May 30, 2011
Set in the 'City of Angels,' post World War II, L.A. Noire places players in the shoes of Cole Phelps, a decorated war veteran who returns to civilization and decides to put his skills to work in law enforcement. Through impressive diligence and deduction, Cole makes a name for himself by working a series of high-profile cases. Rather quickly, the fame accumulated from police work and wartime service places Cole at the center of organized crime that reaches the highest levels of society.
As hinted at above, L.A. Noire is structured around solving a series of cases that have distinct tales to tell, but also frequently and subtlely develop the game's wider plot arch. Each case generally compromises a mixture of investigation, interviews, interrogations and action sequences. While these sections all possess unique mechanics, they are woven together in very seamless, natural and unexpected ways that generally prevent things from feeling too repetitive, although it does fall into that trap at times.Truly intriguing plot lines also help keep the player's attention on unraveling the mystery.
The first step in most cases involve canvasing the crime scene for clues. Ultimately, this amounts to little more than wondering the environments and picking objects up here and there - not exactly an inherently engaging task, although one very reminiscent of classic adventure and point-and-click games. However, L.A. Noire shrewdly streamlines the process by providing subtle and organic feedback while the players investigate. When the player approaches an interactive object a number of things can happen to signal its relevance: The controller will vibrate and the background music will swell briefly. The sound design here really shines and feels completely at home within the detective context.
After some clues have been found, persons of interest need to be interviewed. Once a question has been asked, the player will need to determine whether they think the person's response is credible, suspicious or outright false. This can be done by reviewing the evidence collected or by reading body language and facial expressions. It's in the last area, animation, where L.A. Noire truly amazes. Each character's expressions and reflexes are lifelike, to the point where they frequently become indistinguishable from live-action footage and cross the highly touted uncanny valley. The success of this integral part of L.A. Noire hinged on pushing animation to the next level, and fortunately Team Bondi nailed it. There's a lot to praise here, including the convincing cast of actors, many cherry-picked from Mad Men.
That being said, all the production milestones don't completely spare the game from the pitfalls of branching conversation paths. There will inevitably be times when your thought process and that of the developers tried to predict won't match up. Fortunately, L.A. Noire never punishes the player for failing to get mostly "right" answers during conversation. In fact, if you get stuck, you can always use one of those Intuition Points that you've stacked from ranking up to eliminate one option, or “Ask the Community” for help should you not be able to tell if a suspect is lying.
Periodically and without warning, a suspect will disrupt the rhythm of collect-and-question by attempting to evade capture or resort to violence. These action-oriented sequences allow traditional GTA mechanics to enter the fray, with on-foot and car chases, hand-to-hand brawls, intense gun battles and general mayhem all in the mix. They are far less frequent than in any previous Rockstar game, but are incorporated just enough to compliment the pacing and keep you on your toes. In particular, the chase scenes offer a welcome burst of adrenaline and cinematic flare.
Make no mistake: L.A. Noire is a very linear game, and your actions throughout each case will ultimately have little impact on the characters and story being told. However, each case gives players a great deal of flexibility within these confines. The combination of information gathered from clues and interviews allow similar conclusions to eventually be reached in a number of ways, and ensure momentum is almost never completely halted. It's a great balance of tight storytelling and player freedom. While L.A. Noire represents a far more structured, linear approach than most games in the genre, the world is by no means an afterthought. 1940s Los Angeles is beautifully and authentically recreated, with incredible attention to detail in the architecture, dialogue, and music, among other things.
More importantly, the cohesion between character and setting has never been stronger in a Rockstar game. A police officer protagonist just makes sense from a design perspective, because the actions associated with the profession fit the world so well. For example, driving around with a partner at all times allows the game to communicate directions to the player verbally, rather than relying on a cumbersome mini-map that takes the focus off the gorgeous scenery. Additionally, your partner can be called upon at anytime to takeover the driving, streamlining traversal naturally. Side missions are simply communicated over the police radio as you travel. Causing havoc throughout the city, and thereby acting out of character, increases the police department's expenses, ultimately negatively impacting your evaluation at the end of a case. All of these elegant choices highlight the strength's of Rockstar's design philosophy.
L.A. Noire doesn't have any competitive or cooperative multiplayer or a vast array of collectibles to speak of, but that doesn't mean there is no replay value. Not to mention Rockstar's Social Club site, which gives players access to stat tracking and friendly comparisons in addition to the aforementioned “Ask the Community” feature in-game where you can determine if a suspect if lying or telling the truth based on other players' choices. There's also some neat unlockable goodies like an exclusive outfit for Phelps. There are also side missions, landmarks, and cars to discover, all of which contribute to your overall experience level, helping you solve cases later. The cases themselves also offer a good reason to experiment, as the varying ways to reach a conviction make for interesting diversions.
L.A. Noire is a unique experience in gaming. So much more than the most expensive adventure game ever made, it's a living, breathing world with a truly mature story to tell. The balance between tight storytelling and player freedom is just right, resulting in a more structured experience that still embraces its open-world heritage. This also means the connection between character and setting has never been stronger. As things stand today, only a company with the resources of Rockstar could take on such an ambitious project, but hopefully the heights L.A. Noire reaches and the boundaries it pushes will encourage Rockstar's fellow contemporaries to try and best this detective thriller.
L.A. Noire was reviewed on the PS3. You can read more about GamingUnion.net's scoring policy here.