So after all this hype is it any cop? Or is its mere existence a crime? Ed stops his punning right now and gets down to some serious work.
From the Director of The Getaway and a new studio from Australia (Team Bondi), L.A. Noire is a gritty detective story that loves film noir so much it even features a Black and White filter to play the game with. Clearly made with a lot of love, this is not high-octane stuff – with a story line that doesn’t exactly light the world on fire, it is up to the stellar performances from the cast of hundreds to draw us in to this make-believe 1940’s.
Available on both Xbox 360 and PS3, this was only reviewed on the PS3. However, both ports seem to be near-identical apart from the number of discs used (3 DVDs on 360 1 BluRay on PS3).
The story works in several increasing circles. For the most part you are following Cole Phelps, the playable character. After receiving a Silver Star in the Second World War, he starts the game as a rookie street cop for the LAPD. Already keen to solve crimes, rather than simply keep the peace, it is not long before he is promoted to detective.
There are 21 cases on disc that cover 4 detective desks (Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson) as well as the introductory section on the beat. These cases mostly range from 10-45 minutes to play, although it is quite easy to take things a little slower if you prefer.
Each case is a separate entity and a story in its own right, although there are large story arcs in place too. The whole game essentially charts the career of Phelps and many minor plot points come together towards the end. There are also flashbacks covering Phelps’ time in Japan during the war. These really help to provide background to this rather stern and serious character.
A series of 13 newspapers also provide another sub plot that only starts to tie in after the two-thirds mark. These are well spaced and help to add a bit of variety to the story telling. Don’t miss the first paper like I did though! Even though they rarely have anything to do with your current case they are always worth viewing. If you have missed any it is easy to identify the cases you need to go back through to find them. A very handy feature.
Generally the tale is well told, although I think the game-spanning and over-arching story could have been a little tighter. I suggest spacing the game out over a few weeks to a month, so as not to subject yourself to the ever common “noir fatigue” [Never heard of it – Ed].
The characters are exemplary. I could maybe pick out 2 or 3 of the 400 odd cast that I was slightly dubious of. The motion capture used here really allows the actors to perform as these marionettes, rather than just voice animations. It’s also nice to recognise faces that you have seen across American TV, my sister certainly noticed “that guy from Heroes“. I was more interested in the appearance of Carla Gallo.
Detective work and puzzle-solving accounts for about 70% of the gameplay, with story cutscenes and actual player-controlled events probably sharing 50/50 for the total play time. There aren’t many puzzles to speak of and in general they are pretty weak. No mindbenders here.
In particular, a case called “Quarter Moon Murders” features many such puzzles from a “smarty-pants” criminal set out to test the LAPD. These include high-wire balancing, a completely pointless trek through some tar – and a maze! Luckily these are few and far between, as for the most part, they just expose the weaknesses in the engine.
The city itself is wonderful. Forgoing the separate islands of the GTA series, L.A. Noire stops you from visiting later locations by simply making the whole place too vast to bother! The scale seems to be 1:1 between your character and the size of the buildings (unlike the 3D GTAs, which seem to be about 1:0.75). This is how I like my in-game exploration to be.
Apparently the biggest surface area from Rockstar yet, it feels like it extends far beyond its reaches. It feels like a real part of a real world. Multi-floor buildings and seamlessly integrated elevators really add those extra details.
Unfortunately, besides going to your next objective or stopping a nearby street crime there is little else to do. There are places of interest to discover, but I found it more fun to happen upon these, rather than seek them out. There are also “hidden packages”, in the form of golden film-reels, to discover around the city – but they are only available in the separate “Free-Roam” mode. I’ve not even tried to find my first one.
What the city does offer is a reasonable amount of Virtual Life. Not apparently as detailed as Shenmue‘s system (where each individual NPC had a home, a job and a daily routine) you do see the same faces popping up all over the place.
An earlier case saw Phelps and his partner being hassled by a drunk outside a shop (I recognised him from Dude, Where’s my Car?). Later on, a street crime enabled me to find out he was actually the owner of that shop (or another shop, maybe) and he was being robbed. Little touches like this make me smile.
Gameplay consists of the following areas:
- Crime Scene Investigation – Your main aim is to find all of the relevant clues in a particular location. Vibration and audio cues signal an undiscovered item, although you can turn this off in the options. I would imagine finding everything that is relevant would be a chore if you did turn it off. Some items require further inspection to discover serial numbers and other identifying marks. Dead victims often conceal items in pockets, along with having marks and bruising on their bodies. Some of the cadavers could be a bit gruesome to those more sensitive, yet the team seems to shy away from the perversity of other titles from Rockstar.
