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L.A. NoireMay 30, 2011

L.A Noire is one of the most anticipated games of the year, and one I was particularly excited about. Which is saying something, because I try to avoid reading too much about a game before it comes out, both to avoid disappointment, but also so I can play a game and be somewhat ignorant about what to expect. I found L.A. Noire to be a compelling experience, I played through the whole thing over a single weekend, taking about 16 hours to complete it. And it was enjoyable almost all the way through, even though in many ways it is far from perfect, perhaps frustratingly so at times. As the game is published by Rockstar, some people will think it’s the next GTA. Those people will be very disappointed. L.A. Noire puts you in control of a policeman in 1940s L.A., Detective Phelps (who’s played by some guy out of Mad Men, I don’t watch it, so I don’t care) and the game revolves around you solving crimes. As such, it owes as much to old-school point-and-click adventures as it does to Rockstar’s main franchise. The game may be set in an open-world like GTA, but it’s mainly there as the backdrop to the story, rather than as a plaything to explore. In this respect, L.A. Noire is similar to Mafia II, and it also shares that game’s passion for period detail, from the city of L.A. itself to the cars and the clothes of the people who inhabit it.

The game is heavily story based, with many long cutscenes both between cases and during. The game employs some non-linear storytelling, with flashbacks which tell the story of Phelps’ military service during World War II, and with cutscenes unlocked by finding collectable newspapers showing events which are happening to other characters concurrently. Both the flashbacks and the newspaper cutscenes are confusing at the start of the game, as the characters and the events which take place seem to bear no relation to what is happening in the cases you are solving, nor to the overarching story between them. But as the game progresses the three strands of narrative come together very cleverly, and the overall result is very satisfying. Since I finished the game I’ve been replaying some early cases, and watching the cutscenes again with knowledge of what happens later really puts a whole new spin on them. In many ways it’s written like a good TV show, which was probably the goal.

Solving cases requires the two core parts of the game: Collecting evidence and interviewing people. Collecting evidence is basically like a point-and-click game, except instead of clicking things with a mouse you walk around and press a button when you’re near enough. When you are near something you can interact with the controller will vibrate, and there is also a musical cue, though this can be turned off to make the game harder. After you pick something up you can usually rotate it a bit or interact further, such as opening a wallet for example, to find further clues. Rather than actually picking items up and taking them with you, they are just recorded in your notebook for you to refer to later, the main use of clues is to either tell you about a location you should visit or to expose lies when you are interviewing someone. At no point does the game really let you think about things yourself; the clues from the original crime scene give you one or more locations, you visit them and either collect more clues or talk to someone, maybe both. Of the people you meet evidence will suggest one or two of them did it, and eventually you will either eliminate one of them or you will have to do a final interview of both at the police station, which will then give you a choice of which to charge. At no point when I was playing did I have to stop and think about what to do next.

One of the game’s unique selling points is its facial animations, which are created by filming an actor’s face from multiple angles, all at the same time, and then mapping the movements to create the in-game animation. For the first few hours you play the game it is truly an amazing sight watching people’s faces move with such realism. Over time you get used to it, so I suspect that if you switch to playing another game shortly after playing this then the facial animations will stand out as being overly artificial. It’s a feature which I’m pretty sure will eventually end up in every game which contains a human face, though probably not for a few years yet; the animations are one of the reasons the Xbox 360 version takes up three DVDs, so space constraints may limit its use this generation.

As well as giving the game’s characters a much more human quality, the main use of the facial animations is to help you decide when someone you are interviewing is lying or not. As they talk to you people’s eyes will shift, their brow may furrow, or they may pick up a bit of a facial tic, and you are supposed to use these hints to determine if they are telling the truth. It works in a way, but it’s far from perfect, the trouble comes not so much from determining whether someone is lying or holding back, but from how that translates to which button to press. You have three options during conversations: “Truth”, “Doubt”, and “Lie”. You pick “Truth” if you believe they are telling the truth, “Doubt” if you think they are lying and “Lie” if you have collected a piece of evidence which proves they are lying. Which button to press is a right or wrong decision, with the number of questions you got right being shown at the end of each interview. Getting it right usually rewards you with more information about part of the case, and will improve your performance on the case overall, which is given a rating out of five stars when you finish it.

Often knowing when to press “Lie” is quite easy, because you can look through your evidence at any time, and it’s usually obvious when someone has said something which contradicts it. It’s the distinction between “Truth” and “Doubt” which sometimes left me a bit confused. The main flaw is that you don’t know which direction the conversation will take when you choose an option, which can lead to things going in a completely different direction than you thought they would. Here is a made up example of the type of thing that happens: I’m interviewing someone, they are being cooperative and everyone is quite calm. I ask them whether they saw the victim on the night of the murder, “I don’t remember seeing them” is their reply. I don’t believe them, so I press “Doubt”, expecting Phelps to gently ask them if they are sure, but instead, completely out of the blue, Phelps starts shouting, “Tell us the truth! Do you want to go to jail!?” followed up by “My partner and I don’t take too kindly to liars”. Sometimes it feels like Phelps has multiple personality disorder, as he seems to flip between being the “good cop” and the “bad cop” at the drop of a hat. Unsurprising, aggressive outbursts usually cause the interviewee to clam up and not say much. In similar situations choosing “Truth” usually results in Phelps saying something like “Are you sure?”, and getting a response along the lines of “Well, now that I think about it, I did see them”, followed by some detail which will help you solve the case later. But that seems contradictory to me, as if they did see them, but said they didn’t, that means they were lying, and “Doubt” should have been the correct answer, but “Truth” was. Perhaps it would be better if the choices were labelled “Passive” and “Aggressive”, as that tends to be a better indication of how the conversation usually proceeds. The seemingly random outbursts that occur sometimes get a little bit frustrating, and I feel it would have been better if you were shown a line or two of what you’re going to say before you commit to saying it.

