L.A. Noire – Review

Release Date: Out Now!
Developer: Team Bondi
Publisher: Rockstar
Singleplayer: Yes
Splitscreen: No
Multiplayer: No
PEGI: 18+

It’s an all too rare time when we can speak of  “performances” in games, of the subtle movements of the face that can convey so much more emotion than a thousand words. In this respect films have it lucky; actors don’t have to rely entirely on dialogue to deliver a stellar performance, and this in turn gives writers more freedom. But in games, writers are limited by the visual technology used to create facial animations,  so they have to try to convey all these emotions through words and the  result is some rather clunky writing. There are some exceptions: Mass Effect 2 for instance, delivers some great facial animations, but it’s still lacking in many aspects.

In L.A. Noire, we can actually talk about true performances; not just the voice acting, but the facial acting as well. Thanks to some stunning technology each actors face is rendered in loving detail and display emotion unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. The reason for this? L.A. Noire casts you as a detective, and during each case you’ll need to interview suspects which requires you to watch your suspect for hints that they may be lying to you, or not telling you the whole story. You’ll need to carefully watch them as you ask questions; that slight twitch of the mouth, or licking of the lips could indicate that they’re lying to you. The technology allows for the human reactions we take for granted to be used to create the first true detective game. But enough about that, we’ll come back to this later.

Aren't you a bit well dressed for a gunfight?

Let’s go back to the beginning: L.A. Noire casts you as Cole Phelps, a war hero that has returned home to Los Angeles, as he joins the L.A.P.D. and works his way up through to Homicide, as well as dropping by the Vice and Arson desks. As Phelps works through the different cases a series of stories will cross paths to create a tense ending to the game. The intertwining stories are handled with great care; at first you fail to see any real connections between them all, but as time progresses and you get more of the big picture it all ties in to create a well told story that always tugged me along to the next case. There is a failing here though – once you hit the Homicide desk, around halfway through the game, the story peaks with a series of fantastic interlinking cases. The latter stages of the game feel rather flat until the games great finale hits. It feels as though so many great ideas were put into Homicide leaving little for the later game.

 Phelps himself is a portrayal of a do-gooder who does things by the numbers, and also pushes each case to ensure he has the correct outcome. But he’s a flawed character as we see through his flashbacks to WWII. However, while he may be the flawed do-gooder trying to right the wrongs of L.A., he’s just not that interesting a character, Phelps feels rather dull to play as and lacks the spark of other characters seen in previous Rockstar games. An event mid-story involving his wife doesn’t help as I lost almost all sympathy with him afterwards, though the impact of the sequence was diminished slightly as the game barely ever mentions or shows his wife and kids, and they’re only shown in two scenes during the game. However, despite all this he is a believable and very real feeling character. It’s not hard to imagine Detective Cole Phelps as having existed in L.A. in the 1940’s. One thing does overshadow is do-gooder attitude, and that’s his desire to make a name for himself and rise through the ranks, but again this can make him a little hard to connect with.

Noire is not a game for the young.

The partners Cole gets saddled with are another case entirely; these guys ooze personality. Each of the four partners you get offers a very different take on L.A.P.D. life. They’re usually lazy and willing to take things at face value, rather than dig for the truth. While they’re hardly the best examples of humanity, and Roy especially, it’s hard not to be entertained by their comments and takes on a case.

Everything comes down to the cases themselves though, and here Noire shows its old-school adventure game roots mixed with some great twists of its own. Crime scenes must be scoured to discover clues to help solve a case, or to prove that a suspect is lying during an interview. Crime scenes start off small, but gradually increase in scale until they encompass entire buildings and multiple victims. When a clue is found you can manipulate it by using your freakishly nimble wrists to check it out for further clues. All of these discoveries are marked down in your handy notebook which contains all the information you could ever need, and some you that you don’t need.  The highlight of searching for clues, and the most chilling aspect, is frisking down a corpse. The first time you search a naked, mutilated woman is a frightening experience, amplified by Noire’s great graphics some chilling sound effects of bones creaking and crunching. It may be a little creepy, but it does make you feel like a true detective.

Noire does show its rather hand-holding nature regarding clue finding, which does somewhat detract from the feeling of being a kick-ass detective. As you walk around the controller will vibrate to indicate a nearby clue, while Phelps will comment on certain objects you discover to let you know that they’re not relevent to the investigation. Find all the clues and the background music will change to indicate it. The result is a system that ensures that you’re always going forward, but also feels like you’re being led along like the good little lamb you are. You are a good little lamb aren’t you? But if you want more of a challenge you can turn these things off in the menus, and I certainly recommend it for a better experience.

