Reviewed: May 18, 2011
Released: May 17, 2011
Rockstar Games is to games what Steven Spielberg is to movies. They only put something out once every two or three years and when they do you can always bet it’s going to be something incredible and a huge commercial success. For years we’ve enjoyed their epic GTA series across several generations of consoles. We’ve gone to private school with Bully and we even got a sample of the Wild West in Red Dead Redemption, and now Rockstar takes us back to the 1940’s, to a post-war Los Angeles in L.A. Noire|
L.A. Noire sounds great on paper. I have a 5-page document that came with my review copy that had me foaming at the mouth before I could even get the shrink-wrap off my game, but sadly, the actual game is far from the ambitious hopes and dreams of the designers. Noire is all style and atmosphere, trying to mask a very linear, repetitive, and procedurally boring task-driven game. Admittedly, if you dissected any other Rockstar game you would probably find the same linear design, but at least those games hid it much better than L.A. Noire does.
I can best sum up L.A. Noire by making a few comparisons. It blends the sights and sounds of the old TV show Dragnet then combines those with gameplay visuals and camera angles of Grand Theft Auto, yet for some reason they decided to change up all the controls we have come to memorize over the past decade. Right trigger to run…RB for handbrake…WTF?! The game is set in a massively complex map of LA, but you’ll have little reason to explore any parts of it that aren’t required by the linear missions – a curse shared by last year’s Mafia II. Sure, there are plenty of hidden collectibles that require a thorough exploration of the city, but that's not gameplay - that's content padding for the OCD gamer.
In L.A. Noire you’ll play as Cole Phelps, a WWII vet now a member of the LAPD. After a brief tutorial mission you’ll solve your first big case and get promoted. Time to turn in that uniform and get a couple of suits pressed. As you solve cases and earn XP you will slowly move up through the ranks, earning promotions that have you working in Traffic, Homicide, Vice, and Arson, with a new partner in each division.
My big complaint here is that I never connected with Cole. In every other Rockstar game I “became” the lead character because the story made me care. Cole has no home life, no relationship with a wife he confides in after a day of gunning down perps, or kids to play with in the backyard. He cracks wise with each new partner for a few lines of dialogue but that’s about it. Cole is also extremely unlikable, almost bi-polar at times depending on your conversation choices. He is a one-man version of “good cop bad cop”.
There are 20+ cases in the game and, for the most part, each follows the same procedure. You (the gamer) witness the crime during an opening cutscene, thus giving you information your character wouldn’t know. Once you get your assignment back at the station you then go to the crime scene and play “evidence hunt”. This is pretty much like every C.S.I. game that has come out in the past decade. Some evidence is obvious, especially if the police have already marked it with those yellow numbers. You just merely pick it up and spin the item around looking for any additional clues. Other items might be hidden; say in a trash can in an alley.
Your controller will rumble when you get near any potential evidence so all you have to do is press A to zoom in and interact. I say “potential” because the game offers countless red herrings – worthless items that can be picked up but serve no purpose – because if everything that rumbled was relevant to the case this game would be over a lot faster. Bodies can be examined and pockets searched, wallets opened and contents analyzed. It’s very methodical and each new discovery in jotted down in your notebook for future reference.
Once you have found all the evidence in the immediate area (as noted by the music fading out) you can then start questioning witnesses and suspects. This is where MotionScan comes into play. This new technology allows the developers to capture even the smallest bit of facial movement, which obviously conveys a great sense of emotion thus putting you in the role of a human lie detector. It’s very cool tech but suffers from being implemented on character models unworthy of such detail. You have these very standard GTA-style characters with hyper-realistic faces – the whole thing just freaks me out.
So once questioning begins you can ask about any topic in your notebook then carefully read the person’s face and body language to see if they are lying or perhaps hiding information. You can choose to believe them (truth) or doubt them or accuse them of lying. If you choose the latter you will need to back it up with evidence. There is no bluffing in this game. If I had a dime for every time somebody said, “Oh yeah…prove it” I could afford the L.A. Noire strategy guide. Successful questioning will either solve the case or provide you with more leads like locations and persons of interest to help move you along.
L.A. Noire uses an Intuition point system to help you get out of a tricky situation. These points are awarded when you level up, solve cases, or perform successful actions like finding all the evidence at a crime scene or completing a perfect interrogation. You can then spend those points at any point in the game where you get stuck. If you know there is some evidence lying around but you can’t find it, spend a point and it will show up on your mini-radar map.
You can also use these points during questioning which turns the whole process into a round of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Spend a point to remove a wrong answer, or you can “ask the audience” – in this case, call upon the Rockstar Social Club, and you’ll see a percentage value next to each possible answer on what everyone else chose. I’m guessing the longer this game is out and the more people who play it the more accurate these statistics will get.
