May 17, 2011 (NA)
May 19, 2011 (AU)
May 20, 2011 (EU)
November 8, 2011 (PC)
When you see a Rockstar logo on a game, you instantly find yourself thinking of violent, thick, open-world games where you play as a criminal anti-hero. You would be quite mistaken to pick up L.A. Noire under the same impression. In development by Team Bondi for several years, the game is a deviation from many notable Rockstar-published games. You can’t pull your gun out when you want, you can’t go on murderous rampages, and you can’t run from the police. Why can’t you? Because you ARE the police.
You play as Cole Phelps, war hero-turned-patrolman for the Los Angeles Police Department in 1947 Los Angeles. Beginning as a beat officer, you find yourself quickly promoted to traffic investigator, uncovering conspiracies and killers, achieving glory and fame with each successful case. As you advance, you find yourself in the homicide department, vice desk, and arson desk, each presenting you with different types of investigations and people.
During your time, you meet key players in the Los Angeles crime underworld, such as real-life Mickey Cohen, and with each desk, you are given a new partner. These partners can provide you with helpful hints if you’re stuck during a case, but also chat with Phelps, providing sometimes comical, sometimes serious, banter while driving from location-to-location in a beautifully crafted city. The actors enlisted for these roles lend both their voice talents and likeness, which is a joy when you recognize someone from a television show or movie you have seen.
The city of Los Angeles in L.A. Noire is a bustling, busy city with pedestrians, era-specific vehicles, and crime, of course! While driving to a destination in a police vehicle, chatter over the radio gives the impression of a living world in the game, with calls coming in for backup or officers down. You can answer these calls for assistance which give you the optional, and fun, street crimes.
These are side-missions and generally last around five minutes, if even that long, and give the player a change of pace from the generally calm investigations. Street crimes are where the majority of your gunfights and action sequences take place. From bank robberies to assaulted civilians, most street crimes end with you catching or killing the suspect. These can become rather repetitious, as the pattern repeats, with you generally killing the suspects, as many of them resist arrest, but overall, it’s a nice switch from the slower pace of the main story.
While the side missions contain the action, the main story forces you into a stylized investigation mode. You find yourself at the scene of a crime, examining potential pieces of evidence and interviewing witnesses and victims. These elements are the main guns of the game. Investigating a location has you walking around the scene with pieces of evidence (or trash) being prompted with a musical cue, indicating whether you can examine or have already examined it. Each piece of evidence can be manipulated and examined, with Phelps commenting if it’s worthwhile or not.
While the evidence may be cleverly hidden, as would be the case in a real crime, most of it is easily given to help lead the case on further, which can give some players the perception that most of the game is on-rails. While this is somewhat true, you are generally in complete control of what is going on. You handle it all and decide where you want to proceed with a case, though at times, the on-rails effect is fully apparent. It isn’t a detriment to the game, but may bother some that feel they are being lead on some cases.
Evidence you find is added to Phelps’ notebook, which you can open at any time to review your evidence, look at persons involved, or go to locations. When a piece of evidence is located, it is automatically added to the notebook for further review or as an aid in interrogations. This is an excellent way of deciding where or how you proceed with leads, and is especially helpful in uncovering lies.
While it may seem impossible to know whether you’ve fully investigated the area around a crime scene, musical hints let you know whether you’re on the right track or not, during both investigations and interrogations. Music plays in the background while you search for clues, with chimes ringing in when you’re near a piece of evidence that can be examined, or a single ring if you’ve already seen that piece. Once you’ve uncovered all items, the music ends and you can proceed with the investigation.
The sounds of the city, action-sequence music and the soundtrack are all right on with the 40’s theme of the game. Jazz-styled action music sounds as you chase suspects or head to an important lead, and songs play on the radio during scenic driving. People on the streets recognize and comment on recent happenings in the story, commending Phelps on a recent arrest or chastising him for mistakes made public. It’s easy to hear repeat remarks, but it’s such a minor effect that it doesn’t bring the believability of the world down.
These musical cues are very important during the interrogation process as well, letting you know when your suspicions are right or wrong. These definitely give you a sense of triumph or disappointment as they sound while you’re questioning a suspect.
And questioning suspects is where the technology behind the game truly comes into effect. MotionScan, used by Team Bondi for total facial accuracy, creates the most realistic and believable faces ever seen in a game. Brow lines, eyes, lips, and everything else you can think of are fully realized and aid you in uncovering the truth.
Interrogations are presented in a simple manner, with Phelps opening his notebook and a list of questions shown. He asks, they answer. You are then given three choices: Truth, Doubt or Lie. These facial animations come into effect here. A person that answers your question then looks around with eyes shifting as they bite their lip gives a clear indication of untruthfulness. How you decide whether to doubt or confront their lie depends on what evidence you have. If you know they’re lying, be ready to back your accusation up with evidence. These gameplay elements are so different from anything available before and it’s a fresh way of playing a game. You can’t just play. You have to think.
As you uncover the truth during each case, it sucks you in deeper and deeper into the story, keeping you hooked on the game and story until late into the hours of the night. It’s all well-done and presented with a class unlike any other.
It’s this story that can hook you in and keep you going. Each case begins with a noire-style title card and a cutscene, similar to shows like CSI, that let you see the crime happening before you. This gives players expectations and assumptions as they find themselves entering the very scene they just saw. Those assumptions might be shattered instantly with the revelation of new evidence or they might prove just right as they discover it was the person they suspected all along. Each desk gives unique and exciting case work: drug trafficking mob bosses, conspiratorial house fires, a string of serial killings, and even a hit-and-run cover up. It’s all thrilling and gives you the sense of a true criminal underbelly rearing its head at you.
While all of that goes on, several other elements help progress the overall story arc. Newspapers are placed in locations and when examined, a small cutscene regarding a young man, a therapist and other events take place, with each newspaper revealing more and more information. Flashbacks of Phelps in the war also provide the player with insight and string together several veins of story by the end of the game. These help create a historical feeling and give the player the desire to keep going and uncover more information, especially in the latter half of the game.
My only struggles with the game are that the story gets quite slow during the homicide desk, but it’s worth digging deep and getting through the redundancies to go further and finish the story arc. I also found the ending somewhat disappointing and jarring. It wasn’t unexpected, but it was not done as impressively as the rest of the game was done. It felt rushed, but it also made sense in the overall picture. When driving or at crime scenes, many of the NPCs in the background look very blocky and things can look rather ugly at times. This isn’t a problem as the visuals close up are stunningly detailed, with serial numbers etched into guns and other small details that make the evidence look well done.
At the end of the day, L.A. Noire is one of the finest examples of video games as art. It is a beautifully crafted, well executed crime thriller. With an array of excellent voice-over work, facial animation and stories, this is a game worth picking up. While it may not be the action game we’ve come to expect from the publisher of Grand Theft Auto, it certainly adds another top-notch entry to their list of work.
Amazing facial animation.
Top-notch voice acting.
Minor case redundancy.
Minor technical issues.