After hearing countless horror stories over the years, L.A. Noire has turned out to be a game that was definitely worth our time and patience. L.A. Noire may not be a thoroughly polished game in which every aspect holds up to the utmost level of scrutiny. For every good part of L.A. Noire (acting, writing, music, visuals), there are a few which feel a bit under-realized, if not truncated (leveling system, dialogue interactions, gameplay). But if you go into L.A. Noir not expecting a version of GTA that was transported to the 1940s via a DeLorean, then you’ll likely be blown away by the impressive acting and facial capture tech and intrigued by the investigative gameplay.
+ The facial animation is simply superb in how it looks and what it offers to the game mechanics.
+ L.A. Noire may have a few similarities to core noir themes and cliches, but the story is still interesting and the dialogue is at times sheer brilliance.
+ The extensive cast (which has a few Mad Men veterans) is excellent and is thankfully devoid of any stiff performances.
+ Listening to jazzy source tracks or Andrew Hale’s original score while roaming the streets of L.A. really sets the tone for the game.
- Some aspects of the investigation gameplay became a bit too predictable over time.
- The city of Los Angeles may look nice, but there isn’t a lot to do or a reason to thoroughly explore every inch outside of picking up hidden objects.
- The writing may be good, but there were times when I was pining for a more in-depth dialogue system that perhaps allowed for more variety in certain scenarios.
- Occasionally the controls were a bit clunky.
Driving through the streets of Los Angeles in 1947 it’s clear that things aren’t as copacetic as they appear to be. While people may be peacefully walking down the many bustling streets of the city and colorful billboards are strewn about, there’s almost an underlying tension to everything. The tensions between the Caucasian, African-American and Latino populations is only the tip of the iceberg since after spending some time in the city I come to see the dark underbelly and almost morbid and extremely horrific violence that’s capable in the city, which at times seems completely unimaginable. L.A. Noire is a game that took me through a journey of crime, deception, double crosses and other personal drama that definitely proved that the mantra of “the case that makes you is the case that breaks you.” But with the almost decade spanning development of L.A. Noire and the sudden hype around the game, was it possible that L.A. Noire fell under its own weight or did it succeed in giving gamers a glimpse of 1940s noir action?
L.A. Noire is a game that some gamers, such as me, have been following for an extremely long time. When Rockstar Games picked the game up in 2007 it was definitely a joyous event since the game was lingering in development since roughly around 2002. But here we are, four years after Rockstar’s acquisition of Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire and we’re now finally playing the game. For as troubled and pricey as L.A. Noire’s development may have been, I do think the end product is of such quality that it was worth the time and massive investment that Rockstar Games put into the project. But with that being said, just like any detective case there are a few flaws present that could totally ruin the case if other things weren’t completely ironclad.
Being an homage to classic noir stories and films like the works of Raymond Chandler (you need to read the Philip Marlowe books) or more modern pieces of work such as L.A. Confidential, the tale told in L.A. Noire is somewhat familiar but is still wholly entertaining. At the center of L.A. Noire is Cole Phelps (Aaron Staton.), a WWII veteran who is a complete knight in shining armor. With strong ethics and a sense of honor that’s almost fading amongst the sea of corrupt cops, Cole starts out as a mere humbled L.A.P.D patrolman, but due to his intuition as a case man, he’s eventually promoted to become a prestigious detective. Over time Cole bears witness to some of the horrific things happening in L.A. such as the murder of various women and ultimately finds himself dealing with a case that involves his past in WWII. With an extensive cast of characters ranging from key ones like the various partners and department chiefs you work with to mere secondary players, the story of L.A. Noire is thoroughly engaging, even if I felt like I needed a chart at times to follow all the connections.
The stories told in L.A. Noire are very much deeply rooted in the classic traits of noir stories and in some cases they’re directly inspired by true events such as the notorious Black Dahlia case. With each promotion Cole received as a L.A.P.D detective I found myself working on multiple cases that while they seemed to be all but closed when I nabbed the perpetrator, still had a connecting theme amongst them that led to a grand finale case that at times got the best of Cole and left me utterly surprised. Unlike other games these days and those in the open world genre, the story of L.A. Noire is 100% at the forefront of everything and never once is it brushed aside in favor of doing a twenty minute action mission. Unlike games such as Red Dead Redemption in which the core story seemed to only be hit upon every couple of missions, there’s always a major reference or development to the core story in almost every mission. So instead of feeling like some missions were complete blow-offs, there’s always a driving force in developing and fleshing out the core story and giving some back-story on Cole.
