PlayStation 3 | Xbox 360
L.A. Noire Review
Review By Grizz @ 11:17pm 16/05/11
Shrewd detective types will have already spotted that L.A. Noire lacks the words "Grand", "Theft" or "Auto" in its title, thereby making any comparison between the two a futile line of investigation. Granted, when placed alongside one another in a line-up, both games share suspicious similarities: they revel in free-wheeling cityscapes, gat action and the swapping of cars like underpants. But grill L.A. Noire for an hour and this canary will sing a different song, revealing a modus operandi that shares traits with PC adventure titles like Police Quest.
There's also the matter of tone to consider. Protagonist Detective Cole Phelps isn’t the typical Rockstar hood that sports the sort of civic-mindedness that’d make Alex De Large look like a Rotarian. Not only is Phelps a WWII war hero, but he's a by-the-book pillar of the policing community - a good cop in a very, very bad town.
He certainly knows how to typewrite with a Thompson, but your ability to read a criminal's face and to Phoenix Wright their lies with contradicting evidence will be your best weapons here. Every chase sequence, vehicular shenanigan, gunfight or punch-up in the game bespeaks of AAA polish, but ultimately they’re secondary concerns. If you do want a bit more adrenalin there’s the option to responding to forty odd 'street crime' radio dispatches. Otherwise, uncoordinated players are given the option to skip any campaign-related action sequence if they choke three times.
We see this hand-holding as a sensible way to prevent bottlenecking for the more cerebral-minded folk, though we suspect there'll be whinges over the design choice voiced from the red cordial crowd. Their solution is obvious: if it offends you, exercise some restraint and don't use it.
Though the action in L.A. Noire is mustard, it's spread on noticeably thinner than most other Rockstar productions. As surprising as it sounds, this never felt like an issue, as Team Bondi’s vision is classy enough not to shoe horn in arbitrary action for the hell of it, and is an interactive noir(e) movie that proves to be utterly enthralling in its own right. MotionScan -- Bondi's truly groundbreaking face capture technique -- is the real deal and a true landmark moment in gaming. Offering perfect lip-synch, Hollywood scripting and emotionally nuanced performances - the depth of the characterisations had our inner-child gobsmacked in sheer, evolutionary wonderment. We’ve all come such a long, long way from shitly-acted FMV, or faces so low-poly they looked like a bad origami nightmare. The ‘games are art’ crowd have a full-house up their sleeve with this.
We’d be remiss though, if we didn’t mention that Phelps is quite a slow-burn character, at least when he’s compared to Niko Belic, Max Payne or John Marston . He's well worth the time investment however, and as he’s warming up the supporting cast of dizzy dames, passive-aggressive partners and war veteran sociopaths keep this la la land mesmerising. The set design, lighting and era authenticity is also pitch-perfect and we watched as a few times L.A. Noire effortlessly draw in non-gaming mates who happened past the TV.
Much like a good HBO series it's incredibly addicting watching the twists unfold as you connect the dots between physical evidence and felon. Phelps' tumultuous career whisks him to multiple LAPD departments too, and has you fully interacting with a wide variety of heinous crime scenes in cool pre-CSI ways. And we say ‘pre-CSI’, because Phelps has a hilarious habit o scooping up smoking guns with bugger all care for fingerprints. What makes the sleuthing extra (possibly morbidly) appealing is that many of the murders are co-opted from real-life police files. You’re even given the chance to tackle the notorious and grisly Black Dahlia serial murders.
The 'get out of action' free card offered in the action scenes is obviously there to minimise the frustration for the puzzle-minded gamer. Impatient action junkies are offered a similar courtesy in the form of intuition points that may be earned and spent on un-stumping a minor part of your investigation: be it pointing out evidence, or narrowing down your conversation guesses. The biggest challenge available for hardcore gamers isn't mere progression; rather it's in getting full marks for every case by picking the ‘tells’ of your quarry, and then discovering the optimal permutations of inquiry and procedure. L.A. Noire also lets you replay cases at any point (in case you slap the cuffs on the wrong guy) and is non-linear in the sense that leads and arrests can be pursued in any order you see fit. That said, the overarching plot and chapter endings will turn up the same conclusions and career shifts.
Other player aids are much more subtle, such as the deployment of smooth jazz during evidence searches. Musical cues are blended into the exposition music and point out interactive hotspots, even aurally differentiating between fresh clues and ones you’ve previously seen. Once you’ve exhausted all avenues in an area, you’ll get a handy ‘all-clear’ flourish as well. It's masterfully slick ideas like this which will keep your ears as well as your eyes pricked to attention, and it has the added benefit of keeping the HUD almost non-existent.
The OCD level of detail present in the closer environments boggle the mind, as do the expansive streets of your 1940's sandbox. Full credit where credit is due: this is the most detailed Rockstar city yet created and it never stops feeling like a genuinely lived-in space. Even still, beyond some collectibles and hidden cars to unlock, Team Bondi has overshot for era accuracy, but some may feel they’ve under-delivered on incidental interactivity. Phelps, for example, never catches up with his family and friends, nor does he pursue any hobbies outside of mobster-perforation and fedora retrieval. In our weaker moments, we attributed this shortcoming to Team Bondi accurately representing the superficiality of Los Angeles. Otherwise, we put it down to their dedication to crafting a superlative 16 hour main plot. This, for the record, will leave you roughly at 60% completion with no side-quests attempted. That’s pretty respectable.
Putting our patriotic pride aside and judging L.A. Noire as any other title, it’s plainly obvious that it has been nurtured into being by loving hands and is easily of AAA quality. The merits of Team Bondi’s inaugural game are many. It is a mature and riveting piece of entertainment that pushes the boundaries of what a digital performance can be in a videogame. It’s also a frankly amazing period piece that offers the most meticulously-detailed cities, 1940s or otherwise, that we’ve ever seen. But most of all, with the power of MotionScan it has managed to do the unthinkable: fuse the cerebral challenge of an old school adventure title with the reflex-intensive DNA of a sandbox game. It’s the perfect marriage; perhaps the only one in Los Angeles.
Though it may be thin on the extracurricular activities, Cole Phelps’ journey from flatfoot to crime-buster is the interactive equivalent of a good whodunit book. Once it begins, you won’t be able to put it down. Team Bondi's take on the crime thriller genre is unique, unforgettable and well worth stepping over the police cordon -- and out of one’s comfort zone -- to examine. As to whether L.A. Noire has the legs to be an iterative franchise in its own right, I’d suggest to you that this broad has gams ‘til Tuesday. At the very least it deserves to be the inspiration for a great many copycat titles. Though, without MotionScan, it’s difficult to imagine how anybody will replicate this.