L.A. Noire: A Major Leap Forward
Let’s take this opportunity, with our first major review at The Unplayables, to be blunt: L.A. Noire is a remarkable game. Developer Team Bondi and publisher Rockstar Games have released a title that manages to take cues from Grand Theft Auto, the classic Police Quest adventure games, and the ambiance of classic film noir, and in doing so the two have created something that is both a fun gameplay experience as well as a major leap forward for the medium.
Let’s get the basic stuff out of the way first. You play as Detective Cole Phelps, a former G.I. back from World War II, now living in Los Angeles. You begin the game as a beat cop and then slowly work your way up through various “desks” within the LAPD, including traffic, homicide, vice and arson. Each of these desks comprises a number of cases, which are handled individually, very much like episodes.
At its core, the game is divided into three game types: exploration, investigation, and action.
L.A. Noire is an open world sandbox title, as we have come to expect from Rockstar. You can drive over a hundred cars, find hidden cars and film reels (the game’s secret collectibles) and solve street crimes. I will touch on street crimes later when I discuss the game’s action sequences. Team Bondi should be lauded for the work they put into recreating a digital version of 1940’s Los Angeles. While the city may look very different nowadays, for anyone that has spent time there, it is still imminently recognizable as L.A. There are even a number of famous landmarks to explore, including the Egyptian and Chinese theaters, Union Station, and the tar pits.
The city has a great deal of interior locations, most of which have to do with the story. On the whole, they are beautifully rendered. There is always a tendency with these sorts of games to reuse assets whenever possible, but nearly every interior location I saw had a unique look and style. Likewise with the buildings on the street, it is easy to tell what part of town you are in just by the look of the local houses and businesses. The city is also well populated with other civilians and a good deal of traffic, which brings the city to life in a way that Mafia II only wished it could.
One note on driving: the controls are considerably tighter than recent Grand Theft Auto games, and this may take some adjusting on the part of avid Rockstar fans. I found I got the hang of it in about an hour. Some may get it a lot quicker. The city is also huge, so you will be driving a lot. Thankfully, Team Bondi has included a feature by which you can have your partner drive you to a pre-selected location by holding down a button when entering your car. This works similar to the taxi feature in GTA IV. Showing remarkable foresight, if you do elect to skip to your location, you will not miss any important ambient dialogue, as the game will show you driving while you and your partner talk, and will skip you to your location right after that conversation is finished.
Investigation is really the core of L.A. Noire. In each case you will first be tasked with investigating one or more crime scenes, and then you will interrogate witnesses, victims and suspects, ultimately gathering enough evidence to put them away… if they don’t go down in a blaze of glory first.
Crime scene investigation can seem slow, at times, but I found it to be very intuitive. You walk around the crime scene, speak to other police officers and the coroner, who may provide you with additional information, and then look for clues. The game tells you when you find an item that could be a clue by making your controller vibrate, and issuing an audible chime, which fits in perfectly with the game’s “clue findin music,” a theme that plays at crime scenes while there are still clues to find, and which stops once you have found all there is to find. When you find a clue, you can inspect it further, manipulate it, turn it, etc, in order to find out more information about it. If it is significant, it gets turned into a written item in your notebook, almost like collecting inventory in an adventure game.
These notebook items become very important in the interrogation sections. First, however, I should say a few things about the performances in L.A. Noire. Yes, I called them performances. Not voice overs, not animation, full on performances. Recognizable B-list actors play a large number of the characters in the game, and because of the revolutionary new Motion Scan technology which Team Bondi utilized, their full performances are captured perfectly. For the first time in videogame history, on screen rendered characters can portray emotion. I will say it: We have crossed the uncanny valley. Just seeing a screen shot is not enough. The actors’ faces move naturally, the game effective communicates their body language. This kind of technology is a major advancement in videogame development.
So, on this note, interrogations are really where this technology gets to shine. When interviewing an individual, you are given a list of questions that you can ask. You ask the question and they give their response. You then have the option of believing what they said, doubting it, or exposing it as a lie based on some evidence in your notebook (the aforementioned collected clues). Knowing which option to pick is as simple as reading their body language and facial ticks. In any other game, it would not work, but because of the Motion Scan technology, characters emotional and physical communications are both recognizable and believable. Is that girl unable to look you in the eyes? What about that suspect who keeps on looking side to side nervously, or the man who tenses his mouth whenever he says something uncomfortable? The skill the game tests here is your actual ability to read other people’s body language. It works so well that it has already been suggested that the game may be a good training tool for people with Aspergers Syndrome.
There is always one correct response to an individual’s statements, and two incorrect responses. Correct responses lead to more clues, locations, individuals, and generally more evidence in the case. Incorrect responses lead to nothing. This mechanic is similar to that used in the Phoenix Wright games, with the exception that there, you get multiple chances to screw up, whereas in L.A. Noire, one wrong answer and that’s it for that question. However, it is important to note that the game cannot be failed through these interrogations. It keeps moving forward, bad evidence or good. In that way, it takes some cues from Heavy Rain, in terms of a persistent narrative that adapts to player failure. The end result might be that you put away the wrong guy, or that you don’t have enough evidence to make your police chief happy, but the game will go on.
