L.A. Noire — Review

L.A. Noire was developed by Team Bondi and published by Rockstar Games in 2011. It is a neo-noir action/adventure game set in Los Angeles in 1947 and follows the case adventures of Cole Phelps, a recently discharged marine, as he pursues a career in law enforcement following his time in service during World War II. For someone such as me, this is a massive-scale game, encompassing three discs for the Xbox 360 (I am only accustomed to one-disc games) and eight square miles of the L.A. landscape, as you are capable of driving from one end of the city to the other.

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The story is divided into many layers. Overall, this game is the tale of Cole as he pushes his way through the ranks and makes a name for himself in the LAPD. He starts out as a beat cop and works his way up through several divisions: patrol, traffic, homicide, vice, and arson. Within that scope are several large cases that span multiple divisions, most notably Cole tracking down the Black Dahlia killer and dealing with army surplus morphine that has somehow made its way into the hands of junkies. To top it off, most of the large-scale cases tie in to one another to paint a picture of a large-scale crime, unknowingly gripping the residents of Los Angeles. The grand cases are divided up into multiple individual assignments that not only stand well on their own, but when combined, paint an overall picture of the next feather Phelps desires to put into his cap. Each assignment is set up in a cut scene cleverly designed to give the player an outside perspective of the case without giving away pertinent details. There are also plenty of cut scenes showing Cole during his time with the marines that provides exposition and backstory for not only Phelps himself but also the overall arcing cases, including two other key marines in this game: Jack Kelso and Courtney Sheldon. Additional back story is provided via newspapers that can be found during gameplay that momentarily break gameplay to give the player omniscient details unknown to Cole.

The gameplay for each case is divided into several aspects: driving, investigation, interviews, interrogation, fights, suspect chasing (both on foot and while driving), and shootouts. Puzzle-solving is another aspect, but is rare. The vast majority of the cases deal with murders, but some of them tackle parole violators, domestic disputes, and insurance swindles. Investigation is all about finding clues, whether examining a crime scene or perusing a ledger for information; all clues and evidence are noted in your case book for future reference and use. The more clues and evidence you discover the greater your chances for achieving a five star rating by the end of the case. Next is the interview process, where you speak to various witnesses and suspects in order to glean necessary information such as leads and motive. The interview is expertly-handled, requiring you to determine whether someone is being truthful or deceitful by observing their facial expressions and body language and choosing either Truth, Lie, or Doubt. If you decide to call an interviewee a liar, though, you must select a piece of evidence you acquired earlier from your casebook to back up your claim or that line of questioning will fall flat. The more lines of questioning you get right, the better your chances of getting a five star rating. After the interview there is sometimes a chase and/or fight scene where you have to nab the suspect. Once they are taken into custody you return to the police station to begin the interrogation process in order to obtain a confession. Interrogations are handled exactly as interviews and, if you are interrogating multiple suspects, you must decide which one to charge for the murder. Pinning who the game considers being the “correct” suspect further aids in getting a five star rating. This rating is also affected by the driving stages, taking into consideration any property damage or injuries you may have caused.

Throughout the course of the game are forty side quests called Street Crimes that appear at certain times of day and are organized by department, unlocked with each solved case. Street Crimes are activated by pressing a button to respond to dispatch alerts while driving around during the main game or free roam and mainly consist of armed robberies resulting in shootouts. Others are divided among suspect chasing (both on foot and while driving) and hostage situations.lanoire-1

There are collectibles galore that add to the game’s overall completion percentage. Aside from the newspapers there are 95 vehicles (15 of which are hidden) to unlock merely by entering the car and running the engine. All unlocked vehicles can be viewed in the vehicle showroom via the main menu. Driving close to any of the 30 landmarks unlocks them; you can view them from the map screen. There are also 50 golden film reels scattered about the entire city, completely off the beaten path. You could play the entire game without ever stumbling upon a single one of them.

There are many great aspects of this game. The voice work is top notch, the animation of an interviewee awaiting your response is fluent (though some tend to have a visible jump at the beginning), and the progression during each case is logical and reasonable. My favorite feature is examining the crime scenes for evidence and clues. There are also some comedic moments, though they never trample upon the game’s serious tone. The game also incorporates real life period-specific songs over the radio and two period-related radio shows. In fact, the entire look of the environment—from buildings to cigarette packs to billboard advertisements—right down to the smallest detail feels authentic.

But no game is without imperfections. When you are engaging in fisticuffs, you have to hold down a trigger button in order to fight, despite the fact that you are unable to do anything else until the fight is over. This makes the fight mode unnecessarily complicated as there is no good reason to have to hold down an extra button just to throw a punch or grapple someone. Also the player is not given the option to reassign action buttons to their comfort.

There are two maps you deal with in this game: the main map and the mini-map. The main map covers the entire city of L.A. and denotes landmarks, destinations, and Street Crimes. My only gripe about it is that you have to go through the Pause menu in order to enter the map and exit back to the game, adding an unnecessary extra step when it could very easily be assigned to another button. As you drive, the mini-map appears in the lower left-hand corner of the screen and marks denotations for destinations and Street Crimes, but because it shows only a very small fraction of the main map, the destination icons always appear to be closer than they are. Every time you are rounding a corner and thinking you are almost to the destination, the icon jumps away from you, causing you to realise you are farther away than you thought, which is quite frustrating.

