Review – L.A. Noire
David, may I please have some ANSWERS? Delaware, all of the above, ninety degrees…
L.A. Noire is the latest Rockstar published game from a relatively unknown studio Team Bondi. If follows the career of Cole Phelps, a tough no nonsense by the book cop in the seedy and corrupt world of Los Angeles circa 1947. The game has you collecting clues and interviewing persons of interest before bringing down the hammer to secure a conviction in a open world recreation of Los Angeles.
If you’ve seen any coverage of this game you’ll have seen people raving about the much ballyhooed facial texturing system the game employs. This is by far the games standout feature it pays off most in the interviewing system where you have to figure out if your subject is lying by studying their reactions. In any other game there would be a hand full of canned animations for reactions whereas with this performance capture each subject has an actors actual face mapped onto the ingame character. The majority of the time its a shifty eye movement or a facial twitch but there’s enough ambiguity for at least this reviewer to get a few false positives. It makes what could feel like a really procedural event into a genuine challenge.
One of the best, and worst, features of this game is the way the game handles player failure in the investigations. If for example you accuse some one of lying and are wrong you’ll hear a audio cue but continue although you might find you miss important evidence and eventually be forced charge the wrong suspect. In one respect the fact I don’t have to run to a FAQ to finish a game is a triumph of game design but i cant help feeling disappointed when I know I’ve sent away the wrong guy. Call me a perfectionist but I would rather a do over than send away someone I know isn’t guilty even if that fits in with the fiction of the time period.
Cases will typically involve you starting at the station with your current boss giving you and your partner a brief rundown of the case and then dispatching you to the crime scene. At this point you can choose to drive there yourself or get your partner to drive you (I did a bit of both depending on my mood). You arrive at the crime scene collect as much evidence as you can including examine the victim’s corpse, maybe interrogate a witness or chat to the first reporting officer. You’ll have a few leads that will get you to new locations find new clues and suspects. Its a fairly linear progression with the branches coming when you have a choice of two or more locations to visit next. Once you have enough evidence you’ll wind up at the station where you have to get a confession. This sounds dull in text but in reality there are enough deviations and surprises to keep me interested to the end.
So Rockstar’s crack at the gumshoe simulator is now on store shelves to some critical acclaim and fanfare. Some of it is quite richly deserved. The guys at Team Bondi have definitely decided to give this game a narrative flourish than most, with some absolutely professional performances from numerous familiar faces from American TV.
Much has been made of the facial animation and you’ll probably be taken aback by it, when you first set eyes on it. The fidelity on little facial nuances is quite staggering and it’s quite helpful in what is effectively an adventure game Travellers Tales could’ve done on a shrunken budget.
That’s not to do Rockstar a disservice. Their attention to detail is staggering with a fully realized rendition of 1940s Los Angeles. It’s a game steeped in contemporary noir atmosphere with a impressive musical score and a script which contains some rather snappy lines of dialogue. The story is probably the game’s strongest suit.
Many seem quick to draw this game as GTA meets Phoenix Wright. That’s not a bad comparison, but probably sells Phoenix a bit short. One of the frustrating elements of this game is how the game wants you to play interrogations. It’s been a big pull to have a human face opposite you trying to emote whilst you cross examine them but, ultimately, interrogations feel a tad random. In theory, you ask a question, check their face for tells and then pick truth, doubt or lie. In practice, the game gives you an iffy mix of stone-faced liars, and nervous law abiders. As such, you can conceivably add to a rape victim’s misery or call an orphan a lying bitch. It’s a lot of trial and error and it’ll frustrate you if you can’t break their story wide open. Luckily, the penalty for failure is muted somewhat by the game constantly pushing you forward and bringing you to a conclusion for each case, even if it’s not the right one. Even chase sequences can be skipped if they’re giving you an issue.
The sandbox elements feel slightly at odds with the confined environments you’ll spend a lot of time visiting. I know its Rockstar’s specialty but they’ve had to pad it out with street crimes (which are actually brief and enjoyable) and collectables. You can just about get by without it, though. Driving can be done by your partner so you can use that as a way to keep the story confined. Rockstar realized this world very well so there’s no shame in them wanting you to see it.
This game can hit the high notes quite prominently but the trial and error linearity can occasionally grind your patience thin. That said, I’ve enjoyed my time in LA and it’s really nice to see Rockstar play it straight for once, leading to a rather engrossing tale. Ultimately, the story will keep you playing and the way every choice you make seems to matter, not Aaron Stanton’s constipated face.
Secondary Score: 8/10
The subjects of the cases often turn rather dark with murder, betrayal and exploitation being some of the main motivations for the crimes. It would have been really easy for L.A. Noire to feel shocking and gory for the sake of it but everything is handled in a tasteful appropriate manner.
The first half of L.A. Noire consists of single serving cases that show Cole raising from a beat cop to detective. Once you hit the mid point an overarching story starts to appear. It’s at the point that L.A. Noire tries to link cases into an arc that the problems become apparent. Towards the end it has to raise the stakes/body count to ridiculous levels. It also sticks to the format of a case when its no longer appropriate. I can understand that the expectation of the medium is a crescendo at the climax but I would have liked it to be handled in some other way.
Minor criticisms of the story aside, this game has some of the most “alive” characters in any game I’ve ever played. This is no doubt due to the facial magic going on but the vocal work also kills it. Whether it’s your gruff career cop homicide partner Finbar , the steely stoic coroner or the captain of the homicide desk who talks in quotes that are likely lifted from the old testament. They may flirt with pastiche but there’s no grave robbing necrophiliacs or latent homosexual bodybuilders here. They make the world feel more believable and I listened intently to every conversation.
Aside from the main story the game has few extraneous features you can explore period LA which has been recreated in painstaking detail with landmarks and I believe the exact street layout of the time period. They’re are side missions they’ll pop up when driving between locations these are less about investigation and usually involved fisticuffs, shooting or car/foot chases to the developers credit these all have their own unique setup and dialogue and are a nice change of pace from the slower more methodical pace of the main story’s investigation and interview sequences. I personally enjoyed the car chases if only for the scripting and the fact your partner will hang out the window to try and shoot the perp like a cowboy.
L.A. Noire gives you a opportunity to jump back in time to the late 1940s and detect your way through a series of enjoyable cases. Some people may find the games accessibility a Pyrrhic Victory but as someone who has never made it through plenty of games due to logical leaps/being a idiot it works and when the alternative is reading a FAQ and having the game spoiled is a worthwhile compromise. I would go as far to say this game is a essential for anyone whose played the GTA/Rockstar games and seen the potential but found it to be too wacky and over the top.