(Xbox 360 Review) L.A. Noir

Developer: Rockstar Games / Team Bondi
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Genre: Adventure / Action
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Nick Stewart

Overall: 8.5 = Excellent

While “noire” stories have created some of the finest offerings in the world of cinema, it’s a thematic world that has very largely gone unexplored in the world of videogames. Largely left alone by developers have been these tales of crime, these stories of evil men and manipulative women, of hardboiled detectives and political agendas buried underneath the muck of violence and corruption—until now. As one would surmise from its nicely explanatory title that so handily points out its genre and location, L.A. Noire is about precisely that: a mature, nuanced tale about the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles following World War II that also touches on all the high points that you would expect from this niche. It also manages to be a rather amazingly good adventure game, wrapped in the trappings of an open-world game that is one of the best offerings of 2011.

Set in the volatile and gritty world of post-war Los Angeles, L.A. Noire sets you square in the shoes of Cole Phelps, a decorated war hero and aspiring star of the LAPD. As the game begins, Phelps is a bottom-of-the-totem-pole beat cop, but as he successfully investigates a series of crimes and begins to rise through the ranks, he starts his new career as a detective. From there, he moves through various departments—murder, vice, arson, and so on—that all revolve, ultimately, around death, and deception. Initially, there are few links between any of the cases, which are standalone, self-contained plots, though this begins to break up with the introduction of the Black Dahlia-themed pursuits in the murder desk. From there, the true shape of the game begins to emerge, and you’re privy to a twisted and dark tale heavily reminiscent of the L.A. Confidential and Chinatown films from which L.A. Noire so clearly draws inspiration. Interwoven throughout all his cases is the deep sense of pain and damage that World War II had on the minds and hearts of America, something that is drawn forth not only through the characters in the cases proper but also in the many, many flashbacks that intersperse Cole’s travails. This, too, eventually ties into the storyline, creating a fine tapestry of storytelling that is as interesting and well-told as anything in videogaming today.

This storytelling is delivered largely through the machinations of gameplay, which at its very core boils down to four basic things: searching crime scenes for clues, interrogating suspects and other folks based on those clues, driving from Point A to Point B in a beautifully reproduced Los Angeles, and of course, shooting people in the face. Virtually every case in the game incorporates these four elements, though it’s not to minimize how fantastic each aspect truly is. Indeed, the first two elements make you feel like a true detective, gosh darn it, and L.A. Noire is certainly more successful than any game in memory at achieving this particular goal. As you reach the crime scene, suspect’s home, or other location of interest, you’re given the chance to wander about, picking up items that catch Cole’s attention, and examining them for relevance to your case. Many items such as cigarettes, beer bottles and even fruit are little more than time-wasters, but many others hold potential answers: a telltale photograph, an abandoned murder weapon, or a receipt that contradicts someone’s alibi. You’re afforded help in this regard, if you want it, through audio and tactile hints as you wander around: the music rises and swells as you near interesting items, for instance, though these can be shut off if you want a bigger challenge. This is also a rather elegant way of indicating when you’re stepping outside of the immediate investigative area and away from any findable clues; this is equally effective in keeping you within the game’s atmosphere while also encouraging you to spread out and actually scour for evidence away from the obvious crime scene.

This provides you with the necessary ammunition to approach and grill the people that stand in the way of the truth, which includes literally everyone you can speak to. This includes old ladies, teenaged girls, and many, many obvious undesirables, ensuring that players always have some reason or another to be suspicious of all possible motives. When putting the screws to someone, Cole has three conversational options: believing what they say, calling them a liar with no proof, or calling them a liar with proof.  Sometimes, shaking their tree sans any actual evidence can be enough to spur them to tell you something; often, however, it isn’t, and you’re forced to draw upon your list of clues to call them out on their lies. Initially, this is a fairly obvious process: someone claims they weren’t in one place, and you have a piece of evidence proving they are, or somesuch. However, as the game progresses, these options aren’t so clear-cut, making it a much greater task to determine what needs to be offered. There is a problem with this, however, as there are often many clues that are very incriminating and indeed contradictory to what the suspect is saying; pick the wrong one, and you’ll find the suspect shutting down entirely. What’s more, it’s sometimes considerably less clear whether “accusing without proof” is more appropriate than the perhaps-maybe-but-still-rather-vague evidence sitting in your back pocket, leading to some semi-frustrating trial and error.