- Interviews / Interrogation – There are many suspects and witnesses lined up for your razor-sharp detective skills; whether they get away from it unscathed is up to you. You have a set of questions available to you, depending on the clues you have obtained, that have a single ‘correct’ answer that you need to get from them. You must read their body language to help you decide how to proceed. Either I’m really bad at this or it’s far more difficult than it sounds.
- Levelling -Up / Intuition Points – Each question you get right, street crime that you solve and landmark that you discover will award you with experience. As you work up to level 20 you are awarded the locations of hidden rare cars, new suits to wear and “intuition points”. These intuition points allow you to either eliminate one of the answers in an interrogation or reveal the locations of all of the clues at a crime scene. You can keep up to 5 at a time. If you connect to the Rockstar Games Social Club you can also effectively “ask the audience”.
- Gunplay – You don’t have access to your gun at all times (Team Bondi doesn’t trust you to behave) but when you do get it out the transition is smooth. You have no visible ammo counter but otherwise think GTA, only better. Probably handling more like Mafia II or Mass Effect 2 (or any other cover-based shooter that isn’t quite Gears of War/Vanquish), the guns are a lot of fun. You can pick up other weapons and ammunition off your fallen adversaries, but you don’t keep them from fight to fight. The pistols feel so right to use, that this is rarely a concern.
- Hand-to-Hand Fighting – Not quite Fight Night or UFC but at least a big step up from GTA. Moves are somewhat automated but you can punch, dodge, grapple and deliver a finishing move. The direction of your attack is generally dictated by your body’s position.
- Driving – An absolute pleasure, apart from occasional flaws/annoyances in the traffic AI. The cars offered are all fairly similar, but there is a range of handling types. Steering is generally easy, far more so than the semi-realistic GTA IV cars. You can also visit remote hidden garages to mess about in more sporty vehicles.
- Street Crimes – Essentially small and short cases that usually boil down to a gunfight, car chase, fist fight or a pursuit on foot. Many of them include a mix of these – for example a gun fight then an on-foot pursuit of the last guy left.
- Non-interactive Cutscenes – Mostly reserved for the start and end of a case, these are well directed and are presented in a 2.35:1 widescreen aspect – but then what cutscenes aren’t these days? All these scenes are rendered in real-time with the same engine as the rest of the game.
As a follow-up to the preview article I wrote a few months ago, much of this review will be comparing L.A. Noire to Shenmue, GTA IV as well as Heavy Rain. The rest of this article is pretty critical, but only because I have so much love for this game.
You can skip to the Summary below if you wish to ignore my further ramblings.
Presumably running on an updated/modified version of the engine used for GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption, this detective story ends up having a lot in common with more linear story-based games than the usual open-world output from Rockstar. If you are expecting a GTA-alike, like RDR, then you can stop all of that thinking now. This is not to say fans of these games won’t enjoy this, just don’t expect to find much of anything as you drive around the city.
My wish was that L.A. Noire would bridge the story and detail-focused detective gameplay of the FREE genre with the large scale of Rockstar’s game engine. Whilst this is largely the case, there is still much to differentiate this game from these two sources. This game is about as linear and refined as both Farenheit and Heavy Rain, although the ability to drive anywhere in the city could lead you to believe otherwise.
The similarities between Shenmue and GTA IV stem mostly from the potential to “muck about” within their respective environments – this was the original seed for my wish to see the two games merged. You will not be able to go shopping or visit clubs or arcades (as with Shenmue and GTA IV) nor talk to every individual (Shenmue). I find it a great shame as this representation of L.A. in 1947 is a pleasure to drive around. There is simply no reason to leave your vehicle, unless you visit a case location or end up destroying it.
Unfortunately, with this aspect almost completed missing from L.A. Noire, the game is a far more structured approach like the two offerings from Quantic Dream.
Speaking of Quantic Dream, David Cage spoke out during the hype for L.A. Noire suggesting that MotionScan (The facial animation capture technology used for this project) was already redundant. That may or may not be the case but to dismiss the work achieved by Team Bondi would be ridiculous. The motion capture (particularly the faces) far exceed the work achieved by any other game – not least Heavy Rain. Nearly every element of the game is realistically populated by these virtually represented actors. For once these are the characters as portrayed by the outstanding cast, rather than the voice-over work and animations of previous games. Even the inter-partner chatter is fully animated to the same detail as the cutscenes.