Speaking of driving, the steering controls are lacking. While manageable, you never have complete control as precision movements are almost impossible. When you find yourself ever-so-slightly veering off course and you attempt to correct yourself, you will either move the thumbstick so slightly that you will not affect the game at all or you will move it enough to the point where the car shoots off too quickly in the direction you are indicating and most likely you will careen out of control. And it may be just my imagination, but it seems that the more objects you crash into, the more there will be for you to crash into as you continue to drive around.

The chase scenes, while a welcome addition, can be very frustrating, due mainly to the conditions mentioned in the last paragraph. Because of them, you have a sense of urgency and great stress for trying to get through the chase with perfection as any crash will slow you down and fill you with fear that you are about to fail the case. If you have stress management issues or yell at video games, the car chases are not for you, especially if you live with others. Thankfully, the foot races are not as tense, though they have their share of difficulties, especially if the fleeing suspect is far enough ahead of you that he can climb up a pipe or ladder to reach a rooftop without you seeing him doing so. As the mini-map only shows two dimensions, finding out where he went and how he got there will leave you with enough confusion that you will fail the case because he got away.

Another problem I have with this game is with the shootouts. First, there are just too many of them when you take the main game and side missions into count. One could also argue that there are too many murder cases, but at least investigating a crime scene will never end in Cole’s death! It seems like the game designers took the easy way out—and given the alleged horrible conditions they worked under, I cannot really say I blame them…but I can blame the game! Also, while the reticule you are given always points to an enemy the moment you come out from cover, the reticule’s position does not mean you can automatically start shooting, for if the enemy is behind cover as well, you have to manually adjust your aim, which can leave you severely injured or killed due to others shooting at you if you take the necessary time to do so. However, at least the game is kind enough to let you know how often you are getting shot by fading the color to black and white for its health indication.

lanoire-3Interviews are a real pain. As mentioned earlier, you have to read the interviewee to determine if they are being truthful or not. However, the game gives no instructions on how to read facial expressions or body language, so hopefully you are already good at that! Calling someone out on a lie is easy enough when you have the evidence to throw in their face, but for the other two-thirds of the time you find yourself debating on whether you should select Truth or Doubt, especially as the simple names of the selections will not tell you how Cole will react to the person’s statement for you to better decide. This is the kind of game that you get the strategy guide for and never allow it to leave your side, especially because cut scenes cannot be skipped, which is one of the worst video game sins there are. If you decide to restart an entire case over and over again in order to perfect your interviewing skills, you will have to sit though every opening cut scene that case has. Get the strategy guide so you will only have to do them once!

Speaking of Cole, it is difficult to sympathise with him. While he proves time and again that he is an excellent case worker, the man himself is an introvert and firmly believes in a separation of work and home, disliking to talk about one while at the other. As we only ever see him at work for the vast majority of the game, we cannot understand what is going on in his head. At one point Cole begins to engage in questionable behavior that eventually lands him in hot water at both work and home. As we are never made aware of his thoughts outside of his job, I was unable to understand why he was engaging in such conduct (which is never explained) and was therefore left quite confused—and this is coming from another introvert! You do not always play as Cole Phelps. As with Shadow of the Templars, expect to be lurched back to reality every time the switch is made, which is significantly pronounced as you spend three-quarters of the game playing as Cole before you suddenly find yourself taking on the role of Jack Kelso. The first time it happened, I figured I was watching a cut scene, so when it came time to play as Kelso I just sat there for about 30 seconds wondering what was going on. Thankfully, though, you only bounce back and forth one time each.

Finally, the story is just too big. The layers of overlapping cases, the intricacies of every minute detail, and how the cases affect each other to create a monumental story arc where the crowning glory cases fit together into an even larger scheme is rife with superlative and imaginative recital that it is destined to be one of the greatest video game concoctions ever recounted! I just wish I could appreciate that! Distant association through shared details form a good number of the binding threads that holds the grand scheme storyline together. In order to fully comprehend all of what is happening requires multiple viewings, which is extremely difficult to do as this is a video game and not a movie or novel. Even remembering how the individual cases link together is a struggle of Sisyphean proportions because there are so many of them. The cases that do affect each other do not unfold one right after the other so the player is unable to retain the necessary details. Our primary goal is to just make our way from case to case, which means we completely forget about the previous case once we start a new one. Unlike Cole, who has enough time in-game to retain and process all of the information, we the players are banging though these cases one right after the other, so when Cole calls back to a case we have already completed we have no idea what he is talking about. I have really tried to take my time with this game to observe and remember all of the subtle nuances that make up the great arc so I could give it the accolades it very clearly deserves, but I was woefully unsuccessful; there is just too much going on for me to be able to fully appreciate what all Team Bondi and Rockstar have done here. As the main story in and of itself takes a week of constant playing just to get through, I have only played this game four times since its release and that is not nearly enough playthrough to comprehend everything that is going on to justly articulate it all. Even though you see where it all ends up, figuring out how it got there will be one of the greatest undertakings of your life. However, what it all builds up to is very anticlimactic, so thankfully the driving force of the game is Cole’s story.

All in all, this has definitely been one of the greater games I have ever played and would highly recommend it to anyone. L.A. Noire has also been released as a Complete Edition, with all previously released downloadable content from the game added in, which consists of three additional cases, clothing, and weapons incorporated into the game. As far as I am concerned the game is long enough as it is, but if you want everything, the Complete Edition is for you.

LA Noire is available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC.

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