The sweltering summer day’s perspiration trailed down the outside pane of glass, clinging to the hope of making it inside. The scene inside was not much better. The shadow of the day cut across the wounded body of the young woman, broken and bruised from the deep cuts in her abdomen as she waits for a savior to come take the pain away.
Confession: that is me just overdramatically recreating my experience in the hospital last week post appendectomy (and much of the reason for which this review is coming late. Well, this late…), but in all honesty it could have been setting the scene for many of the cases that make up L.A. Noire. The game follows WWII vet Cole Phelps as he assimilates back into the real world as a detective for the LAPD. Full of short gunfights and car chases, the main draw to L.A. Noire is the novelty and authenticity it is able to recreate in the investigative and interrogation aspects of being a detective.
The main gameplay is broken into a mission based structure in which Cole starts out at different desks of the police department, working up from being a beat cop by solving numerous case files on each desk. Once he becomes a detective each mission starts in the briefing room as the player learns of the basic facts of the crime committed. From there the player will go through a somewhat linear progression as clues are found, new suspects and locations are added to Cole’s notebook, though this is far from a promise of the player going through the game perfectly.
But before the interrogations can begin, Cole has to put his nose to the ground to find clues at the initial crime scene. Based on the size and set dressing of each locale the idea of finding the clues can be intimidating when starting, but the game is set up to make this process much easier for the player so they don’t wander around aimlessly. As a player I have always been one for searching out every crack and crevasse in a location looking for secret items and what not, so there is a good chance that had this game let me I would have picked up anything and everything for hours (without gloves! The horror!) only to be told, “it would take a smarter man to find the connection.” Instead of this overly free pick and choose process, while walking around a scene the controller will vibrate when Cole is near something that is able to be studied, but this doesn’t mean that everything is worth picking up. Let’s just say that I have given more empty bottles, empty cigarette cases and hairbrushes the once over than I ever thought I would in this game. Once the player has found everything relevant to the case at the scene a music cue informs the player that it is time to move on.
Based on the clues found at the scene, Cole’s notebook will fill with more information to keep in mind during the game, including different locations to visit. There is an option to fast travel by forcing your partner to drive, but for a lot of the missions it is worth driving from point A to point B for an even grander experience. The driving mechanics are easy enough, and players have the opportunity to take any of the era-recreated cars littering the world to do their traveling in (that is as long as the glitch doesn’t make it vanish into thin air as they do from time to time). Not necessarily something an honest cop would do, but the main reason it might be best to stick to Cole’s cop car is because it comes with a siren, AKA a “GET OUT OF THE WAY!” button. In other open world games the driving can be a little frustrating and long (an example being Mafia II), but with this siren at least more cars will be willing to give you some space on the road. Not always, but it is better than nothing. Plus when your siren is on your partner seems to be less likely to blame you if your driving gets a little out of control.
Another benefit of driving from location to location is that dispatch will often come over the radio with news of a crimes in progress that you can either ignore or high tale it to, making the cop experience even more reactionary in experience. And by high tale it I mean often drive 87 miles out in the opposite direction in order to get there; but hey, criminals don’t think about being convenient. With that said, the number one reason to take to the wheel is because of the design of the world. Now I’ve only been to LA once in my life and it was nowhere near the middle of the 20th century, but it’s obvious that a lot of work went into recreating the city in feel and scale, so much so that after playing the game for a good 50 or so hours I am pretty sure that I still haven’t come across every building, park, street, or whatnot that is littered throughout. The detail work is pretty strong as well, a highlight being the recreation of fire damaged locations, but I will say that there were still some minor gripes I had with it. Look wise I will say that the only real problem I had was that the world brought about a Super 8 inspired question as to why there are no dogs in the city considering how many homes have dog houses. Maybe there was just concern that hitting a dog while speeding around the streets would be much more traumatizing for players than hitting the pedestrians who often come close to being clipped, if not full-on tagged as you rocket past. Besides, considering how annoying it was to hear the same random dialog over and over again (we’re talking close to Fable “chicken chaser” proportions) hitting a person every now and again had some level of satisfaction to it.