Yes, the bodies are not up to the same standard as the faces – but at least 80% (by my estimate) of the time this is irrelevant. Small things, like the way people use the stairs, show that they didn’t skimp on the body motion capture either (in comparison to current competitors). Although I would have liked it if taller characters (or bolder men) did the 2-steps stride method rather than the quicky-walkie every step method. Not everyone does that you know!
One aspect where this could be seen as less than stellar is the truth/doubt/lie mechanic. Able to be the most enjoyable and most frustrating experience of the entire game – this unavoidable feature is held back in two parts.
Firstly, although it is easy to see these character’s behaviour, actually translating each actor’s performance as deceptive or truthful is another matter. For the most part, everyone is deceiving you in some way (you are the police and this is a noir tale after all). Unfortunately, translating your intuition to the “correct” answer is easier said than done. Sometimes, a character might not be giving you the whole truth but you need to select true because they aren’t guilty of anything. If you select doubt, they get defensive and don’t reveal any more (no tick for you on that question).
The questions you ask very rarely give you a direct answer, you are usually fishing for other information you weren’t even aware of. If you do doubt their answers you need to make sure you choose doubt or lie correctly. If you have no evidence to back up your point of view, then you need to select doubt. This will be correct (tick for you) but you may not get the actual answer you were looking for. If you choose lie you need to choose the correct evidence to prove they are lying. Sometimes though, you need to prove they are connected to the crime in question, rather than simply proving that the crime happened.
It is often hard to tell what you need to prove, though. If you get any of the details wrong you will usually upset your interviewee and get a cross next to that question, but you won’t know what you did wrong. It is very hard to tell how to proceed and it often seems arbitrary – however if you get everything right it feels like an achievement.
Luckily, because there is no way of retrying an interview apart from a game reset, getting stuff wrong seems to affect little more than your end of case report. You are rated on a 5-star system which factors in: the clues you find, correct answers you receive, as well as the damage to the city and its people’s vehicles and harm to citizens. This does provide a bit of replay value to find new dialogue trees and 5-star all of the cases.
The case structure, in general, is to the detriment of the game. The overarching story’s pace is severely impacted by the stop/start nature of the gameplay.
*Ed’s Tip: make sure you get to the splash-screen for the next case before quitting playing at the end of any case*
There are often inter-case cutscenes (usually related to the story as a whole) that are not shown if you resume or load a case. So the game saves before the cutscene, then loads the game after it. Bloody ridiculous.
The only benefits to the case structure are: that it provides natural drop-in drop-out points in the game, the case introductions and the fact that recovering from game-breaking bugs only needs a restart of the current case. The last one obviously is not really a plus point, only a handy workaround.
This game needed to be play tested. Any claims that this did happen would only show the lacking quality control standards of the people involved. At least 1 case is broken if you do not complete events in a certain order. Whilst it is understandable that scripting logic bugs would arise in an ambitious project such as this – the fact that these remained in the production version is inexcusable. I would find it very hard to believe that these issues would not become apparent with as little as 10 people playing from start to end. I will say,though, that these on their own shouldn’t dissuade you from buying this game. None of the cases are long enough to not be able to put up with a restart, but if you are unlucky enough to have something happen in every case, you won’t be a happy bunny.
One particular example is in the case “Manifest Destiny”. Basically, don’t go to the police station and read the manifest before going to the club. If you do, a vital cutscene that takes place after inspecting the manifest will not occur. The case is then not completable.
You can often ask your partner for help when you are stuck. Although this wasn’t very helpful to me. You use the same button both to ask your partner for help and to talk to witnesses. 3/5 of the occasions I used this function were due to this fact. The other two occasions cover the bug above (I was repeatedly informed to inspect the manifest even though I had found all of the clues) and another occasion in “A Walk in Elysian Fields”, when my partner told me to keep asking around. With only one neighbour to interview, I was surprised to find out that he meant that I should look in the front garden of the man I interviewed. Not very helpful at all.
The story has its weaknesses, though to avoid spoilers I won’t go into details for now. [We will be moving to our own web hosting soon, where we will be able to add hidden-but-revealable spoilers to our content. Something we are unable to do at the moment. I’ll update this section accordingly.]
Story branching in this game is in line with the games in the F.R.E.E. genre rather than the heady highs of Deus Ex or Stalker. Cases can be solved in multiple ways and with varying success (and therefore results). However, nothing carries over between cases. Just like with Shenmue you are often presented with multiple clues that support each other, or take you to the same locations or suspects. Certain locations might be skipped entirely, but you never get stuck due to your decisions. If it was a point-and-click adventure it would be from LucasArts rather than Sierra.