Not every mission, such as the Black Dahlia cases, had an instant connection to driving the core story forward, but as I explored the environments I found newspapers which upon viewing offer a brief cutscene which always fills you in on what’s happening with some of the evil basterds you’re going to come across. The newspaper feature and the use of flashback sequences, which sadly aren’t playable, constantly gave me a taste of things to come all while fleshing out either Cole or the many antagonists in the game, which may involve a few faces all too familiar to Cole.
The constant deluge of exposition isn’t a bad thing in the game since the dialogue and acting is incredible snappy and masterfully done thanks to the talent of Team Bondi and the many actors in the game. While certain aspects of the story and characterizations hit upon things we’re all familiar with (an old partner who is perhaps too old-school or a Vice partner that may be too friendly with the local crime scene) the execution of the writing and the performances from the actors are top notch. I don’t want to know how many story revisions were made by Team Bondi over the many years of L.A. Noire’s development, but what they have in the game is something that I think may be some of the best, if not the most natural writing to be in a game. There are a few aspects in the writing of L.A. Noire that feel stylized and perhaps too dramatic, but all the right notes are hit in the game and never once did I feel like I was watching a 1940s edition of Law & Order or C.S.I. I must admit that it would’ve been nice to see more characters expanded upon a bit since one key development, which I won’t spoil, seems totally out of character, despite the small hints that were cleverly made. This key plot development, which occurs later in the game, isn’t a complete misfire, but given the circumstances I couldn’t help but feel that it was a missed opportunity to further expand on an aspect of Cole’s life which is all mentioned briefly in passing.
I know I’ve already praised the acting in L.A. Noire but it really is some of the best out there. As some of you know, L.A. Noire is the first game this generation to literally capture and use the performances and faces of an actor and use it in-game. The technology itself is amazing to see in the game and seeing every subtle facial move and eye shift in a character really adds a layer of depth that I hadn’t seen in a video game before. It isn’t just the facial technology that made such an impression on the performances in the game but the actual acting itself since it’s perfectly balanced. Sure, some of the characters really aren’t anything we haven’t seen before in a noir or detective novel/show/movie, but hearing Cole interact with his Homicide partner Rusty (Michael McGrady) or the slightly off putting Vice partner Roy Earle (Adam Harrington) is what really makes the game for me. I think if you were to take away the facial tech of L.A. Noire the performances would still be amazing since the talent is there in every possible way, right down to the small appearances from actors like Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men) who may only be in the game for a few minutes but leave a lasting impression.
Another familiar face from the TV show Mad Men pops up in L.A. Noire.
I probably don’t need to say much about the quality of the character models as its likely apparent in these videos/screenshots just how damn good everything looks. The many characters of L.A. Noire look spot on when compared to their real-life counterparts and I honestly couldn’t believe just how well executed everything was in terms of the animation and movement of the character and their faces. Some of the secondary animation (climbing stairs) looks a bit stiff, and at a few of the character models do have a slightly odd look to them in relation to their heads and their overall body, or at least the size of them. But such a thing is never detracting and I wouldn’t be surprised if Team Bondi just refines everything and further polishes the system if we’re lucky enough to see a follow-up to LA. Noire.
With cases involving rape, women being brutally murdered, junkies over-dosing or families being burnt to a crisp (and it being shown) in an arson, L.A. Noire isn’t a one trick pony when it comes to giving a good amount of variety in the cases that the player needs to tackle and solve. The thing that about L.A. Noire, that perhaps I should’ve made clear earlier, is that it isn’t like Grand Theft Auto at all nor is it like Red Dead Redemption. L.A. Noire may be an open world game that has the Rockstar Games name attached to it but while Rockstar’s presence and stamp of approval is clearly felt in certain aspects of the game, L.A. Noire has more in common with games like Shenmue, Phoenix Wright and even Heavy Rain to an extent.
There may be moments of action in L.A. Noire but the game is very much rooted in investigating crime scenes and then following that up with interviewing suspects and in some cases shooting a few people in the head. The primary gameplay aspect in L.A. Noire is searching crime scenes for clues to aid to you in your investigation and hopefully give you something to land a conviction. I often found myself in areas like an alley or even a bullet ridden nightclub as I searched bodies for clues and did a bit of puzzle solving to find hidden clues. When it comes to investigating a crime scene, L.A. Noire totally feels like an old-school adventure game in the tone and what sort of mindset is required on part of the player. Usually clues don’t immediate pop out of the environment so I often found myself scouring every inch of the location and picking up every possible object, including the odd brush or beer bottle, to see if it had any immediate pertinence to the case at hand. So if you don’t like walking around locations and examining clues, just for key facts as L.A. Noire doesn’t include a plethora of clue based mini-games, then maybe L.A. Noire isn’t the game for you.
