For the one or two of you reading this review who might not have any idea what this game is about, I will give you a quick primer before we dive in. L.A. Noire is a detective thriller game that is set in 1947 Los Angeles. You play as Cole Phelps, a WWII veteran who received the silver star in the course of his duties. Phelps joins the LAPD after returning home to his wife and children, and the events of the game unfold from there.
The gameplay is broken up into three major disciplines: action, investigation and interrogation. Action is something that any fan of Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption will be familiar with: shoot-outs, high-speed chases, etc. Investigation involves Phelps and his partner walking around the scene of a crime, or the house of a person of interest perhaps, looking for clues to aid in the investigation. Interrogation is where the amazingly-detailed MotionScan technology, which was used to create super-realistic faces of all the characters, filming them doing their lines and translating them to 3D models for the game, really shines. In order to tell if that bum you’re rousting is telling the truth or not, you need to look for clues. Presence or absence of eye contact when they provide an answer is very telling, as is any nervous habit, like scratching behind their ear or biting their fingernails. The most important part of the interrogation proceedings is being able to pick up on slight cues from the person you’re interrogating.
Combining all three of these elements you come up with a game that just…. works. It’s a beautiful mix of using your brain at a crime scene, using your brawn in a fist-fight, and using your cunning to outsmart a suspect and get a confession out of it. What you end up with here is the most unique gaming experience you have ever had to date, and likely it will be the only one of its kind that you will ever have. I’m not sure if Team Bondi or Rockstar have thought about a sequel, but really I feel as though the only way we’ll get this kind of experience again is if we get a direct sequel. So, that said, let’s tackle some of the standard review criteria and see what we come up with.
The graphics of the game are jaw-dropping, even with some minor graphical glitches along the way. It goes without saying that the MotionScan technology that brought us the super-detailed and realistic faces of our characters is a huge pay-off for the narrative. I was initially worried that we would be delving a bit into the “Uncanny Valley” where the faces would look almost too realistic and therefore be alienating, but that simply was not the case. It was easy to get lost in the 1947 Los Angeles that was created, and that is largely due to the facial animation system in play here. The car models looks stunning, the buildings have a good amount of detail on them, and everything seems to come together to present a great graphical package. One frustration that I had, however, was the tendency for assets to pop-in or take a while to load, and the frame-rate takes a hit every once in a while. This might be due to the fact that so much of the data is read from the disc, as my disc seems to spin a lot throughout the game. However these items are not nearly large enough to eclipse the feat of artistry that is the graphical presentation of L.A. Noire.
The audio composition, from music to sound effects to voice acting, is top-notch as is expected. The sultry jazz music, the fierce cracking and popping of firearms going off, and the engine roaring, tire-squealing action of taking a way-too-heavy car around a corner at speed all serve to immerse you all the more in the game universe. The voice acting deepens the experience all the more. It helps that you are seeing the face of the actors who are doing the voice-overs – heck, I’m not sure I would even call it a voice over though… Basically you’re watching their performance! The soundtrack is pitch-perfect and serves to lay the best background audio canvas that I have experienced in a game for quite some time. All said, the audio direction in the game is definitely one of its strongest points.
In terms of gameplay, there are a bunch of hits, and just a few misses in my opinion. There is not much to go into detail with while investigating and interrogating, but there is one stand-out feature that I like. Team Bondi/Rockstar made it a point to keep the game as HUD-less as possible, so you find interesting methods of player interaction involved as a result. For instance, if you are looking at a murder victim, you can inspect different parts of the body to look for clues. Rather than use a cursor of some kind, you simply direct Cole Phelps’ arm towards the body part you want to inspect. Also, when you indicate which body part you want to inspect, or if you pick up a piece of evidence, you can use the right analog stick to manipulate the object or body part, rotating it around to look for clues. It helps foster the sense of immersion. Your job is not done simply when you walk up to a clue and hit A.
When driving a car, initially I had some concerns. If I am driving a huge boat of a car down the road, I do not expect it to be squirrel-ly when I first start a turn. It just seemed like the cars were a little too quick to respond when turning, like they were lighter than I thought they were going to be. However, when I had more time behind the virtual wheel, it seemed to be less of a concern, and I was able to use the hand brake to kick the rear of the car out and power-slide around corners. So while it may be initially frustrating to some users, I would urge you to be patient and learn to anticipate the way the cars handle – you’ll be rewarded. If you are expecting GTA IV controls and physics for the cars, you will not have the experience you are anticipating, and that’s not a bad thing, either.
I found myself consistently being pleasantly surprised by the little details in the game. If you are in a fist-fight and your hat gets knocked off (keep in mind there’s an achievement for making it through a fight with your hat on!), you can walk over to it and Phelps will grab it and put it back on. I love the way they solved for the fact that in 1947 there was no GPS in cars. Rather than painting a line in your mini-map in the corner for you to follow along, you simply get an indicator of where the waypoint is along the outer circle of the map. You just need to learn the roads and get there as you know how. However, if you find yourself turned around, simply hit X and your partner will give you your direction for the next intersection. So he will say something like “Take the next left” or “Straight on through this next intersection.” It’s a nice design element that both serves to get you directions if you need them, and provides you with a bit more of a relational backdrop with Phelps and his partner.
I could literally go on for hours and hours, but I will sum things up here: L.A. Noire is an experience that everyone should play, providing they are mature enough to take it. No punches were pulled in exposing the gritty nature of the criminal justice system in old-time L.A. Grisly murders are explained in clinically-exhaustive detail and accompanied by thorough examination of (sometimes completely-nude) victims. Truly this is the most mature game that Rockstar has been a part of. In the end it is something that will go down in history as one of the most innovative games of our time, and for good reason. You are simply supposed to have this game in your collection, if you consider yourself a gamer by any definition of the word. Seriously, stop reading this and go out to buy the game. What are you waiting for?