Whenever Rockstar publishes a game, everyone immediately asks: “Is it like Grand Theft Auto?” If you’re reading this review because you’re wondering whether or not L.A. Noire is like Grand Theft Auto, the quick answer is no and the long answer is: Take the Phoenix Wright series, give it a big city to play around in, and dress up the characters as if Law & Order was done in the 40s. Then you’ll have L.A. Noire .
In L.A. Noire , you control Cole Phelps as he solves crimes for the LAPD. To solve these crimes, Phelps has to find evidence and question individuals about the crime. This questioning plays a pivotal role in the game as asking the right questions means the difference from having the culprit confess or charging an innocent person for the crime. When talking to people, you have set questions to choose from and you’ll have to pay attention to the person’s response, tone, and body language to decide if they are telling the truth, or you doubt what they say, or that they’re lying by providing proof that they lied. Ask the right questions and you’ll gain xp that will let you level up to unlock more outfits and award you intuition points as well as improving your rating when you complete the case. Continue to ask the wrong questions and you’ll get an earful from your superior officer, earn a poor rating, and also probably arrest the wrong person.
A GORGEOUS DAME
A Tale Worth Telling – The story of L.A. Noire centers around Cole Phelps, a former army lieutenant who left the military a hero after World War II who joins the LAPD as a regular beat cop and climbs the ranks to become a detective. The first half of the cases don’t go deep into the plot, rather, they engross you into the feel of being on the right side of the law. The second half is when you get into the juicy stuff regarding Phelp’s time in the military and how the past can come back to haunt a man. The cases themselves also play out like an episode of CSI or Law & Order with their own exposition, climax and resolution. The game gets even better when the cases all come together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Although some of the dialogue can come off a little awkward, it’s incredibly satisfying for those that love a great narrative.
That’s a Tune I Can Swing To – You will find that music plays a huge role in sucking you into the L.A. Noire experience. I’m not referring to the songs from the 40s that you can hear on the radio, but rather the score of the game. Composer Andrew Hale created a perfect score for this game, featuring slow jazz that sets the mood flawlessly. The music makes you want to turn off all the lights except for a desk lamp, pour a glass of whiskey, light up a cigarette and wear a fedora as you solve cases. It’s simply spine-chilling how the music creates an ideal atmosphere that brings all the pieces of the game together and begs for you to lose yourself in the moment.
That’s One Bee-yoo-tee-full Face – For L.A. Noire , developer Team Bondi, made use of a new motion capture technology called MotionScan to provide an unparalleled level of facial detail. Current gen games have been using various technologies to recreate human faces in games, but there have always been a problem with talking animations. Developers have never been able to make it look completely natural. With MotionScan, Team Bondi was able to recreate natural facial expressions and speech that are so life-like that it’s the backbone of the gameplay. During your questioning, you have to read the face and body language of the person you’re questioning. It’s so dead-on that some of the more well-known actors that were used in the game have facial expressions and movements that will remind you of the TV shows and movies they’ve done. Take for example Greg Grunberg, who is best known for his role as Matt Parkman in the show Heroes. In Heroes, he has a super power where he reads minds and when he uses his power in the show, he makes these very serious faces. Those same faces can be seen when you question him in the game and it’s uncanny how similar they are. It’s incredible to look at making for not only impressive visuals, but the tech adds more impact to the dialogue.
Always a Helping Hand – If you played detective games on the PC back in the day like Blade Runner and The Ripper and even the more current games like the Phoenix Wright series, you’ve probably had some very frustrating times trying to figure out just what you have to do. In L.A. Noire , you don’t have to worry about that because there’s plenty of help available to you. For example: when looking for clues, music will play and a chime will sound when you walk by something you can investigate. You’ll know when you’re done investigating a crime scene when the music stops, making for a less obtrusive sign that you’re done, allowing for a much more immersive experience. If you’re not sure where to go, ask your partner and he’ll have some advice for you. Hell, at one point, you’re given some very abstract clues about certain landmarks in L.A. Take too long to figure it out and the game will outright tell you what they are. As you correctly ask questions, find landmarks/reels/automobiles and complete street crimes, you’re given xp that lets you level up acquiring intuition points. If you decide to use these points, you can reveal all the clues in a crime scene, or during an interview, your use of intuition will eliminate some incorrect choices, leaving you with a better chance to ask the right question or present the right evidence. Some detective game purists may find these helpful tools as cheating, but instead it should be viewed as a way to let newcomers to the genre enjoy the game without feeling like a dummy, and if you want an extra challenge, you can turn off the clue music.