Cole examines a grisly crime scene.
As much as I liked the investigative aspects of L.A. Noire, which includes examining dead bodies up close, I did start to wish that the core formula was shaken up a bit as time moved on. I somewhat expected things to be similar when it came to investigating a crime scene while in the Homicide division, but I just wished that there was something else to do besides looking for a certain amount of clues and then moving on to the next location. Such a minor criticism likely sounds a bit silly on my part, but perhaps I just became too seasoned and equally hardened as much as Cole was when it came to seeing a brutal crime scene and going through the motions to find clues amidst the debris and blood splatters.
Like any good investigation, a major aspect of L.A. Noire is investigating suspects and witnesses and that’s where things get a bit iffy. With the main goal being to decide whether someone is lying based on their facial expressions and the evidence at hand, the concept itself is good in nature. But where things slightly stumble a bit is how the dialogue system, or immediate lack there-of is implemented. Upon interviewing someone I had to decide if they were either lying, telling the truth or if I had doubts about what they said. After choosing what I felt to be the best selection, I often found Cole going into an accusation that almost seemed to be too extreme for the situation like calling an elderly woman an old hag. With the interviewing system of L.A. Noire I almost feel it’s a double edge sword of sorts. On one hand the lack of specific dialog options allows a tailored experience to be made that does result in good moments. But on the other hand, not having a dialogue tree or at least a mood indicator of going with an abrasive or reassuring comment (perhaps doing a little good cop, bad cop action with your partner) is disappointing since it could’ve provided some added variety and dimension to the interviewing segments.
The interview/interogration segments may have benefitted from some dialog options.
One thing that I was impressed with was how in a few cases I allowed or at least was affected by the ideology of my partners and/or superiors in who I decided to charge on a specific case. Not every case in L.A. Noire is as cut and dry as a few have multiple suspects, only one of which can be charged. So with a little bit of freedom in my hands I was able to decide who was going to go to the slammer after doing an interrogation. While there may not be an apparent right or wrong case in these scenarios, I did find it hard to not follow my partner’s mantra of giving a suspect a “free pass” in order to get a pedophile off the streets for good. However, it’s these moments of grey that I feel Team Bondi really didn’t capitalize upon, even if Cole was rooted in being a goody too-shoes and is often ridiculed as being as such. As I continuously got confessions out of suspects, found all the clues, closed cases or found landmarks around L.A. I was awarded points which improved my rank. The thing is the rank upgrade system really doesn’t have an effect on the game at all aside from being slightly superficial and being a Trophy/Achievement to get. Ranking up did unlock some new outfits and bonus vehicles for me along with granting me some Intuition Points, which can be handy as it offers a clue of sorts during investigating or interrogating someone. But outside of that I didn’t even find myself losing rank points after accidently hitting civilians or destroying property as that only affected my overall case rating, which again isn’t that big of a deal unless you’re hunting for Trophies/Achievements. While Team Bondi may have been intent on creating a very specific persona for Cole, which doesn’t really change at all throughout the game, it would’ve been nice if there would’ve been more grey area moments in the game or at least sections where the player would really need to think about what they were doing before they proceed.
As I already said, L.A. Noire really isn’t an action game and the action that is offered is extremely minimal and is often over rather fast. By fast I mean that on average I found a gun fight to last anywhere between one minute to four at the max instead of the usual “I’m behind cover for 10 minutes as I fight goons” like in other games. There aren’t too many similarities between L.A. Noire and the old PS2 game The Getaway (of which Team Bondi’s head Brendan McNamara created) but I did find that the gunplay in L.A. Noire was reminiscent of the England based action of The Getaway. Now before everyone gets afraid that L.A. Noire features overly clunky action, that isn’t the case as its similarities to The Getaway are more in how the action is extremely realistic, almost to the point where the gun battles reminded me of a Michael Mann movie like “Heat” or the prohibition era “Public Enemies”.
The action in L.A. Noire may be brief, but it's often tense and extremely visceral.
