- Jul 15, 2009
[HEADING=1]L.A. Noire Review[/HEADING]
With a pedigree of brilliant criminal tales such as Grand Theft Auto 3, San Andreas, and Vice City, Rockstar has proven they can do bad, but can they do the good guy equal justice? With last year?s behemoth Red Dead: Redemption, Rockstar showed a different side with the likeable bandit of grey area, John Marston. The company?s arc from criminals to cowboys to cops finally reaches the final stop with LAPD?s case man Cole Phelps and L.A. Noire. Developed by the Australian Team Bondi and produced by the legendary Rockstar Games, L.A. Noire had the potential to revolutionize the cop genre as Red Dead did for westerns. With elegant design, the best facial animations ever, and a winding narrative, L.A. Noire earns its stripes as a fantastic game.
The narrative winds from being a lowly patrolman just back from the war to the biggest hotshot cop in administrative vice. As Cole runs through the paces collecting evidence and questioning suspects, he slowly earns the recognition of his peers and ascends the ladder to traffic, homicide, vice, and then to the infamous arson desk. Each desk has a contained story with a quickly developed partner for Phelps to ask for clues from, which is a subtle way to find a path when stuck. These characters all return throughout the tale to help - or in some instances, hurt Phelps. The homicide, vice, and arson desks are especially well written and deal with interesting cases, which affect the overall branching narrative. Homicide mainly deals with the Dahlia and Lipstick killings. The end mission is mentally stimulating, adrenaline filled, and a perfect close to the longest desk of the game at a good six to seven hours. Next is vice, which is the superstar?s domain in Hollywood, where vice deals with drugs and the robbery of an army surplus ship. Here is where the larger story begins to affect the self-contained stories, ending with the scapegoating of Cole to bury the corruption of the LAPD, which leads to his detail in the infamous arson unit. Although the arson unit missions are the least interesting in the game, it makes sense given the setup of the narrative and the eventual switch in perspective for the better. Throughout the game, Phelps has a deep sense of shame over the medal he won in World War II and his fellow marine Jack Kelso disdains him for the poor leadership Phelps displayed in the war. Eventually though, they must unite to bring down the corruption of the LAPD and many other establishments resulting in one of the most anticlimactic endings in a Rockstar game to date. Although, the ending left me emotionally drained and begging for more from many of the characters. Even after the 20 plus hour redemption tale of Phelps ending in new Rockstar fashion, all I could do was want more.
One of the main reasons the narrative works so well is the characters. Each character in L.A. Noire has a unique voice and face due to the facial technology Rockstar created for this game. Reminiscent of Heavy Rain?s level of facial detail, however, Rockstar destroys Quantic Dream?s epic with the voice acting associated with the immaculate faces and the witty and well-written script. This level of detail does not end with the faces; the graphics and aesthetics are also breath taking. This level of detail builds immersion along with the lack of a H.U.D. and other small things, which all help to engross the player in this atmospheric game. Although, there are pixilation issues occasionally, which distract from the scene at hand. Another small item that boosts atmosphere immensely is the soundtrack. Bondi chose L.A. Noire?s soundtrack perfectly, matching the period and even introducing one song, during the credits, which demonstrates the quintessence of trumpet based noire music. Overall, the graphics, voice acting, music, immersion, and atmosphere are all fantastic examples of why Rockstar is the king of keeping players coming back for more.
With such a beefy narrative that takes at least 20 hours to complete without many street crimes, which are side missions, sightseeing the realistically massive City of Angels, collecting film reels, et al. the mechanics had to shine. If they failed, the entire game would bottom out. Luckily, they are tight and especially slick in the places that kill open world games. The driving is tight. I will repeat that, the driving in a Rockstar produced game is tight and works well. Unless Cole instructs his partner to drive, the player spends a lot of time on the road, be it chasing suspects and spinning them out, driving from one place of interest to another, or just enjoying the thriving world full of people eager not to have Cole Phelps at their door. The chases all fit within the continuity of the period and feel amazing when the wheels finally pop and the suspect?s car does two barrel-rolls into a tree. Car chases are not the only way to pursue a suspect in this game, though. There are foot chases with Phelps scaling pipes and hoping from rooftops to chase a fleeing suspect. Conversely, Phelps may choose to stake out and tail suspects for additional information before taking them down. Both of these chase types work in stride with the car chases giving an adrenaline-filled ride before the requisite questioning begins. Assuming the suspects come willingly, the chase ends the scene, but sometimes they like to go out with a bang. Luckily, the shooting and cover mechanics work well. They are nothing special, very similar to a tighter version Red Dead without the deadeye mechanic, but they are functional and never distract from the experience. Phelps has a trusty pistol to help his cause and can pick up other weapons such as a shotgun or Thompson to finish off a hard group of enemies. In the case that Phelps takes fire while on the job, the screen loses the vibrant colors and goes to grey and white. If he stays away from the fire long enough, color returns as his health regenerates. Although, the aesthetic damage stays until the next case, which helps restore some of the lost immersion from regenerating health. If the enemy is a tough guy and fights Cole in an old game of fisticuffs, the mechanics are simple and satisfying. The fighting, shooting, driving, and cowering mechanics all work well and feel satisfying, which gives L.A. Noire more than just a story to lean upon.