The third pillar of L.A. Noire’s gameplay foundation is action sequences. The game features driving, foot chases, fistfights and shooting sequences, and they all play out relatively the same. These are initiated either as part of a case, or as a random street crime, which you can access while driving around in your police vehicle. Street crimes are almost like miniature cases, where you will get a short story sequence followed by one of the four standard action sequences. They are over quick, but there are quite a few of them, and they help to provide some variety and distraction from the overarching story.
In the case of driving, most of the time you will need to chase down a fleeing perp and will need to disable his vehicle while avoiding scripted obstacles and traffic. This can be done by driving close enough for your partner to shoot out their tires, or by running your adversary off the road and totaling his car. Foot chases are similar, except that you will run after a fleeing suspect, dodging more scripted obstacles, until you either tackle him by catching up, or end up in a fist fight.
Fist fighting is simple, but effective. One button dodges, one punches, one grapples, and one executes a finisher. The controls are responsive, and what the fighting mini-game lacks in depth it makes up for in brevity. These tend to be quick, dirty, and pretty easy.
Finally, we get to the guns. The game features a multitude of shootout situations, where you will use multiple guns to take down enemies in the style of a third person shooter, similar to the combat mechanics of GTA IV or Red Dead Redemption. There is a full working cover system, aiming is accurate, and baddies take just the right amount of bullets before keeling over. The game also features regenerating health, as is seemingly expected these days. You can only carry one gun at a time (usually your standard issue police revolver), but you can lift other guns, including machine guns and shotguns off of dead enemies.
Ultimately, however, this game is about the story, or should I say stories. Each case is a single, almost episodic, narrative, with themes that can run from case to case. In one circumstance you may find a number of cases that reference the famous Black Dahlia killer, and in another, cases that may have to do with government corruption. The setup for each case is well done, with a brief movie showing the crime being committed. The characters you meet along the way are well performed and often quite entertaining. Specific kudos to the actor who played the Irish police chief. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I will leave it at this: the story is good. Each case feels like its own narrative, but ultimately they all tie together in some logical way. Cole Phelps is an interesting character to play as, and his trials and tribulations in the LAPD make for good pulp fiction.
Final Thoughts: This game defies genre classification. It is tempting to call it a third person action game, in the vein of GTA or Red Dead Redemption, but that would be missing the point. L.A. Noire is really the evolution of the classic adventure genre. The game is really driven by its story, the clues/inventory you pick up during investigations, and the branching dialogue you get during interviews. Many of the same concepts that were explored back in the 1990’s with the Police Quest series apply to this, as well as concepts more recently explored in Heavy Rain, but frankly, L.A. Noire does them better. Whereas Heavy Rain felt stilted and limited, like a 15 hour quick time event, L.A. Noire succeeds in delivering a complex and thoughtful narrative through actual gameplay, and not just interactive cinema. This is easily one of the best games of the year.
By: Jeff Fischer
It’s hard to argue with any of the praise Mike has given to LA Noire. Rockstar and Team Bondi really hit it out of the park on this one. After being in development for nearly 8 years and being dropped as an exclusive title for Sonys PS3 it could have easily gone either way. The game is out now for PS3 and Xbox 360 and it appears the time and dedication of Team Bondi has really paid off.
It is hard to understate how powerful the performances in LA Noire really are. Rockstar once again has put itself at the forefront of technological advances in video games. The technology powering the facial animations in the game is simply stunning in action and I find it hard to believe that developers going forward won’t look to leverage these systems in the coming years. I am excited at the though of what a game like Uncharted could be using this kind of facial animation system. Screenshots do not do the game justice, and I wasn’t truly convinced by the trailers either, you really need to sit down with the game and watch the performances. Only when you are actually trying to decide whether a suspect is hiding something or not can you truly appreciate the leap forward in storytelling this is.
I agree that LA Noire is the next great advancement in the adventure genre, a genre that had two feet in the grave already. What Heavy Rain attempted to do last year, LA Noire has done and done better in every aspect. It is a game you both experience and play at the same time. While the stories you play through are scripted, and there is little chance to fail a story, you never get the feeling you are simply going through the motions. The writers have come up with very creative ways to keep the cases from being too “open and shut” and leave most of the later game case decisions almost entirely in question up until their final conclusion. Missing one single key piece of evidence can mean the difference between getting the culprit or imprisoning an innocent man, both of which things I have done in this game.
LA Noire is one of those games that as soon as I had finished it, I was ready to start it up again and go back through cases again. Many have claimed there is little replay value in the game, and for a certain type of gamer that may be true, but I was interested in seeing the outcomes of the cases had I been able to get a witness to open up more than I did the first time or had I done things in a different order. There were cases that I know I had accused the wrong man, but was unsure of why I didn’t have enough evidence to choose otherwise. These cases I would like to go back through and try again. Luckily, LA Noire makes replaying cases very easy by allowing you to select a specific case from each desk from the main menu.
I can’t deny that LA Noire is a strong contender for Game of the Year, and give it my full endorsement as well. If you are looking for the next GTA clone, then you should probably look elsewhere, as the action in LA Noire is more subdued and controlled. However for LA Noire the limitations it imposes on the action/sandbox genre are what really set it apart and what keeps its overall tone and atmosphere in place. If Cole Phelps were out shooting every criminal in sight the game simply wouldn’t work. If you are willing to take the game at a slower pace and really think about the cases you are working on I think you will be truly rewarded with a new and unique experience with all LA Noire has to offer.