Friday, 27 May 2011 02:48

L.A. Noire (PS3, 2011)

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Overview


Dressed to kill.December, 1947, Los Angeles. Rain had been trying to scrub the city clean for a week, but sometimes I think Noah’s flood wouldn’t be enough to do this town justice. I was sitting in my darkened office, taking the last drag off a heater down to its filter, too broke to buy a new pack or pay the bill to turn on the lights, but that didn't matter. Not for a private detective sitting across the desk from lovely Lola LaSalle, a dame with all the right curves, and all the wrong reasons for coming to a guy like me. A sweet country girl, Lola, or she had been before the dreams of rising stardom she followed west from Iowa fell under the weight of Hollywood’s millstone. I could see the story in her watery blue eyes, grim as the downpour outside in that baby-doll face, as she told me all about her roommate that had gone missing last night. I’d heard her story a hundred times before… after all, her story, and others like it, are the only reason a gumshoe like me can make it in L.A. Noire

USA Info Japanese Info Image
Title L.A. Noire
Dates 2011.05.17
Companies Team Bondi, Rockstar Games
Creator Rockstar Games
Genre Action, Adventure, Detective, Sandbox, Third-Person Shooter
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Review


L.A. Noire - Rating
  • Playability - 4.6
  • Graphics - 4.9
  • Story - 4.3
  • Sound - 4.5
  • Overall - 4.5

I’m not usually much of a fan for Rockstar’s games. I despise the Grand Theft Auto series with a passion for what it is – an idolization, a celebration of murdering thugs filling the streets with poison and stealing other’s futures for their own personal gain. Those of you who disagree with me are welcome to your opinion, of course. Their other games tend to be an over/under proposition for me. Max Payne I remember rather enjoying right up to the first time I played one of the nightmare levels, at which point the story took a sharp left turn for the bizarre and never quite recovered. Still, I found myself with growing levels of interest as I heard more and more about L.A. Noire, especially when I saw demos of the tech being used for facial capture. The tipping point was a story on Kotaku that featured 14 minutes of actual gameplay. I decided to give it a shot, and pick up a copy.

The Good

  • Incredibly realistic and detailed facial details.

The big selling point of L.A. Noire is their use of a new motion capture technology designed to pick up on the slightest nuances of human expression. The technology itself is rather interesting, though subject matter for another time, but the basic concept is that an array of cameras is used at various angles to pick up every bit of detail. The data fed back from the cameras is then mapped directly into the digitized model of the character’s face, leading to faces that look and move very realistically. They’re not quite out of the uncanny valley yet, but they’re very, very close. More importantly, you can honestly read into their reactions as your character questions them, looking for truth and lies in their facial tics and expressions. The effect is stunningly powerful, and allows for very unique gameplay – after all, some people are naturally better at lying than others, and that is reflected completely within L.A. Noire itself.

  • Incredibly detailed and authentic representation of 1947 Los Angeles.

While the graphics in general are on par or better than any modern game release, special mention needs to be made for the recreation of 1947 L.A. that Rockstar has done for L.A. Noire. I’ve said before that atmosphere can really sell a game, and in this game the city itself feels like a living, breathing being. Traffic moves through the streets, people walk along the sidewalks, era-appropriate music plays on the car radio. It’s not just the graphics, though, the dialog is era-appropriate, in a very unapologetic manner. The war has just ended, tired soldiers are flooding back to America, and trying to pick up their lives where they left off. The clothing and hairstyles are right, but so are the prejudices and values – or lack thereof, compared to modern society. These are especially on display while you’re on the Homicide and Ad Vice desks stages of the game.

  • Brutally, unapologetically realistic.

When I sit down to play most games, I expect some violence – as a fan of shooters and fighters, how can I not? – and sitting down for L.A. Noire was no different, despite the focus of the game being on the investigation and interrogation of persons of interest in ongoing cases. What I most certainly was not expecting was walking over to a crime scene and being presented with a brutally murdered woman stripped naked – and I don’t mean Barbie-doll naked – with parts of her skin cut off and angry messages written in lipstick all over her body. It wasn’t just the unexpected depiction of a completely naked woman, but the violence of her death… and part of your role as detective is to lean down over the body and inspect her head and limbs for evidence, just to be sure that you get a really good, close-in look at the damage. Make no mistake, folks… L.A. Noire is rated M for a reason, and it makes absolutely no pretenses about it. Some crimes scenes are spectacularly bloody, but at the same time some of them are chillingly normal… right up until you start finding clues.