Gunplay is (unsurprisingly) similar to GTA IV – although luckily it seems to work a lot better. There are two auto-lock settings, although turning it off is definitely a good idea. Nothing ever gets crazy like in GTA IV, so there is no need at all to rely on this assisted “quick” targeting. The pistol is accurate, satisfying and fitting, but the ability to pick up rifles, machine guns and shotguns from your dead adversaries is a pleasure too. You can’t just whip your gun out anywhere – gunplay is completely separate. You don’t keep guns between battles and pistol ammo is infinite. You have rechargeable health, which is usually a benefit, although I miss getting a hotdog from a street vendor.
Your partner and fellow police officers are generally useless in gun battles. They will sometimes get a few kills but they generally just run straight at the enemy. On another lighter note though, your hat can be shot off (or knocked off in a fight) – an extremely amusing feature.
Other action scenes are covered by hand-to-hand combat, which again is greatly improved from GTA IV. Apart from having to hold L2/Left Trigger to target your opponent, this is an absolute pleasure. Similar to the abilities from True Crime, this is not a patch on the Virtua Fighter-alike gameplay of Shenmue. The gunplay more than makes up for this, and its simplicity makes it far more accessible than the complicated structure of the 1999 Dreamcast title. You also get car-based chase sequences, where your partner will fire at the criminals trying to escape you (again straight-outta-GTA). On-foot chase sequences are let down only by the fact that your run speed is exactly the same as everyone else’s – this makes closing the gap hard. If you can get close enough you can mash X (or A on the Xbox) to get a bit of a speed boost to catch up and tackle them. Other times you are able to aim (and not fire) at the criminal for about 5 seconds to “fire in the air” and somehow scare them into stopping and putting their hands up. You can shoot them, but if you need to bring them in alive, even a shot to the leg will kill them (i.e. case failed). Often, an on-foot chase will result in a car chase but this never seems to happen the other way.
The “Street Crimes” are L.A. Noire‘s answer to the random encounters of GTA IV. These are far more satisfying (though numerous and somewhat repetitive) in this form and are able to be attempted mid-case. Failure of these (as with other failures) is convenient – unlike GTA IV. At worst, you will have to watch the previous cutscene again, but you are most often placed right back where you died (or very near). The only time I was really forced to replay more than I wanted to was if I quit the game to retry an interview. Also, if you struggle with an action scene, you can skip after three deaths/failures. Although I didn’t become frustrated enough to use it when I did mess up (unlike GTA IV, where I would have paid extra for this feature!)
Cutscenes can be paused! Probably the best improvement to the GTA IV engine, although you now can’t skip the long scenes (doh!). A few scenes can be skipped but they are usually short and incidental.
As I mentioned in my preview, QTEs (or Quick Time Events for those that don’t know) are a big part of the F.R.E.E. genre. L.A. Noire doesn’t have a single one! What it does seem to feature, though, is a more streamlined approach to its on-foot chases and action. In general, all you need to do is hold forward. For the most part, the game auto-corrects your direction (I would say up to about 30°), especially when you are climbing up and down staircases. It is usually done subtly, and if you do steer it, it doesn’t overcompensate – so that’s good. In general, I think the game balances the cinematic and interactive elements very well.
The only Heads-Up-Display elements in this game are: the map/compass whilst driving and text (signalling notes added to your notebook and announcing a location and time as you arrive to a scene of interest). The locations are typed out as if from a typewriter and each addition to your notebook is signalled by a click of a pen. Lovely touches. There are also tip and tutorial type items, but they can be disabled in the options.
The notebook is like what I wished the notepad in Shenmue would have been.
It collects all of your clues and leads for your current case, providing a quick reference for you, as well as for questioning in interviews. It also provides a quick and easy method to set your next location to drive to.
Item inspection is also straight from the school of Shenmue. Your controls often switch to a hand control scheme, so that you can choose the appropriate item or area to inspect. Once picked up, you also look over the items you are holding in a nigh-on identical way to Yu Suzuki‘s masterpiece. All that’s missing is the occasional “Oh, what’s this?” or “I have this already” and we’d be back in Sega’s epic. Phelps instead opts to basically insult us for looking at inane objects, rather than make himself the fool like Ryo does – the arrogant prick!
One aspect thankfully carried over from GTA, is the straight-in tutorial. You start the game just as you are called out to a crime scene. You are then given monkey-see monkey-do pointers to guide you through your first case and the majority of the game’s features. Luckily, it doesn’t take hours until you can do everything, like it does in GTA: San Andreas and IV, although the range of activities on offer is far smaller here.
Driving about the city is mostly pleasant. If you have driven around Liberty City you get the general idea. In particular, the noise of tyres in the rain is well executed.
