads don’t always match the character’s computerised bodies. it almost reminded me of those beach attractions where you put your head through a hole making it look like you have a cartoon body (if anyone knows what they’re called, please comment, it’s been killing me).

On the narrative side of things, L.A. Noire is a captivating story. Even through the bouts of repetition you will feel yourself wanting to know more and having a very difficult time putting the game down after a completing a case. You will be completely immersed in the world. It is very reminiscent of great noire films such as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential, so fans of the genre should be more than pleased. The dialogue is superbly written too, from the interrogations through to the small banter between Phelps and his partners, although the city folk aren’t nearly as alive as they are in say, GTA IV. The acting is also as superb as ever, continuing the Rockstar trend. Sadly, the story begins to drag and lose its way numerous times, although in its defence a narrative curveball is usually thrown whenever things begin to dull down. Unfortunately the ending does not do the rest of the story justice as it rushes together practically unrelated threads, creating an anti-climax conclusion.

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Cole Phelps is a unique protagonist, but he’s no J.J. Gittes. It’s easy to sympathise with him early on and get behind his cause. He’s a rare straight-laced cop in a corrupt city, he talks lovingly about his family, we see him sticking up for others and via the aid of flashback, we see glimpses of him defending his country during the war. He’s a good guy, although lacking in the personality department. Lacking a lot actually; he’s practically robotic. As the narrative unfolds and we learn more about Phelps’ past, it becomes more and more difficult to take any real human interest in him. It’s even difficult to care when things go sour for him personally and he’s notably weaker than some of the other characters.

*Spoiler Warning* Bizarrely, the final hours introduce us to a second protagonist who scoops any of Phelps’ remaining sympathy and support, and then some. This character was everything Cole should have been and his arc is as fast and exciting as any story of any recent game. It’s just a shame that it came so late. The final moments attempt to get us back on Phelps’ side and redeem him, but sadly fail in doing so. If anything, you will remember the new protagonist rather than Phelps, but there are slight hints throughout that this may have been done on purpose, perhaps even with the prospect of a sequel in mind. It’s unique storytelling if nothing else. *Spoilers Over*

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There are side missions, collectibles and landmarks to see when not being indulged by the main story, so there are other things to keep you occupied and exploring the beautiful Los Angeles landscape. The optional side missions – which randomly come about via your car radio – although often repetitive and brief are a fun way of extending the game experience. They often vary between shootouts and chases, sometimes bringing in characters from the main story.

The collection quests however feel rather tedious and tacked on. Other than a trophy or achievement, there is really no benefit in finding 50 golden film reels or driving all 95 car types. I can appreciate that its aim is to keep you playing the game longer and exploring the map in more detail, but the lack of interactivity with the surroundings makes it all the more regimented.  At the end of each story case you’ll be given a grade out of five. Each one can also be replayed individually from the main menu and there is also the option to free roam, so there’s no need to worry if you miss anything.

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L.A. Noire is a unique and captivating experience like no other, with a beautifully thematic and immersive world – although it isn’t always a positive one. The story is a page turner and it’s often easy to forget you’re playing a game, but it does become disjointed and repetitive as it goes along. Cases become predictable and you’ll sigh when yet another suspect makes a run for it. Sometimes it even feels like real police work rather than a game and you may feel like you’re just pressing buttons after a while. Still, narrative twists are thrown in at the right time to keep interest high and it’s easy to get caught up in the world and era. The controls can be frustrating, as can the repetition, but what the games does well, it does very well. I also can’t say enough about how groundbreaking the MotionScan technology is. The facial expressions and character performances need to be seen to be believed.

Rockstar and Team Bondi have created an entertaining and transcendent gaming experience, arguably blurring the lines of game and film more than any other developer. Some will love it, others not so much, but it’s arguably an important step for the gaming industry and Rockstar has taken a risk that, for the most part, pays off. It may not fulfil the lofty expectations of gamers and the press and it does lose its way after a while, but L.A. Noire is a compelling and unique experience that demands attention.

8 OUT OF 10

All images © 2011 Rockstar Games. All rights reserved.

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