  • Cole Phelps is an interesting, flawed hero.

L.A. Noire spends a lot of time making use of characters that are surprisingly deep despite the relatively short amount of time that you spend with them, but the main star of the game, Cole Phelps, is exceedingly well developed. Now, normally, I would consider that to be an absolute requirement for any main character, but in Cole’s case Rockstar went above and beyond the call of duty. All throughout the game, you learn bits and pieces behind your avatar’s reasons for joining a police force corrupted by drug money and payoffs. More importantly, though, not only isn’t Cole perfect, as the game plays out you come to realize that he’s just as susceptible to a sudden fall as the rest of us.

  • Strong, compelling narrative drawn on the hardboiled era detective novels.

The writing in L.A. Noire is excellent, consistent, and really helps to develop your feel for the era, but more importantly the individual cases are compelling and well thought out. It’s not always possible to get a confession out of your suspects, and you don’t always have just one suspect. In fact, some cases will just plain leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, even if you got a five star rating on them. This is especially true in the homicide arc of cases.

  • A thinking person’s game.

For as much as I enjoy shooters and the like, I can’t dismiss the number one criticism of them: they do all, generally, play alike. Personally, I think that’s a good thing rather than a bad, it means that I can go from one game to the next without having to relearn controls each time. L.A. Noire, however, isn’t an action game, though it does have moments of action and even gunplay. You need to collect the evidence, you need to interrogate the suspects, and most of all, you have to think in order to get through the game. You need to look at the clues you’ve been given, and figure out their connections, figure out how you can use them to catch a person of interest in a lie. You need to be aware of your surroundings as you search through locations, and you need to pay attention to the clues that your suspects give you as they answer your questions. L.A. Noire is first and foremost a battle of the wits, and it’s not always easy to tell a suspect that’s telling the truth but is just nervous from one that’s lying to your face.

  • Get a second opinion.

For each question you ask a person of interest, you can accept that they’re telling you the truth, express doubt if you think they’ve left something out but don’t have proof, or point out they’re flat out lying if you have evidence to prove it. Sometimes, you really do get stuck on a question, and just can’t figure out what your suspect is hiding. At times like this, L.A. Noire allows you to use Cole’s Intuition for hints as to the correct answer. What that really means is that you can spend points to see what other L.A. Noire players used as a response to any particular question, or to remove one incorrect option from the three. You earn points as you go through the game and complete objectives, storing up to five points at any one time. Careful use of your Intuition can help you get through particularly rough patches. It’s not quite hand-holding on the part of Rockstar, since sometimes seeing what others responded with just means that you’ll choose the same wrong answer that most other players did, but it’s a really helpful system that can keep you from getting stuck on one question.

The Bad

  • Absolutely zero replay value.

The single biggest problem that I’m seeing with L.A. Noire is that the only “replay” value it’s going to have is out of ongoing DLC releases. Once you’ve solved a case with a five star rating – something that’s not too difficult to do if you take your time and think through cases – that’s it. There’s only one set of right answers, period. You can replay a case at any time once you’ve cleared it, but unless you intentionally screw it up, once you’ve done it right there’s just nothing new to be found. I don’t know if L.A. Noire is going to last long on my shelf because of that, since I expect a $70 dollar game to have at least some replay value without having to resort to DLC.

  • The street crimes break up the flow of the game.

Throughout the course of the game, you have the option of driving around Rockstar’s recreation of Los Angeles, and while driving around you might run across what are known as street crimes. Basically, they’re short little bonus missions you can complete for extra skill points. The trouble is, they trigger if you get within about a block of them, and they’re scattered everywhere throughout the city, so there’s an annoyingly high chance that you’ll run over one as you’re on the way to a case location. I wouldn’t mind it, if they didn’t automatically start as you got close, if you had to actually manually accept the street crime in order to begin it, but as it is they break up the flow of a case if you work on them during the main storyline. It seems rather out of place to be hurrying to another location and then suddenly, abruptly, jump out of the car to assist in a small gang war without warning.

