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L.A. Noire
Game Reviews

L.A. Noire

An experimental classic from Rockstar that offers a different take on a GTA-style experience.

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Remasters! They’re a fact of the industry these days. You can’t go more than a month or two without another “classic” game seeing a re-release – and the definition of “classic” is rapidly changing to include games released as recently as the previous generation of consoles. Case in point: L.A. Noire, a detective adventure from Rockstar originally released in 2011, is now available in complete form on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and, amazingly enough, the Switch.

Cole Phelps is back from the war and, like many in his position, he’s going to put the skills he learned in the military to work in law enforcement. As part of the LAPD, Phelps will team up with numerous colorful partners and solve a myriad of crimes ranging from arson to homicide to vice cases. LA in the ’40s was a tough town, though, and Phelps is going to have to watch his back to make sure he doesn’t become the next body on the street or headline in the papers.

L.A. Noire is an interesting entry in the Rockstar discography because it gives us a glimpse into a bizarre alternate world where the developer decided that Grand Theft Auto wasn’t really doing it for them anymore. Instead, they’d look to the most popular games in this other dimension – point-and-click adventures and visual novels – and take a shot at making their own. What we ended up with is a game that looks like GTA and sounds like GTA but decidedly is not GTA.

The basic gameplay certainly does a lot to encourage the idea that this is Grand Theft Auto 1940s. Cole runs around, drives cars, shoots guns and so on pretty much as you’d expect from modern takes on the series. A little more time with the game, though, and it rapidly becomes clear that these elements are going to play second fiddle to investigation and interrogation. As an LAPD detective, Cole’s going to be solving cases not by blasting perps, but by examining crime scenes, collecting evidence and talking to witnesses and suspects.

Crime scene examination and evidence collection are basically GTA-ified takes on the point-and-click adventure. As you walk around an area, a chord will alert you to the presence of something that might be pertinent to the case, allowing Cole to pick up and/or examine whatever it is to see what’s up. Relevant evidence gets added to a notebook, and said evidence can be used later when talking to witnesses and suspects.

One of L.A. Noire’s big selling points back when it was originally released was its realistic facial animation. Rather than just being a graphical box to check, this is actually used during interrogations as you decide whether someone’s telling the truth and when to press harder for more information. As tends to be the case with this sort of feature, this didn’t really work out as planned back in the day – a combination of the nice facial animation not necessarily being all that nice and the vague selection of “truth,” “lie” and “doubt” options for Cole’s responses turned Cole into a notoriously aggressive cop who seemed to get his kicks from making people cry.

One nice update here is that the options are now “Good Cop,” “Bad Cop” and “Accuse,” which helps reduce the chance that Cole will flip out and yell at someone you’re trying to be gentle with, but the fact remains that you’re both unable to see what exactly you’re saying when choosing an option and unable to tell precisely how your subject will react. Further, you’ll get docked points for poor “performance” during interrogations, even if it often doesn’t feel like your mistakes were your fault at all.

The bottom line gameplay-wise is that this is a highly experimental attempt from Rockstar at stepping out into genres that don’t usually get the AAA treatment. Some aspects work, some don’t; one big result is that while there are little side quests called Street Crimes to check out, this feels like a much more linear adventure than a GTA title and that’s going to color the player’s perception of the game. Combine this with the sometimes-frustrating interrogation segments and the investigations that can devolve into what feels like pixel hunting and you end up with a game that doesn’t really hit a home run like GTA does. Your mileage is going to vary somewhat based on your tolerance for narrative-heavy games that don’t focus quite so much on emergent gameplay.

This is a remaster, of course, not to mention the game’s now available on the Nintendo Switch as well. It looks and runs great on every platform; we’d expect this from the Xbox One and PS4 versions, particularly the enhanced Xbox One X version that looks absolutely stellar, but the most credit here goes to the Switch version. This was a killer app for the seventh generation of consoles, so the fact that it runs beautifully on what is essentially a tablet is noteworthy. The Switch version also offers a few other perks, such as quality use of the system’s motion controls and HD Rumble throughout, some cute bonus additions here and there like new suits and, naturally, the fact that it’s portable – this isn’t necessarily a game that’s well-served by portability, but the thought is what counts!

One other thing that’s worth noting: the download size and footprint for this game are massive, particularly when it comes to the Switch version. If you plan on playing L.A. Noire on Nintendo’s console, you’d do well to ensure that you’ve got an SD card big enough to hold the thing; in fact, without an SD card you won’t actually have the space needed to play the digital download release. Expect this to be a continuing issue for the little hybrid that could; I’d also expect to see a revised Switch at some point in the future that comes with a little more onboard storage. Call it the Switch Pro or Switch X, perhaps?

L.A. Noire is the result of some creative risk-taking on the part of Rockstar and it shows even today. It’s essentially a AAA visual novel from a developer known for more interactive and emergent experiences; further, it doesn’t really fail at being an engaging title despite not being what many players would expect. While it’s not possible to recommend this one without reservations, particularly to players who would prefer a more substantial GTA experience on their new console, LA Noire is still worth checking out on new platforms in 2017, particularly for Switch owners who are always hungry for quality games.

About the Author: Cory Galliher