All this shooting, driving, and storytelling make a damn good game, but not necessarily a great cop game. What sets L.A. Noire apart from great games and into a great cop game is the interrogation and journal mechanics that are like nothing else in gaming today. Phelps arrives at a crime scene and begins searching for clues by walking around to items and inspecting them. Inspected at the right angle, these seemingly useless items become clues logged in his trusty journal. The journal breaks down into case objectives, people of interest, places of interest, and clues. It is an essential reference throughout the game and quickly becomes Cole?s favorite or least favorite item in the world. The reason deals with interrogations. When Cole has a suspect, witness, or person of interest sitting and ready for questioning, the real game begins. Interrogation involves Cole asking a question from his journal and the perspective killer, arsonist, et al responds. The key is that the game does not allow the suspect to repeat themselves; thus, Phelps has one chance to catch some facial movement or tonal change to yell bull. This is why the new facial technology is so crucial and equally impressive. Every twitch, eye roll, lip tremor, ear wiggle, and eyelash flutter appears clearly for the player and Phelps to notice. If the player?s gut says they are not lying, press the truth button, and hope for the correct response, which the notebook indicates immediately ? which detracts from the experience slightly. Next, if they are lying, but there is not proof in that notebook, doubt is the way to go. Usually Cole will try to ruffle the suspect?s feathers for more information, which is entertaining and sometimes jarring when the actor flips from cool to yelling instantly. Finally, have them caught in a pickle with proof, then press lie and watch as they deny it and Cole shatters their frail little lie. The entire process becomes instinctual after a point and interviews flow quickly. They start easy, but by the end challenge the player?s gut to a wrestl
ing match that feels like a boot to heart when the gut is wrong. Wrong choices can even lead to incorrect convictions and longer routes around to solve a case. If gut and mind disagree, there is a lifeline called intuition. Intuition allows the player to remove one incorrect choice in interviews or poll how many people playing picked what answer. While searching for clues, intuition can show all the clues in a given area. Although, intuition is not free, players earn experience points for well-executed interviews, finding hidden items, completing street crime missions, and finding certain pieces of evidence. Every few levels, the reward is an additional intuition point, making them a reward not to squander for later in the game. The biggest pitfall of interrogation, besides the journal pointing out the correct or incorrect questions, is that sometimes it is not fun. It is nerve-racking as hell sometimes and the thought of screwing up weighs heavily as there is no replaying the interviews. Although it is a realistic feeling and adds an extra layer onto the already mounting immersion, it can cause a sense of panic and relief over a good guess rather than fun. The experience of playing a noire style detective breaking a murderer?s alibi with hard evidence found by searching a dumpster is one of the most satisfying moments in gaming, it is not something to miss.
L.A. Noire is not a game without flaws, such as freezing and crashing here or there, breaking immersion and flow for disk swapping, pixel issues, or unoriginal gunplay, but its flaws only shine because Bondi polished the rest of the game to a mirror shine. Everything from driving to locking up killers works masterfully throughout the game and defies a barren genre. This game is not a cop game, nor a third person shooter, driving Miss Daisy simulator, or any known genre; it is art. Through five years of hard work, Team Bondi and Rockstar Games created a game only rivaled by Red Dead: Redemption. There are comparisons that one can make, it has the same linear sandbox style as Mafia 2, the same shooting as Red Dead, the same witty banter as Vice City. However, in the end, L.A. Noire transcends all the comparisons and earns its rightful pedestal on the pantheon of immaculate games, which we will see later in the year without doubt. If it is not apparent yet, this game deserves the recognition of all gamers, be it for story, mechanics, innovation, originality, robust characters, breath-taking visuals, high-brow humor, or black humor, this game is the must play of 2011 thus far.