Is it a clue? Nah, it's just Superman again.

Clues may be important but eventually you need to interrogate those perps, and that’s where we get back to the stunning facial animation. Ok, so I’ve talked a bit too much about that already. Let’s get to the meat of how these interviews work. Talk to a perp and you can choose from a list of questions – the list can be increased by finding clues and correctly interrogating other suspects. Once you’ve asked your question you need to watch the suspects face intently as they respond because once they have you get three options to choose from; Truth, Doubt and Lie. Pick the first option and Phelps will take what they said at face value. Pick the second option and Phelps will question their statement. Pick the third and you’ll call them a liar, but you’ll need to provide evidence to back up your claim. Interviews become a tense experience as you stare into the eyes of your suspect. Getting a question right is so satisfying that you’ll be pumping your fist in the air, but get it wrong and you’ll genuinely feel disappointed of yourself for not spotting the subtle facial movements that would have given the game away. For all the praise these interrogations deserve, a few flaws do appear; at points in the game the actors can go overboard on giving the impression of lying, which results in a slightly patronizing feeling. At a few other points in the game you will feel more like you’re guessing the correct response to a line of questioning rather than using your keen eye. Still, despite some inconsistencies the quality of acting displayed in Noire is utterly superb with some big names and not so well-known names lending their talents to the game to create the immersive experience that is one of Noire’s biggest draws.

Complaint could be leveled at the repetitive structure behind the cases with each of them following the same patterns. To help combat this there are a good number of action sequences thrown in to keep you on your toes. Phelps suspects are prone to running like hell leading to some back-alley chases, rooftop runs and general mayhem as you chase them across the city. At first these sequences are great fun, and leaping across a white picket fence into a pristine garden to tackle a feeling criminal is utterly awesome, but Noire’s hand-holding does rear is head again as these sequences are done with very little real input from the player; Phelps sprints, vaults, jumps and climbs by holding just one button.  There is the occasional piece of complexity thrown in when the game demands that you loosen your grip on that single button to tap A so you can tackle the suspect, or to aim your gun and fire a warning shot. Should you happen to fail these simple sequences too often the game will give you the option to skip the scene entirely. Sill, despite the fact that they’re simple they do provide a decent distraction.

The crossword is on the next page.

If running away isn’t enough they’ll often take to cars leading to some very entertaining car chases across the beautifully recreated Los Angeles. Cars in L.A. Noire handle in a surprisingly responsive way considering the more realistic approach the rest of the game takes. You can throw cars around with reckless abandon as they grip the road with surprising gusto considering the simplicity of cars in those days. That’s not to say you can’t get some mean powerslides going, though. The goal of these chases is either to get your car close enough so that your usually lazy partner can shoot the tires out, or to simply smash into them and watch though flip over and over until they become a smoldering wreck. There are flaws here, but they are fairly small; the run-away driver often does more damage to himself  when trying to escape than you usually will; their cars will often suddenly slow down in the middle of a straight to allow you to catch them and end the chase, and finally their cars will often make unrealistic changes of direction.

By covering these non-detective elements of the game I must inevitably get to L.A. Noire’s weakest aspect; the combat. Despite Rockstars studied history of crafting living, breathing worlds and characters they’ve never managed to truly succeed at making a great combat system. Even Red Dead Redemption, which had a heavy focus on combat, was merely an enjoyable but far from great attempt at creating a third-person cover based shooter. But still, hopes were kept high as L.A. Noire has been developed by Team Bondi, a brand new developer, who may be able to rectify Rockstar’s slightly disappointing history regarding combat. Sadly, this isn’t the case as Noire  has many similarities to Red Dead and GTA IV  in its combat – even the controls are largely the same. You can pop in and out of cover by tapping RB, but it feels rather clunky compared to most other games, a fact which is forgivable when you consider that this is not a shooter, and doesn’t quite have the responsiveness needed. The guns that Phelps will wield also lack that brutal sound that Red Dead Redemption did manage to capture. Pistols and Thompson’s sound more like spud guns than death-dealing weapons, and don’t feel like them either. However, in the combats defense it should be said that, despite lacking polish, it isn’t bad. Instead it merely suffices in is role, neither excelling nor failing.

Corny Caption Goes Here.