Each car is one from a set of 95. As you unlock them you can see them displayed in a Car Showroom – accessible from the main menu. This is separated into sections and is another nice touch that I hope will be added to the GTA series. However, road-side debris is generally a lot tougher and many are impassable – this felt a little out of date.
Traffic seems exactly the same as in GTA IV with two main caveats:
- NO INDICATORS! With traffic lights and the ability to drive sensibly (as well as the prerogative to do that as a police officer) why not have usable indicators to immerse yourself further. Maybe then the other cars will be able to work out my intentions and not get in the way!
- Sirens! Always poor in the GTA series, you would expect a little more, seeing as you are meant to spend 90% of your time in a police car. The best that other cars can muster to get out of your way, is to pull into the outside lane – even if you are speeding down the outside lane yourself. If the cars are stationary, they will indicate to move but won’t do it until the lights have changed or whatever. Sirens mean “get out of the way!” Traffic is generally stupid at junctions, it usually stops and remains in your way rather than continue forward and get out of the way, if you do get too close.
If it gets too frustrating you can at least get your parter to drive to locations for you (hold Triangle or Y). Usually, you warp straight there, but if they have something to talk about then you will see that play out first. Another carry over from GTA is that these dialogue scenes are usually cut off early as they are generally longer than the time taken to travel from point to point.
Although you have a mini-map, there is no GPS-style route tracking. You can instead ask your partner for directions – very in keeping with the time period. You can set or remove destinations from the pause screen map as well as from your notebook.
There is a free-roam mode titled “The Streets of L.A.” that can be played according to each desk, with appropriate street crimes, but there is nothing to do beyond what is available in-game, beside finding hidden film reels. Pointless.
Mafia II might be a closer comparison in the way that it is GTA-like with more focus on story and less focus on freedom. Both games also essentially have nothing to do in their apparent open-world city. Although Mafia II provides a much more brutal world from that other side of the law.
An unlockable “criminal” mode would have been appreciated, as the city itself is wonderful to explore. But with nothing to actually do, there is no incentive. Although you can apparently explore the locations featured in the storyline, why would you,without a pool mini-game to play or food to buy in a shop. Also, apart from a few obvious exceptions, the general public cannot be conversed with. They do talk behind your back though: “Ooo, isn’t that that cop that did that thing?” and “He’s the man wot done that fing” (Quotes may be inaccurate) – in my opinion they do it too often really, especially in a crowded area. Shenmue‘s virtual life is still unbeaten.
The game frequently saves for you, so you rarely have to retrace your steps, although you can’t create a manual save. If you retry a case you are treated to a new and separate save, much like in Heavy Rain. Be aware that you can’t open the menu when the game is saving, so you may have to wait a few seconds to check the map or whatever. The options also house a complete log of the game’s dialogue so far. This is presented as if from a reel of an automated typewriter, and is in keeping with the game’s style.
I am thankful that the game doesn’t auto-load what it thinks is your most recent save, à la GTA IV, and instead features a menu. Otherwise, loading is only evident when you take a huge leap across the city, rather than travelling around in real-time.
The audio experience is potentially the best achieved yet in cinematic gaming, not as raw as the Battlefield series, but emotional and flexible all the same. Realistic environmental audio merged with a car stereo has been explored by GTA since the beginning, what L.A. Noire adds – with apparent ease – is an underlying score. Used sparingly, though obviously on script, the score allows a single thread tying everything together. You can’t change the radio station – but there really is no need to.
In summary: I would recommend this game to anybody who likes a bit of sleuthing or simply wants to enjoy “L.A. Confidential – The Game”, which this essentially boils down to.
Fans of cinematic and story-driven games should take a look. Those expecting a puzzler may be a little disappointed, but due to the game allowing you to get through on the bare minimum, there is potential longevity in playing the story ‘better’. The 5-Star ranking for cases provides an incentive to try again, but if you treat it like a score attack, the re-playability will soon cease – as you learn all of the correct decisions. Probably best enjoyed again after at least 6 months to a year, and played all the way through, so you can (hopefully) enjoy the journey once more.
The graphics are top-notch and are only brought down by texture level-of-detail popup issues and occasional slowdown– a decently ported PC release would quash these problems. The voice acting, sound effects, soundtrack and score are all exemplary. However, despite coming out of the Rockstar stables, this is not an action game – there are action scenes but they will not be enough to keep adrenaline junkies satisfied.
*A huge credit to the actor who plays him, Adam Harrington
All screenshots are taken from the PS3 Version.
You can view my original preview article here: