L.A. Noire review
“Detective Cole Phelps, badge 1247”
L.A. Noire, released in 2011 was one of the most unique and memorable games of the last generation, it was certainly an acquired taste anyway, combining both the shooting and driving of Grand Theft Auto with methodical elements consisting of uncovering clues and questioning suspects, from the perspective of those sworn to protect the law (or not in some cases), the LAPD. It’s been labelled a divisive game and it would be utterly pointless to argue against the notion, indeed the slow pace means that only the patient may apply here, particularly those who are interested in narrative-heavy games. Having bought the game and its season pass with all the DLC I never played the first time around in the Xbox Marketplace sale a few months back, I thought I’d share my experience of my second play through of the game.
Technical stuff out the way first, I encountered numerous technical problems from my time in the game, significant frame-rate drops and instances of slow-down and a huge amount of texture pop-in; I’m not one for letting performance issues to markedly affect my views of a game, but it seems appropriate to mention.
You play as Cole Phelps, a returning war hero who rapidly rises through the ranks of the LAPD from a standard beat cop to becoming one of the departments’ most distinguished detectives. In its duration, you will work a vast amount of distinct cases, ranging from Patrol, Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson, each department is markedly different as you would expect, the cases escalate in scale and in nature as you progress through the game. Most cases are structured well and have a good contained narrative, as you’d expect the Homicide cases are better than say the Traffic, but there aren’t any especially poor cases throughout the game, truth be told.
But how does it actually play out? Well, you’ll get given a fresh case and you’ll make your way to the crime-scene, from there you will attempt to uncover the clues necessary to advance your investigation. This isn’t the be all and end all, you can still solve the case if you only find a few clues, but you’ll solve your cases much faster and more efficiently if you find them all. You’ll then proceed to question suspects where they’ll relay you information (generally lies) and it’s up to you to try and get them to say more to help your case. This is presented through the options to Doubt them, accuse them of a Lie which you’ll need to back up with proof or if you believe them Truth. L.A. Noire is at its best when it’s just about these engrossing mechanics, it’s a lot of fun to uncover hidden clues and then use them against suspects in an interrogation.
The cases aren’t exactly open but I would hesitate to call them linear also, for instance finding or not finding clues creates different / quicker pathways, going to different locations at different times also leads to unique situations. But in the end, it’s not possible to fail your case, you’ll always arrest or put down a suspect by it’s conclusion. However it’s difficult to see what the developer could have done here, you can’t exactly allow the player to fail because then you would be disconnected from the overlying narrative, tough to figure out how they could have structured it any differently.
L.A. Noire is utterly focused on its narrative to the extent where it can come across as grandiose, the writing and acting performances for the individual cases are of a high standard, the dialogue is sharp, interesting and expresses the attitudes of the era in a convincing fashion. Cole Phelps, played by Mad Men’s Aaron Staton is a decent enough lead but as time wears on, the character wears thin as well; he’s cold, overly keen to the point of annoyance and generally unlikeable, odd considering he’s one of the few that isn’t corrupt. One of the best aspects of the narrative though, is how they’ve managed to create very distinct partners for Phelps, all of whom provide great foil for case interaction.
Where the game falls down however is it’s obsession with trying to create a sweeping narrative to connect all the cases together, it’s ultimately a confusing, dull side-show to the tightly-focused cases that you’ve been investigating. It feels like they were under pressure to explain some areas of the narrative and backstory that they forgot its place in the game, I mean the whole morphine conspiracy is nothing when you compare it to the Black Dahlia serial killer that you’ve dealt with way before, surely even Micky Cohen would have been a bigger point of interest? Also if we’re in the spoiler section, Cole’s affair feels completely out of place and I’ll put it out there that the ending is terrible, it’s rushed and just doesn’t make any sense at all.
Shifting focus on how it looks, it’s fair to say it has aged, 4 years is a long time in gaming and of course it doesn’t look as good as I remembered it did when I bought it on its release. L.A. is detailed on the street-level but not when you proceed to drive around vast areas of the map, identikit housing and neighbourhoods are commonplace, working in tandem with distorted looking buildings and roads. However, you can’t fault the effort to recreate this era of L.A. with vast amounts of beautifully designed billboards and advertisements, the interiors are also packed with little touches, be it the furniture or jewellery. The game succeeds on this front when you explore its network of microcosms, be it the crime-scene in the diner or in an apartment, small worlds but all lavished in exquisite detail.
Facial technology meanwhile is a different matter altogether, indeed if I can recall correctly this was one of the big selling points of the game, revolutionary at the time. Undoubtedly, it still remains astonishing, faces are modelled with such detail that the (usually famous) actor or actress playing the role are instantly recognisable, if you are a fan of the show Mad Men for example, you will encounter many familiar faces indeed. This technology enables even the most subtle of expressions to be captured with the most remarkable accuracy, particularly useful in light of the game’s emphasis on interrogating witnesses and attempting to break down their carefully crafted lies. The impressive technology also extends to other in-game situations, for instance Cole may occasionally announce his presence to the criminals that they are facing immediate arrest, or perhaps to talk them down, it will nevertheless always end in a shoot-out however. Furthermore as the shooting rages on, Cole’s expression will reflect this escalation of danger, flinching as bullets whizz overhead. It’s one of those features which gives a greater sense of immersion in the world as a whole, the technology provides a basis from which the game can attempt to construct an absorbing narrative that the game so desperately wants to sustain for its duration.
However it is unfortunate to note that the shooting mechanics have aged badly, the aiming feels extremely clunky, the weapons do not feel especially powerful, there is limited environmental destructibility, utilising the available cover is generally a very frustrating endeavour, with Cole stubbornly clinging to a wall, only to then sprint away from it a moment later when you didn’t want him to. When you consider that shooting the legions of mobsters and criminals makes up a sizeable portion of the game itself, it’s fair to say it detracts from the experience and ultimately your final impression of L.A. Noire.
Similarly, another notable aspect of the game is driving around L.A. be it to the various crime scenes, or chasing down fleeing criminals, again I’m sorry to say it’s an infuriating experience. The handling of the cars is simply awful, turning around corners is a huge struggle but my main problem is that you don’t eventually understand how they control even when you reach the final cases. For instance, in a game where perhaps the cars feel initially a bit strange, GTA IV being a personal example, you would adapt in time but this isn’t the case in L.A. Noire. Also I’m extremely reluctant to grant them the benefit of the doubt because “that’s how cars from the 40’s were like to drive” because that’s a flimsy foundation to create your game, player enjoyment shouldn’t be sacrificed to achieve greater authenticity surely?
On the other hand, the soundtrack is terrific with the wonderfully smooth menu music working beautifully with its noire presentation. You’ll hear a variety of authentic music on the radio (you can’t change stations however), overall the soundtrack is suspenseful and deeply atmospheric, an excellent aspect of the game.
It’s difficult to summarise what L.A. Noire is and if it’s a good game or not, I don’t imagine many people will have liked it, it’s certainly unique but the gameplay elements it borrows from other games or tries to replicate, namely the shooting and driving, it shows its age considerably. However when it’s about finding the clues at an easy pace or questioning witnesses, there’s no other game like it, I still have a soft spot for it despite the rough edges.
+ Such a unique game
+ Compelling cases
+ Uncovering clues and questioning suspects
+ Facial technology remains impressive
+ Slow pace…
– … is not for everyone
– Stiff shooting
-Dull interconnected background narrative