He’s Got Chops Like Bogart – Aaron Staton, known for his role of Ken Cosgrove in Mad Men, leads the cast of known Hollywood actors who not only provided their voices, but physically acted out the scenes while their facial reactions were captured. Each actor gives a well done performance that made even powerful with the facial expressions matching up so perfectly. It’s even more effective during the scenes where someone has to show sorrow and pain, creating an emotional performance that hasn’t been seen in a game before.
THE EVIDENCE IS LACKING
They’re Doing The Jitterbug – While the characters' facial expressions are worth squealing in delight about, their body animation leaves a little more to desire. I'm not saying that it has to be absolutely perfect like a human body, but it would be nice if it didn't shake all of the time. There are simply too many points where the characters’ bodies begin to shake. While L.A. Noire's faces may be the result of new technology, the tech used to render the rest of the body still needs some work.
Quit Yapping Into a Tin Can – I don’t know what it was, but there were too many scenes that sounded like they were done in a metal room. Some of the voices come off as tinny or obscure in when dealing with the setting of the conversation. I don't know if it’s a problem with the actual recordings or maybe the overuse of filters in order to simulate locations, but some of the voices don’t sound as if they are in the actual scene. It sounds out of place and becomes distracting when two characters that are supposed to be only a few feet away sound like as if they are in two completely different rooms.
A Big Beautiful World With Not Much To Do – There are 21 story cases (an extra case is available with the PS3 and more cases are being talked about for DLC) in L.A. Noire that can take a good 12 hours to complete. After that, you’re free to replay certain cases to improve on your rating which is based on different factors in the case: clues you found, correct questions asked, property damage caused, human injuries caused, if you charged the right suspect or not. You can also do some free roaming in the city, and it’s a huge city to roam in. Larger than GTA 4, the city of 1940s Los Angeles has real-world landmarks to see, street crimes to take care of and collectibles to find like cars and reels. However, it still feels like there is really nothing to do. The street crime cases are fairly simple kill the bad guys side-missions you can do, similar to the vigilante mode in the GTA series, but it’s not fulfilling. In fact, this has to be the largest virtual city available to play around in with practically nothing in it to do. L.A. itself also doesn’t feel like a living, breathing city. Instead it feels like a recreation of a city with random passers-by walking around. I simply wish there was more to do because it is a shame to let such a huge sandbox go to waste.
Repeating Itself Like a Record Skipping – As you work your cases, you’ll notice that aside from the evidence gathering and questing parts of the game, you’ll be left different segments where the gameplay is a little more on the action side. On foot you may have to throw down against some bad guys using only your fists. The hand-to-hand combat is simply terrible. L.A. Noire is one of those games with bad hand-to-hand combat that makes you use it the most. Then there are foot chases where you have to run after the bad guy where you have to tackle the guy, chase them to a certain point that stops the chase, or target them with your gun for a certain amount of time only to then shoot your gun in the air to have the criminal stop. That leads us to shootouts, where you have to take down enemies with your pistol, or several other firearms, making sure to use cover. Take too many hits and you're dead as a doornail. Then there are times where you have to follow someone incognito, making sure the person doesn’t notice you. Action can also happen while driving resulting in pulse-pounding car chases that require you to stop the other car by either smashing into them until their car is too damaged to continue or until your partner is able to shoot out their tires. You may have to simply tail the car keeping a good distance away while you find out where you’re going. Problem is that these scenarios play out again and again and again. It becomes way too repetitive when you have to constantly chase down the bad guys on foot time and time again. I feel that this is where Team Bondi dropped the ball. The lack of diversity in the action sequences is very apparent, especially when compared to the vast variety of cases you are given to solve. If they could have improved on the variety of action segments, making them as desirable to play as the detective aspect of the game, it would have been an incredible combination.
L.A. Noire is one of those games that serves to revitalize a once-dormant genre. These type of detective games (mainly point-and-click at the time) were all over the place in the 90s during the FMV era, but once that fad was over, the genre dried up. While L.A. Noire didn’t get everything just right, it’s already making a big impression on gamers. Fans of a great, plot-driven, detective story filled with all kinds of gritty drama (like me) should pick up this game immediately. Those expecting Grand Theft Auto: 1940's Los Angeles Edition will need to look elsewhere.
This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game with a review copy provided by the publisher.