When I found myself having to take on some thugs attempting a bank heist or take out some former allies robbing a post office, there’s a visceral nature in the action that is a nice change of pace compared to the more stylish offerings in other games. I don’t know if this should be considered a negative point due to how it possibly make things easy, but most enemies don’t require you to unload an entire clip to kill them and I often found it easy to take people out with a headshot, which often leaves a satisfying blood spray on a nearby wall or object. With the action not necessarily being at the forefront in the game, the weapon roster is somewhat limited to a few standard rifles and the classic Tommy Gun, which is always fun to whip out. But at times I did encounter a few problems with the aiming in the game as it was sometimes a bit slow to move the targeting reticule and shooting in certain body parts didn’t result in the expected result I expected it would, an example being me shooting someone in the head and their hat merely flying off instead of their brains being splattered.
One of the more thrilling action aspects of L.A. Noire has to be the many chase sequences that are in the game. Featuring both on-foot and vehicle based chase scenes, I found myself going through the many nooks and crannies of L.A. as I attempted to track down a possible perp in an arson case or stop a group of thugs who just committed a drive-by in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The on-foot chase sequences are fairly basic in how you just need to chase a perp to a pre-determined location or end the chase early by tackling them to the ground or firing off a warning shot. Thankfully Team Bondi implemented contextual controls so to vault over an object like a wire fence or to climb a ladder all you need to do is run against it and you immediately perform the required action, which definitely makes things easier when trying to chase a suspect. The vehicle chase segments are rather straightforward as I found myself having to either spin the suspect vehicle out of control, or have my partner shoot out the tires or just wait things out a bit until the damn criminal crashed into something. The vehicle controls thankfully don’t mirror what was offered in GTAIV so there’s no mass weight shifting and things feel pretty tight, with distinct differences being obvious among the wide car selection but none being too unwieldy to handle. There’s a certain simplicity to the chase sequences, but at times it can be thrilling to end up running through a construction site and fighting some thug on the highest level or trying not to hit an oncoming train car as you chase a vehicle through the rail yards of L.A.
Cole goes on the hunt for a criminal in this chase segment.
The city of Los Angeles and its many citizens is one area of L.A. Noire that really doesn’t disappoint, even if there are a few small hiccups. With the map of L.A. being rather large and no major compromises being made (there aren’t copies of entire sections used throughout the city), it is rather breathtaking to drive through the city. Seeing stuff like the street trollies zip by, billboards for Cola King on every corner really establishes a mood and atmosphere that I think definitely trumps what was created in Mafia II. Team Bondi’s recreation of L.A. just feels like an actual city and not one that was stitched together merely for game purposes as there’s a nice relation or at least correlation to where everything is located and it’s connection to one another. However, there’s not much to do in the city outside of the main story missions. There are some nice side-missions that pop up (all of which have unique stories and scenarios) but outside of collecting some bonus items like cars and finding film reels, I really didn’t find there to be a driving force to openly drive around L.A. after my first few initial hours with the game.
There were a lot of things that surprised and disappointed me in L.A. Noire, but one aspect of the game that I couldn’t believe was how exceptional the music is. One prominent feature of the majority of the games Rockstar Games releases is the soundtrack, which usually consists of a wide array of songs spanning genres or in the case of Red Dead Redemption offers a very subdued soundtrack with an extremely memorable song. L.A. Noire on the other hand features an orchestral score that is worthy of being in a noir film from the 1940s since it captures the essence of the period while never feeling like it’s trying too hard to hit upon certain notes or the bombastic cues and melodies that were associated with the period. With a perfect mix of horns, brass instruments and even a few original vocal tracks, the score of L.A. Noire could end up being the best one offered this year in the world of gaming since it’s not too often we receive a lush jazzy soundtrack in a video game.
L.A Noire may have taken an extremely long time to finally hit the market, but in the end I think it was worth it, even if it isn’t an immediate masterpiece. Over the course of the twenty+ hours I sunk into L.A. Noire I was captivated and entirely enamored with the world that Team Bondi had crafted, not just because of the 1940s ascetic but because the characters were interesting and the search to find the truth was something that I found appealing compared to being a thug or carefree brute. There may be a few bumps in the journey that L.A. Noire offers like the investigating mechanic becoming a bit too predictable over time or some slight graphical pop-up appearing, but L.A. Noire is a game that I think will be remembered by a lot of gamers and it definitely deserves to be based on what it accomplishes. The tale of crime, deception, broken dreams and personal redemption may not be one that’s an instant classic in the video game industry, but it shows when the right thought process and approach is used, video games can definitely be on par or at least properly channel what we see in movies without being too kitschy. So if you want a moody adventure game that has a healthy dose of mature content, then get ready for the adventurous and dark journey that L.A. Noire offers.