The biggest complaint in concern to the locations is actually how Cole moves throughout them. On their own the characters have been built to look pretty spectacular in their movements, from hoping fences to opening doors, and taking to the streets as Cole was pretty impressive to watch even if he was just walking because of how natural and fluid it looks. The only problem is that the world around him often gets in the way, creating more than it’s fair share of unnecessary obstacles. As I mentioned before there were natural obstacles that come from speeding around streets, but when walking around this same problem shouldn’t apply. More often than not it seemed like I was bumping into the partner that was currently tagging along with me, doing a video game version of the awkward “which way are you going?” dance, bringing about a wish for the “gentle push” option the Assassin’s Creed games include. But at least in these moments he was still with me. Like the Fable dogs there were sometimes when I would look down at my HUD only to see him lollygagging further away. Sometimes it was because he got caught on something, sometimes it was because the character was frozen in place, while more often it was simply because he was out of shape. Then again, Cole isn’t the strongest mover either. It may be too much to ask for the awesome chase moment of sliding across the hood of a car, but Cole’s athleticism was very bipolar. Sometimes sharp turns were too much for him so that he would constantly be running into walls while going down a staircase, whereas other times a simple bush was too much of a hurdle for him to maneuver over.
Even though the complaints seem to add up they are simple enough so that they don’t really hinder the enjoyment of these aspects of the game. Chases are fun, both on wheels and on foot, gunplay is easy enough (thanks to the overly helpful guided aim), and though the bad guys absorb bullets like sponges and the cover system could still use some minor adjustments, these elements fit just as well into the game as the bigger aspects.
Which leads us to the interrogation process. The clues found work hand in hand with characters questioned in the game, with clues leading to new suspects or suspects giving up clues. That is if you are good at reading people. At first a lot of the faces looked kind of off-putting because of how realistic they come close to being, but for this game it was really important to get the motion capture down right for the character models so that the animation would make this process as realistic as possible. Well maybe not so realistic based on what I learned while watching Lie to Me (who knows who to trust), but the animators work with the indicators that are commonly associated with truth vs. lying so that the suspects wouldn’t be hard for an untrained person to read. So as creepy as some characters appear, the dedication to recreating realistic faces and performances through the motion capture process is really commendable, especially when it comes to the minor subtleties of a speaker, both within and outside of the interrogation gameplay. With that said, it is always advisable to keep reminding yourself of the contents of your notebook b/c a knowledge of what you do know for fact, what you expect but cannot prove, etc, all becomes really important in these moments, especially when determining whether to yell “LIAR!” and then rub evidence in their face or just tell them that you think they’re full of it.
The story of the game is woven into the gameplay much as a TV show season. Each case has a beginning and end to it on its own, but in many cases they actually feed into an overarching story that ties into flashbacks also littered throughout the game tying Cole Phelps’ past into his present, as well as some newspaper articles providing a Lost-like flash sideways. However, in all honesty as much as I liked it the first time I really didn’t like being saddled with Cole as the playable character (granted this feeds into the antihero characteristics of a film noir lead), and once we get to play as a different character for a few cases I turned against Cole completely as the man I wanted to play as. This is just one of the reasons that I really had no inclination to replay the game in its entirety, but in addition to the free roam options and street crimes, the game can also be played on a case by case basis. The only problem is that if you do a 4-5 star job on them the first time through it isn’t really as exciting during repeat performances. Which brings about the biggest downside to this game. As amazing of an experience L.A. Noire is the first time through, it becomes even worse than Heavy Rain in concern to replayability. It is not like the player can unlearn what they know, and interest quickly wanes in intentionally messing up cases to see how poorly they can go.
Though there is still some room for improvement and the replayability is non-existent for me, L.A. Noire still manages to be high on the list for great games of this year, and it is hard not to appreciate what they were able to do with this game and the new experience they were able to create. Thanks to the ample crime-solving, primetime programming on TV these days there is probably a large number of individuals like me who are seriously overestimating their skills at solving crimes, and I am glad that there is something like L.A. Noire that gives us the opportunity to put our “skills” to the test.
Final grade: 8.5
Still not convinced to play it? The official website can be found at http://www.rockstargames.com/lanoire/, and the trailer for the game is below.