Developer: Team Bondi
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Rating: “M” for Mature
Review by Nick Cohen
Platform Reviewed on: Xbox 360
Every once in a while, a game comes out that is so wholly unique, so unlike anything else, that it immediately grabs your attention. A lot of them are smaller indie games–games like Limbo or Journey. While small indie studios making unique games is great, what’s even better is when a large publisher/developer thinks of a wholly unique idea for a videogame and then is actually allowed to develop it into a retail product. L. A. Noire is such a game; one that is so unique and such a huge risk for publisher Rockstar Games and developer Team Bondi that it’s a big surprise the game has seen a release. What’s even more surprising, however, is just how good L. A. Noire is—this is without a doubt the best game released so far this year.
L. A. Noire is set in 1947 Los Angeles and tells the story of LAPD detective Cole Phelps. Phelps is a medal recipient in World War II who is trying to clean up the often dangerous streets of L.A. He doesn’t make for the most intriguing protagonist right away—he’s no Niko Bellic or John Marston—but, as the game goes on, you learn a lot about Phelps…and not all of it is good.
Phelps’ stint as a detective begins as a lowly patrolman, but players will guide him through the more interesting traffic, homicide, vice, and arson desks. The patrol missions are simply quick tutorials meant to ease the player into the setting and gameplay mechanics of L. A. Noire. Once you reach the traffic desk, however, the game begins in earnest. Each desk has a number of cases, some of which are as short as a half-hour and some of which can take up to two hours, depending on a player’s skill at finding clues and interrogating witnesses (more on those later). Each case feels like it could be its own self-contained movie, but over the course of the roughly 20 hours or so it takes to complete a single play through of L. A. Noire, players will experience an overarching story that slowly unravels its twists and turns.
In most games like this, players are limited to shooting enemies and driving around the environment. L. A. Noire, on the other hand, places the emphasis on doing actual police work. Sure, there are action sequences (all of which can be skipped if the player fails enough times at them): there are extremely basic Grand Theft Auto 4-style shootouts and fistfights, there are exciting car and on-foot chases, there are boring car tailing segments, and there are a few extremely frustrating ‘tail suspect X’ on-foot segments—thankfully, the latter only show up a few times during the game. The actual meat of the gameplay, however, consists of three main elements—driving, scouring crime scenes for clues, and the incredible interrogations that are the hallmark of L. A. Noire.
You can choose to spend a lot of your time in L. A. Noire driving around the city. I say “choose” because you can have your partner drive you from location to location if you don’t want to do so yourself, but you’d be missing out on a lot of the game’s content. While there aren’t a ton of side missions to keep players busy like in Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption, L. A. Noire does feature 40 short “street crimes”. Street crimes are essentially short action sequences that you’ll pick up by answering your police radio while driving around the city. They’re short and aren’t very varied, but they do earn you experience points that level Phelps up. As you level up, you’ll unlock things like extra outfits or intuition points that can be used in interrogations and to help find clues. There are also plenty of hidden/rare vehicles to find around Los Angeles, though they’re not much of an incentive to explore since your basic police cars work just fine as transportation.
The real reason to drive around Los Angeles is to take in all of the meticulously recreated sights of the city. You’ll discover tons of historic landmarks—such as the Hollywoodland sign (remember, this is 1947) and the Hall of Records—in exactly the spot you’d expect them to be. You’ll also have a blast just cruising the streets and taking in the sights—the city exudes a ton of period-correct atmosphere and everything looks beautiful, despite the pop-up and graphical glitches that sometimes break the illusion. Cruising down Vine Street or taking in the sights and sounds of the downtown area are some of the greatest thrills to be had in L. A. Noire. Let your partner drive you everywhere and you’re missing out on a lot of what makes the game so great.
Of course, driving isn’t all you do in L. A. Noire. You’ll do a lot of poking around crime scenes for clues that will help you in your investigation. This is sure to be the most divisive element of L. A. Noire for many people, but I thoroughly enjoyed them. You’ll spend most of your time during these sequences walking around and inspecting every object you come across. By default, controller rumble and musical chimes kick in to let you know when you’ve walked over or near something of interest, though these can be disabled for those who so choose. It’s a bit too easy to find every clue at a crime scene right away—especially since the music swells and then fades away once you’ve found every noteworthy clue—but the alternative is to spend hours looking for tiny objects on the screen, basically turning the whole ordeal into a glorified pixel hunt. You can use an intuition point to highlight all clues at a crime scene, but I recommend saving them for the tougher interrogations unless you’re really stuck.