The game also has some problems with some of the elements it uses less. The shooting and cover mechanics are workable at best, and the same can be said of the driving. I was never really too annoyed by them, but things like sticky cover and vehicles that seem weightless do detract from the experience a bit. You can have your partner drive you to locations, which lets you skip the journey, so if you don’t like the driving you can skip the bulk of it. Though you are forced to drive during the numerous car chases you get in during the cases, and also during the parts where you have to tail vehicles. You are also forced into a shootout every couple of cases or so, perhaps more often. For a game which tries to be realistic in many ways, there is still a lot of shooting, and while in most of the game you are usually against just two or three people, towards the end there are a few mass shootouts, which feel really out of place. Another recurring feature of cases are on-foot chases, at least one of which tends to happen in every case. I felt they were overused, and they became very predictable, though the game’s running mechanics are well done, you automatically jump over any obstacles which makes chases feel quite cinematic. I also felt the game’s hand-to-hand combat was well done, it’s a very simple system which basically just lets you punch and dodge, but it means you don’t have to worry about any complicated combos, the simplicity fits the game well. I also enjoyed the on-foot tailing, where you can go incognito by sitting on a bench reading a newspaper, or by peering into a shop window. I think I’m right in saying you only get to do it twice during the main story, so I think it was criminally underused, especially compared to the foot chases.

During the cases, or in the dedicated free roam mode, you can also do some side missions, which are radioed through to you as you drive around. These usually just involve chasing someone on-foot or in a car, though some are a shootout of some sort, think along the lines of a bank robbery gone wrong and you’ll get the idea. They’re not very inspired or very substantial, in fact some of the shooting ones can be done in a few seconds. I’ve already mentioned the collectable newspapers, they are quite easy to find, as they are usually in the areas where you have to search for clues, and they help expand the story, so I like them, but, as with seeming every game nowadays, there are also some pointless collectables. Fifty film reels are hidden around the city and they serve absolutely no point whatsoever, other than counting towards an achievement and the 100% statistic. Luckily for sad people like me who have to get these sorts of things, the Rockstar Social Club website has a map which shows you where they all are. For 100% completion you also have to drive every vehicle at least once, there are 95 in all and I’m not looking forward to trying to find them, as most appearances are random. It’s true to say that there’s not much to do outside of the cases or once you’ve finished them. But that doesn’t really bother me, the game has a great linear story, it doesn’t really need anything else, the side-missions feel a bit shoehorned in and don’t really fit.

I’ve focused a lot on the faults, but don’t let that put you off, L.A. Noire is a very good game, but it does fall short of being great. The story is excellent, though at times it does drag a little, and I’d have liked the ending to be explained a bit better. In general all the characters are voiced well, and the facial animations are something no other game can match, they are a real unique selling point. The actual game parts can get quite repetitive though, and the mechanics can be a bit frustrating. Whether or not you will enjoy it will come down to whether or not you can look past its faults and just enjoy the experience, for me the game did a great job of making me feel like a 1940s detective and immersing me in its world, but for others it could be completely ruined by some of the niggles I’ve pointed out. L.A. Noire is interactive storytelling at its best, but it’s not gaming at its best.

Update: All the DLC that was available as a preorder bonus has now been released to purchase separately. This includes two different extra cases and several in-game outfits that you can wear. After the preorder bonuses for Red Dead Redemption were released back in April, almost a year after its release, Rockstar said that a similar release for L.A. Noire would come about much sooner, and they’ve kept their word as it’s only been two weeks since its US release. I’m happy to say that I didn’t get my copy from anywhere that offered a preorder bonus, as when I was looking it was usually £5 or so dearer from the places giving away one of the extra cases (and I had no interest in the different in-game suits others were offering), and I dare say some of those who did will be a bit annoyed now, as I feel the pricing is very reasonable. The extra cases are 320 Microsoft Points each, and the suits are 80, but for 800 points you can buy the “Rockstar Pass”, which will give you the two cases, all the different suits and also another two cases which are going to be released over the next month and a half or so. Which I think is a pretty good deal. The price of the Rockstar pass increases to 960 points in a couple of weeks, on 14th June, which essentially means you’ll pay for three cases and get a fourth case and the extra outfits for free, which is still a great deal, though obviously not as good as getting all that for 800 points. The cases are ones which were cut from the original game, and, having played through the two which are available now, I think they are easily as good as the included cases. They slot into the story well, in-between the original cases, and while there are no real plot revelations there are moments which add some colour. A moment where Phelps expresses a preference for blondes, for example, stood out to me, knowing what I know about what happens later in the story. I’d definitely recommend this DLC to those who enjoyed the main game, but it is very much more of the same, so those who’ve had their fill of the game’s repetitive nature may not get that much from it.

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