L.A. Noire Review
Publisher: Rockstar Games / Developer: Team Bondi / ESRB: Mature (Blood and Gore, Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs, Violence) / Played on: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360
Remember all those people that referred to Red Dead Redemption as Grand Theft Auto: Horse? They won’t be able to refer to L.A. Noire as Grand Theft Auto: Noir — at least not without sounding like an idiot. It’s simply not that kind of game. (And really, it’s stupid to think that Rockstar only publishes one type of game. Midnight Club, Manhunt, Tablet Tennis, and Bully are all Rockstar games.) If anything, L.A. Noire is like a more active version of Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain. Like that game, there’s a big emphasis on story, atmosphere, and production values. Unlike that game, there’s more traditional gameplay mixed into the overall experience. Put it all together and you get a unique and well-made game that stands out from the crowd.
As you probably gathered from the title, L.A. Noire is Rockstar’s interactive take on the “film noir” movie genre. The game is a crime caper that takes place in Los Angeles in the 1940s. For most of the narrative, you play the role of a rookie cop that was a war hero in the United States Marine Corps. There’s also a brief portion of the game that has you controlling another character.
The game tasks you with solving cases at various LAPD beat desks. They start off as relatively simple crimes at the traffic desk and advance to intricate mysteries as you work your way through arson, vice, and homicide. Some of the cases, like the Black Dahlia murders, were inspired by actual crimes that occurred in Los Angeles, while others are fictitious.
The character development in L.A. Noire is stellar. You start off believing that the main character, patrolman-turned-detective Cole Phelps, is a clean-cut hero, but in true film-noir fashion discover that he’s more complex and flawed than a typical videogame protagonist. As the game progresses, you reveal his dirty laundry. You discover that his moral code isn’t cut and dry. You find out that he’s haunted by a military tragedy that’s far worse than flying too low over Macho Grande. He’s just a well-written character, with lots of shades of gray.
The game’s overall narrative is written similarly. Characters and events are more complex than they seem. The highs and lows of the game aren’t as ham-fisted and obvious as most videogame plot points; they’re more layered and interesting. If you’re a fan of quality writing you’ll appreciate the story and characters in L.A. Noire.
As I mentioned earlier, the game reminded me of Heavy Rain. It’s heavy on storytelling and character development–more like an interactive movie than a traditional game. That said, there’s more traditional gameplay in L.A. Noire than in Heavy Rain. It’s not the heavy action and open-world excitement found in Red Dead Redemption or the Grand Theft Auto series. Instead, it’s kind of like a combination of traditional adventure elements with a bit of Phoenix Wright and Trauma Center thrown in.
L.A. Noire is broken up into a series of cases. The gameplay is a mix of light action, investigation, and interrogation. Again, the action isn’t terribly involved or complex, nor is it meant to be. You engage in simple shootouts and chase sequences. Driving portions have you tailing suspects. If you’re looking for thrilling action this isn’t the game for you. Instead of being the core of the gameplay, the action segments add variety and break up the cases.
Investigating crime scenes reminded me a bit of adventure games from the ‘80s and ‘90s. You explore different locations and examine possible clues. Diligent examination leads to evidence; the more evidence you have, the easier it is to crack a case.
Questioning suspects is similar to interrogations in the Phoenix Wright series. As you question witnesses and suspects, you can react with three options: believe them, doubt their response, or accuse them of lying. The appropriate response is based off of evidence and the suspect’s body language. A suspect’s facial expressions and body movement will tip you off to the right line of questioning.
You’re graded after each case in L.A. Noire. You receive a report card that shows how many interrogation questions you got right, the amount of clues you found, how much collateral damage you caused, and more. The crew at Machinima is divided over this feature. Some think that it interrupts the flow of the narrative and dislike it because it makes them want to replay a case to perfection. Others, including me, enjoy this feature. For my part, I am not a completionist gamer at all, but this game made me want to be. It also reminded me of exploring all the branches in those old Choose Your Own Adventure books. (I’m curious and scared to see how many of you are too young to know what those are. Leave a comment please!)
There is an open-world aspect to the game, but it’s not as vast as the options found in Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. There are perps to chase down, landmarks to discover, and cars to find. Considering the incredibly detailed version of Los Angeles the developers created, it feels a bit shallow–as if there’s not enough to do in this intricate world. I expect that several batches of DLC will take advantage of L.A. Noire’s impressive landscape, but for now the open-world options are limited. There’s definitely a large open world for you to play in, but there’s just not a lot of interesting things to do at the moment.
Overall, I was satisfied with the thoughtful gameplay. The deliberate pace and lack of heavy action will shock some of the millions that bought Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. That’s all on them though. This is a very different type of game. Its thoughtful gameplay stands on its own and succeeds in entertaining.
Prior to the game’s release, L.A. Noire received a ton of hype over its facial animations. Using Depth Analysis’ MotionScan technology, the faces in this game are extraordinary. You can see fine details, little ticks, crows feet, and more. These are the most lifelike faces I’ve ever seen in a videogame — just really impressive and amazing.
Unfortunately, the body animations aren’t nearly as good. Arms flap around unnaturally, with unusually exaggerated movements. It’s not that the body animations are bad; they’re just typical for a high-end videogame. The outstanding facial animations combine with the relatively standard body animations for a feeling of incongruity. It’s just weird seeing a natural-looking face on top of a body that’s flopping about in the uncanny valley.
The developers did a fantastic job of portraying 1940s Los Angeles. The stores, streets, and cars look fantastic. The color palette makes the game look like moving photos from that era. You can also play in pure black and white through the options menu, a nice touch. I highly recommend trying this format; it’s just so stylish and well executed. It truly makes the game feel like an interactive noir movie–almost like a videogame version of The Maltese Falcon.
Like several other aspects of the game, L.A. Noire’s soundtrack is wonderfully subtle. The period pieces are excellent and appropriate. I really loved the background music that played during investigations–simple tracks that feature an upright bass. The music made me feel like I was Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade character.
If you own both a PlayStation 3 and an Xbox 360 then I recommend buying the game for the former. The PS3 version comes on one Blu-ray disc, while the Xbox 360 comes on three DVDs. I preferred the shadows in the PS3 version, but think that’s more of a personal preference. The frame rate can be an issue in both games, but much more so on the Xbox 360. The PS3 version looks a little better and plays smoother than the Xbox 360 version.
Team Bondi did a wonderful job of creating an enjoyable game that takes interactive storytelling to a new level. The production values and graphics are up there with Heavy Rain, but the gameplay is more appealing to longtime gamers. Rockstar fans that were expecting another Grand Theft Auto need to understand that L.A. Noire is a very different type of game. It’s subtle, deliberate, and atmospheric. It’s also just a well-crafted game that offers an atypical type of fun.