Once you find something of interest, you can have Phelps inspect whatever it is more closely. If it’s a dead body, you can check the face, arms, and shirt/jacket pockets for clues using the right-analog stick to rotate the selected body part. If it’s something like a can or a note, you can press A on the 360 controller to inspect the object further. If you’re trying to find a particular detail on a larger clue, you have to move the right analog stick around until the controller shakes, at which point you hold the analog stick in the required direction until Phelps inspects the detail more closely. It’s all very simple and engrossing, though Phelps’ animations can look a bit wooden as he bends over to look at a few objects on the ground and points at each until you decide which one to inspect more closely. A lot of times, you’ll just find something that isn’t helpful, which may or may not be indicated by a quip from Phelps.
The third and final major aspect of L. A. Noire’s gameplay is the interrogations. The interrogations are the most impressive aspect of L. A. Noire and a huge part of why the game is so amazing. You’ll be interrogating a witness/suspect whose face isn’t animated in the traditional sense; rather, each face belongs to an actual human being whom Team Bondi has recorded using innovative motion capture technology. Each subtle movement and facial expression of the actor has found its way into the game, meaning you’ll be studying a freakishly-real character’s face in the hope of determining whether they’re lying to you or not.
You have a notebook that keeps track of all the clues you’ve found at crime scenes or coerced out of other suspects/witnesses. This notebook also contains a list of questions you can ask each person during an interview. You select a question, Phelps asks it, then the witness/suspect responds and it’s up to you whether to believe what that person says or not based upon that person’s face, the clues you’ve found, and your own instincts. If you do believe what he/she has said, you select “Truth” and that person responds in an appropriate manner. Select “Doubt” if you don’t believe what that person has told you and you’ll get a response in a similar way. If you guessed correctly, the person may give up an important clue; if not, that person won’t give you anything and may even end the interrogation. The last possible choice is to select “Lie,” in which case you have to choose the correct clue from your notebook that proves the person was lying. If you select the wrong one, you won’t get anything out of that person.
Interrogations may sound simple, but they’re often extremely tough. A little girl may not be hard to coerce information out of, but real-life mob boss Mickey Cohen certainly isn’t going to give up information so easily. It doesn’t help that the game is sometimes unclear as to what you’re supposed to be responding to. A person’s response to a question may be long and detailed, and then you’ll have to accuse that person of lying based upon an unclear element of that response. It can be a little frustrating to think you’re accusing someone of lying about one thing only to have Phelps accuse him/her of lying based upon another piece of dialogue entirely. If you get stuck, you can always use an intuition point to either remove a wrong selection or ask the Rockstar community (the latter requiring an Internet connection), but these intuition points never regenerate and you don’t get a ton of them, so they are best used wisely.
L. A. Noire represents a landmark achievement in videogame design. Never before has a game made players feel like they’re doing actual police work instead of just shooting everything in sight. The game’s innovative facial capture technology and Team Bondi’s incredibly detailed recreation of 1947 Los Angeles combine with innovative gameplay to create a game unlike any other. While it won’t be for everyone, L. A. Noire is an innovative and incredibly fun game that represents a huge risk for Rockstar and Team Bondi. What better way is there to reward them for their creativity and willingness to take risks than by purchasing L. A. Noire? If you do, you’ll quickly discover that L. A. Noire is the best game of the year so far and one of the best games in years. Don’t miss it.
Final score: 10/10
Sound: 8 (The voice acting is superb and there are a ton of licensed music tracks from the 1940s. Not all voice-acting is equally top notch, though, and the constant sound of police sirens can get on your nerves after a while.)
Storyline: 9 (While not immediately engrossing, the story is anchored by a cast of interesting support characters and reveals its depth slowly over time as the game unfolds. There are plenty of twists to keep players interested in Cole Phelps’ rise through the LAPD.)
Gameplay: 10 (L. A. Noire is considerably slower-paced than most action games, but its three core elements—driving, searching for clues, and the amazing interrogations—provide a wholly unique and extremely entertaining gameplay package. You’ve never played anything like L. A. Noire before.)
Graphics: 8 (Team Bondi’s amazing facial capture software means that people’s faces emote just like they do in real life, even if the rest of the character models aren’t as impressive. The city of 1947 Los Angeles is extremely detailed—no expense was spared in recreating the city. A black-and-white filter is available for those who prefer the visual style of early 20th century noire films. A few visual glitches, some stiff animations, and pop-up detract from the immersion somewhat.)
Overall Fun Factor/Replay Value: 9 (It won’t be for everyone, but those who get sucked into L. A. Noire’s world won’t want to leave. There’s no multiplayer, but 40 optional street crimes, hidden vehicles, and landmarks help add to the main game’s roughly 20 hours of playtime.)
If reading this review still hasn’t convinced you to buy L. A. Noire, you should at least rent it to see if it’s right for you. L. A. Noire won’t be for everyone due to its slow pace and unique gameplay, but those who are at all interested in it for any reason are going to fall in love. After playing through it, all I wanted to do was spend more time in the game’s world. You won’t be able to stop thinking about it long after you put down the controller. L. A. Noire is a great example of why more large publishers/developers need to take creative risks. It’s the best game yet released in 2011.