In case you hadn’t figured it out yet, this is a fairly long review, but don’t worry as we’re reaching the final stages of it now as we move onto the final actor that stars in this game and gives a stellar performance; Los Angeles. The level of detail that has been presented in Noire’s recreation of 1940’s Los Angeles is quite stunning. From the buildings, clothes, cars and language this is a fantastically wrought world. It’s hard to put into words how atmospheric and immersive the world feels, and the sharp graphics and great soundtrack ensure that if feels real. It is also a free-roaming world like previous Rockstar games, but unlike them it’s not populated by hundreds of small distractions; instead it simply has some street-crimes that can be responded too and some hidden cars to be found. Much of this comes from the fact that you’re playing as a good-guy, and a very focused one at that. Phelps simply doesn’t have time for all that immaturity when there are cases to be solved. However, the gameworld is not small by any means; LA is a sprawling place to explore with thousands of roads and alleys making up it’s structure. Driving from end to end will certainly take you a while.

To finish off this review is a little nitpicking. The narrator who introduces cases suddenly disappears a little way into the game which is rather odd, and a touch disappointing. There are some disappointing case endings where things simply don’t get wrapped up in a satisfactory way. And finally the believability created by the astonishing facial animation is slightly dented by the occasional body animation that feels completely out-of-place. And to round off the nitpicking, there are some small inconsistencies with the architecture and social depictions, but that really is nitpicking.

It can be a bit chilling.

However, my biggest complaint stems from the nature of the game itself; L.A. Noire is a 20-hour cinematic experience, and as such can often feel like the player barely has any control over events. The game holds your hand for almost the entire of the way through which can ultimately detract from the feeling of solving a crime – you don’t always feel like it was you that solved it, but rather the game just lead you slowly down the path and pointed out the bits you needed.

The Good:
+ Feeling like a genius when you being to piece everything together.
+ Chasing suspects in cars!
+ Those faces!

The Bad:
– Combat feels rather disappointing.
– Quite a few elements of the game could have done with some more spit and polish.
– Damn Phelps, why must you be so dull?


Graphics: 9
Whether depicting a city or a mutilated corps, Noire’s graphics are detailed and sharp.

Sound: 9.5
From fantastic voice acting to small details this is a great sounding game! The music backing it all up has been wonderfully picked.

Story: 9
Despite some pacing issues this is still a fantastic story brought to live by superb acting.

Gameplay: 9
The toughest to judge. A raft of genres has been mashed together here, but some of them just need more work yet. However, the detective aspects, despite the handy-holdy, are brilliant.

Lifespan:  9
Around twenty hours to complete the cases. You can add-on a good bit more to finish up the street crimes and find every hidden vehicle.

Overall: 9
Judging Noire is incredibly tough. It’s innovative and unique, which in today’s world is truly special, and held me enraptured until the end. Ultimately, the detective work couldn’t quite hide  the fact that the rest of the game still needs work. But for story, acting, immersion and something different from the copy and paste games of today, this is the title for you.

Categories: Reviews

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2 replies »

  1. innovative? facial animation and thats about it, other than that is just old idea’s rehashed.

    Combat is average, the investigation is overaly simple and the clues are hardly hidden , the visuals are not that good, hardly worth a 9 or indeed worthy of the tag well detailed.

    Replay value 9? way to much, only 40 street crimes most of which are just either chase him , shoot him and thats about it.

    If anything La Noire proves just how fickle and hypocritical gamers are today

    • Do you honestly think this game isn’t innovative? The facial tech is the most obvious back of box bullet point, but the gameplay is extremely unique.

      Sure, the combat isn’t very fluid when compared to the 3rd person shooter elements of most recent games. GTA IV, Mass Effect, Uncharted, and Gears of War have all done it much better, but L.A. Noire isn’t a game focused on the combat.

      When have you ever played a game that asked you to actually read an NPC? Obviously the game guides you along the same linear path in most of the cases, but that’s not really how the game was designed to be played. It’s about nailing investigations, knowing the evidence you have, and calling out characters at the right time. Classic adventure games didn’t even do that.

      Sure the game can be easy if you want it to be, but if you play it properly, you’ll be pissed if you charge the wrong guy and will replay a case if you messed up a bunch of the interviews. I’ll agree with you that the replayability is pretty low outside of that. I would play some cases over to perfect them, but the street crimes were more of a distraction during the main story, not something to come back to.

      I would say that L.A. Noire proves that the game industry is finally willing to take some pretty major risks to advance the medium.

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