  • The ending lost a bit of focus and let me down.

First and foremost, I’m not saying that the ending was bad per se. However, at the risk of spoiling, I just don’t agree with how the game’s story wrapped up. Instead of sticking with the game’s strength, that of investigation and interrogation, the ending of the game was a ten minute long running and gunning action sequence that completely flew in the face of L.A. Noire’s gameplay to that point. That in and of itself was bad enough, but it just didn’t make sense to end it the way that they did, almost like the writers just ran out of gas in the last hour or so of game and just mailed in the very tail end. I was really kinda disappointed after the quality of the narrative up to that point.

  • Crazy damn drivers and pedestrians.

I know that traffic control laws in 1947 were not what they are now, but does every single driver need to turn directly into me as I’m in the middle of the street on a green light if I don’t have my sirens going? Worse are the pedestrians that constantly cross against the light, but just in general the city traffic AI could have used another tuning pass. Driving with your sirens running does help a fair bit, admittedly, but if not for the fact that L.A. Noire allows your partner to drive to locations, effectively skipping the intervening distance, I’d have gone insane from the number of car wrecks due to the NPC drivers not observing common sense, much less traffic laws. Also, do I have to catch every goddamn red light in the game too? It happens enough in real life…

Your Mileage May Vary

  • Almost crosses the line.

I’m not much of one for political correctness, but I have to admit that in its search for authenticity, L.A. Noire comes very, very close to crossing the line in terms of ethnic slurs and attitudes toward women. This is a tough one to call, folks. For my take, I’m just uncomfortable enough to think that Rockstar toed the line just about right without going over it, but some people might disagree. The discrimination and prejudices displayed are era-appropriate, though, so… Like I said, tough one to call.

  • Overly difficult car chases.

It’s not chasing the cars that’s the problem, it’s catching on every damn corner as I try to keep up with the suspect. Even when I catch up, though, it’s way too difficult to knock them off the road. When you lock hard into somebody’s rear wheel fender with your front-right, they’re going to spin out every damn time, especially if they’re trying to turn across you when you pull the maneuver off, but far too often in L.A. Noire the suspect vehicle just shakes you off and shoots back up to full speed again before you have time to even readjust and follow them.

  • Everybody lies.

With the sheer number of people you interview throughout the course of the game, I really would have expected to select plain old truth more than eight times over the course of the main story.

  • Black and gray morality.

In the entire damn game, I can only think of two, maybe three characters that came off to me as just plain nice, decent folk. L.A. Noire is a game with a cast of over a hundred.

  • Perp walk.

It’d be nice if Cole’s base walking speed were a bit faster, or better yet if I could jog around with the thumbstick all the way down, instead of having to hold down the L2 button to break into a sprint for a couple steps. It makes getting around on foot slow, or awkward looking at best, sprinting like you’re chasing down a cop-killer just to get from point to point at a decent pace.

Overall


Boiled down to its core, L.A. Noire is almost a throwback game to the likes of classics such as Maniac Mansion, King’s Quest, and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. You move from location to location, look for clues – or in this case, evidence to build your case – and then piece things together so that when you have your suspect in an interrogation room you can successfully corner him. There’s some action to keep the process from getting stale, and it’s all bundled together in some excellent writing that draws you right into 1947, and offers a great take on the tradition of film noire and the hard-boiled detective. If not for an ending that turned in a questionable direction and got away from the game’s core focus, it would have been perfect, I think. Your hero is capable, with flaws but trying for redemption in spite of them. There isn’t any replay value, unfortunately, not in the game itself, but I don’t doubt we’ll be seeing bundles of DLC case packages coming right along, so there is that, I suppose. All in all, L.A. Noire is just a really well done game that really surprised me with how much I enjoyed it overall. Well worth buying if you’re a fan of the likes of Harry Nile or The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane, but great fun for anybody willing to take the time to think their way through the cases.

Additional Info

  • Writing: Groovy (+5)
  • Pacing: Groovy (+5)
  • Graphics: Groovy (+5)
  • Controls: Groovy (+5)
  • Voice Acting: Groovy (+5)
  • Soundtrack: Groovy (+5)
  • Replay Value: Groovy (+5)
Last modified on Friday, 18 January 2013 18:33

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