L.A. Noire does offer a few opportunities to do some detective-like things like tail a suspect or sneak into a diner and hide behind a newspaper to eavesdrop on a payphone conversation. Sadly, these moments of suspense and stealth are overwhelmed with in-your-face combat since everyone in 1940’s L.A. is packing heat and not afraid to shoot a cop. There is a good cover-shoot system in place that lets you snap to cover then peek out and shoot enemies. There is even a momentary snap-lock system, but you’ll need to manually aim if you want a headshot.
Thankfully there is no mountain of paperwork or mandatory leave of absence for discharging your firearm in this game, as I had killed over 30 people in the first few hours of gameplay. Most of these were either full-on shoots outs with embedded gang members, robbers, etc. or after an exciting parkour-style foot pursuit where I either tackled the guy or popped a cap in his crown during a hostage situation.
Collecting evidence and questioning people only make up about 80% of the game. There are a few side diversions tossed in like the random police calls that come in over the radio. It’s up to you whether you choose to respond. I usually decided based on how far I would have to drive out of my way. Your main case usually isn’t driven by the clock so you can break away at any time to offer back-up, which in turn will reward you with more XP. These are also the few times you get to justifiably use your sirens, which, to my surprise and delight, actually had other traffic pulling over.
There are also other diversions like finding all the sightseeing L.A. landmarks. A quick drive down Hollywood Blvd. will get you several. Others might spring up during normal gameplay. It was amusing to be in a high-speed pursuit and asked to “Press B” as I sped by historic Union Station. There are also several newspapers scattered about the various crime scenes, which will unlock a cryptic series of flashbacks. Car enthusiasts will want to seek out the 95 hidden cars in the city – just look for a special logo on the garage door – and there are 50 gold film reels waiting to be discovered in Hollywood and the surrounding area. Kudos to the cleverly implemented "instant travel" system where you simply hold down the Y button to have your partner drive to the next waypoint. This makes zipping around L.A. fast and effortless, but you will miss out on those random radio calls.
L.A. Noire is a 20-hour game at its core; short by Rockstar standards, but if you toss in all the diversionary content from the previous paragraph you can milk 30-40 hours out of the game. There are also rumors that this game was originally 6 discs and then trimmed down to the 3 now in the case. If this is true then we can expect a whole lot of DLC content coming soon, and the very design of a case-by-case, episodic adventure like L.A. Noire makes this highly likely and easy to implement.
L.A. Noire excels in presentation value with one of the largest and most detailed city maps in a game to date, and they are keeping it true to the era. When I saw the HOLLYWOODLAND sign I just assumed they didn’t want to pay the licensing rights to use the real one, and then I learned that this was how that sign looked until 1949 when they removed the LAND. The cars look great, the clothing vintage, and the attention to detail in the environments and set dressing is phenomenal. If you really want an authentic old-school experience you can toggle the entire game to black-and-white in the options and turn the City of Angels into Sin City.
The camera angle is pretty standard and you can tweak with the right stick. There are some framerate issues and noticeable pop-up, both on the horizon and even when a scene is loading. The animations for walking and running are fluid and I loved the small touch of having my hat shot off and Cole always remembering to pick it up and put it back on. As mentioned before, the MotionScan is incredible at what it does, especially for creating the best lip-synced dialogue in any game to date, but those hyper-real faces were just way too creepy on the simpler head and body models. Any why was every female in this game BUTT UGLY!?
Where the game truly shines is the voice acting, which not only has to convey vocal emotion and intensity but also marry that with realistic facial expressions and body language. I enjoyed the Noire-style narration, a staple of any cool detective show, but then it stopped early on and never game back. I’m not sure how much the F-bomb was really be used in 1947 but L.A. Noire makes sure it gets used enough to earn the Mature rating – well that and all the bloody crime scenes and violence. There is also some great period music on the radio and an authentic game soundtrack that mirrors those classic detective movies and TV shows of the time. The music is so subtle yet when it stops you instantly notice, which is good because that means there are no more clues.
I was so excited to play this game and for the first hour or so I was totally captivated with L.A. Noire, but then the game started to get repetitive and I had to force myself to plow through it. And while the situations would change from case to case, you always ended up searching for evidence and working your way through lists of locations and people in your notebook. Trying to catch people in a lie was fun at first but then having to figure out which piece of evidence supported that accusation became problematic, especially when the logical piece of evidence wasn’t always the right one. I was hoping for some huge overlapping story arc or epic finale. Instead, we get 20+ case assignments that could have been released as episodic XBLA games.
If you want a period piece action-adventure with a great story then Mafia II is still the game of choice. If you prefer a slower-paced game that requires you to collect evidence to fill your notebook then subsequently check off those items in your notebook one by one, either through travel or intense conversations, then L.A. Noire is the game for you. Loaded with style but short on substance, L.A. Noire is definitely worth checking out, if only to witness the best facial mo-cap in gaming history, but you can do that with a rental.