I didn’t know what to make of L.A. Noire when I first learned about it. Honestly, I thought it would be just another Grand Theft Auto-style game set in the 1940’s, but as it turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong. Apart from driving around a detailed sandbox metropolis and cut-scenes, it has little in common with other Rockstar blockbusters like GTA or Red Dead Redemption. It’s a murder mystery of the highest order, one that unfolds slowly alongside its intense action sequences and a renewed focus on storytelling and interrogation that will take all your mental focus to solve, which are brought to life using some of the most sophisticated tech you’ve ever seen. Brendan McNamara, head of Australia-based developer Team Bondi, was the former director of Team Soho Studio, and helmed the 2002 PS2 hit The Getaway. That should give you an idea of the kind of depth and detail that awaits fans looking to take a spin in post-war L.A.
The setting is 1947 Los Angeles, where if you could dream it, you could make it happen. Though with its bright lights and movie stars, there’s also corruption and death at every turn. You assume the role of Cole Phelps (played by Mad Men’s Aaron Staton), as you help him start from a lowly LAPD officer who solves crimes from adultery, to sodomy and cold-blooded murders, while getting promoted from a beat cop to detective and making new partners along the way. As you solve cases that play out like mini-mystery movies, you’ll also be treated to flashbacks of Phelps’ past in the military, and learn why he left and joined the police, all while seeing just how tough it is to remain an honest cop in a dirty, corrupt society.
Those familiar with any of Rockstar’s games will feel right at home here, at least during the many cinematic and action parts, which help shift the focus from pure investigative sleuthing to standard driving/combat moments, with familiar controls that feel precise and accurate when you need them to be. A nice trick is leaving some of the mundane driving to your partner while you ‘look over the paperwork’, and there’s plenty of fisticuffs and gunplay moments to help shake things up when you’re about to keel over from mental exhaustion. Few companies can walk that fine line between cinematic storytelling and pure gameplay like Rockstar, and here they (along with Team Bondi) tiptoe like they never have before.
Most of the time you’ll be walking around investigating crime scenes for clues, which thankfully aren’t too hard to find, as your controller with rumble a little with a musical chime playing when you’re close to one (these cues can be disabled from the options menu). From there, you’ll be able to pick up and investigate them up close using the analog stick to rotate and zoom in/out for a more detailed look. All clues, evidence, and address locations are saved in your handy dandy notebook (couldn’t resist the Blue’s Clues joke) which can be accessed any time. You’ll quickly learn that it is your greatest weapon / tool in the game, as knowledge truly is power here.
One of the game’s most underrated features is the ability to turn on (and off) an auto-pass option, which allows you to skip an action part if you failed it a couple of times. This is similar to Nintendo’s Super Guide feature, and while hardcore folks might find it silly, I think more games should have options like this and I’m glad it’s there for those who want to see the story through. And trust me, you’ll want to see this one through to the end.
The world of L.A. Noire looks and sounds beautiful, which made me admire how much effort was put into making you feel like you’re in post-war Los Angeles. The architecture, billboards, music, and even the way cases start with titles written out in that huge white letter font of the 40’s and 50’s zooming in your face are spot-on. The score is an eccelctic mix of classical big band and jazz music, and fits the 40s aesthetic perfectly, especially during action scenes and while driving around town. There’s even an option to play the game in black & white for an even truer experience, if that’s your thing.
The cast is wonderful, too, and features several actors from AMC’s Mad Men series, and their performances are enhanced even further with MotionScan, which uses 32 surrounding cameras to capture their facial expressions from every angle for animations when characters talk and express realistic emotions. But this isn’t just impressive tech, as these subtle nuances can often help make all the difference when interrogating suspects and determining their guilt or innocence. After seeing this in action for myself, I can’t help but wonder how profound a change this tech could have on future cinematic-style games in the future.
Now on to my gripes, which concerns the meat and potatoes of the game: the questioning and interrogation moments. I’ll be honest with you, I’m a sucker for all things mystery, and as a fan of shows like Law and Order: SVU, Monk, and Sherlock, I actually enjoyed having to take the time to find clues and interrogate folks, but it’s not without its faults. Now I understand they want you to “use your gut” while interrogating folks, which you do by reading a person’s body language while asking them a question, which is incredibly realistic, thanks to the game’s amazing animation. They may fidget, look away, or stare you straight in the face. This brings up the options of saying they’re lying, you doubt them, or they’re telling the truth. If you accuse them of lying, you’ll have to back it up with evidence or clues from your notebook. If you think they’re lying but don’t have proof, you can doubt what they say. And if they’re telling the truth, you select truth.
But ask one wrong question or make one wrong decision, and you’ll have to start the whole process all over again. I guess it could be worse, such as making it be game over, but it’s still pretty annoying to have to repeat a good chunk of an entire sequence over and over. Other times you’ll know something is wrong, and can easily bust a perp with the evidence you already have, but the game won’t give you the choice to do so. There’s a lot of hand-holding moments like this throughout the game, and while you could just play trial-and-error to get past these parts, it makes for some truly fascinating and frustrating gameplay.
Those of you who may be considering either the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 versions of the game should be aware of a few differences that could impact your decision. First, the PS3 version is packed onto a single Blu-ray disc, while the Xbox 360 version is spread across three DVDs for extra disc-swapping. More critically, it also seems like the Xbox 360 version has some trouble executing the game properly at times, as there’s noticeable visual glitches and streaming issues, especially with many NPC (non-playable characters) and during the game’s cinematic moments. None of these were deal-breakers, but it certainly seems that PS3 users get the smoother experience this time around, as well as exclusive content (for now) in the form of an extra downloadable case to solve. Then again, given Sony’s recent issues with their frustrating PSN outage, I wasn’t able to sample this for myself in time for this review.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed experiencing L.A. Noire for the first time, which perfectly captures the look and feel of a classic 40s mystery film, while giving you a new appreciation for the genre. It even made me want to go back and watch films I had little interest in before, like Chinatown and even L.A. Confidential, and for that I’m grateful. Its not perfect, and I wish Team Bondi had eased up on some of the more restrictive elements, like having to repeat entire failed interrogations again and again. But fans of murder mysteries and problem-solving will love watching it unfold using state-of-the-art beautiful graphics, sounds, intense action, and spectacular motion-captured acting to bring its depraved story to life like never before. If you ever dreamed of playing a flatfoot or a gumshoe, here’s your chance, even for folks who may not like this sort of thing, I highly recommend you give Rockstar’s latest a try, as it has a good chance of converting you, too.