What helps to spur the process along and make things slightly easier for players, however, is the game’s highly touted facial technology, which is as every bit as impressive to see as advertised. The facial capture technology so closely mimics the actual movements of the actors’ own visages that whether you’re watching an in-game cinematic or interrogating a suspect, you’ll be able to instantly recognize the actor playing them, and recognize whenever their character may be potentially trying to hide something from the prying eyes of an LAPD detective. Although there are some sketchy bits, such as bizarre stretching of the faces, it is by and large a rather amazing accomplishment that actually allows the actors to truly give the game some top-notch performances—perhaps more so than any other game going. In gameplay terms, this means having to decide whether a suspect’s twisted scowl is a sign of sorrow, confusion, or outright deceit. It’s yet another fantastic piece of the experience of feeling like an actual detective as you scrutinize the conversation, and try and feel out whether emotions are genuine.

Of course, no matter how great a detective you are, nearly every case will somehow involve fistfights or gunplay, both of which are passable if rather easy. The former involves standard dodging and very light grappling; the latter involves some cover-based shooting and blindfiring. Neither is particularly difficult, and often feels a bit simple, as though it was meant more to break up the adventure portions while injecting some supposed sense that your life truly can be in danger.

Similarly, you’ll find yourself spending huge chunks of time puttering around Los Angeles, travelling from one suspect to another, following this lead or that. Although it grows rather tedious after a time, it’s certainly not because of any flaws with the recreated City of Angels itself, which is as wonderful a recreation of its post-war era as you could imagine, from banners hanging over the streets, to the vintage vehicles, to the intricately detailed storefronts. Rather, it’s only due to the sheer quantity of driving that’s necessary that you’ll sometimes find yourself making use of the auto-skip function that allows you to bypass the trip and end up directly at your destination. Not that you’ll always want to do so, as Cole quite often engages in character-development chit-chat with his increasingly jaded partners. These trips also often open up to short side missions called over the police radio that the player can follow up on if desired. While these are never connected in any way to the central plot, and often involve doing little more than approaching someone via cover and/or chasing them on foot or in your car until you can plug them with your service weapon, they’re also entertaining diversions from the core gameplay, and often worth the extra few minutes you’ll need to pursue them.

This is all in addition to any number of other notable features, including the “RPG-lite” style of experience earned through properly following up on interrogations and missions, allowing you access to more outfits and the like; the list of collectibles scattered through the game world; and the absolutely beautiful period music on offer through the game’s radios. The production values are off the charts, with A-list actors—many of which are from Mad Men, including Aaron Staton, the voice and face of Cole Phelps—stepping into the virtual shoes of folks good and bad throughout.

In all, the game is a joy to play, and because suspects can clam up if you handle them wrong, there’s a constant sense that what you do truly matters, although it should be noted that this is in fact a rather impressive illusion on the part of the developers. In fact, short of dying or failing to keep up with a chase sequence, there’s really very little possibility that you cannot help but succeed; if a suspect shuts down via conversation, you’ll find another clue that leads you where you need to go, for instance, and as such, you’ll always “win” the case. This is symptomatic of the one case desk that was simultaneously the most fascinating, and the most frustrating: the murder desk. Throughout, you’re asked to investigate possible serial murders, and it becomes clear that you’re frequently being given a series of endless red herrings, although there are no options for Cole to realize this in-game. Without giving away any plot points, you’re asked to make decisions based on these sometimes obvious deceptions, which is rather unsatisfying. What’s more, you’re also asked to hold off for a number of a couple hours’ worth of case work—knowingly erroneous case work—until you’re given some sense of a proper conclusion, which in itself ends up feeling really rather hollow. Perhaps that’s intentional; perhaps that’s meant to reflect the nature of life on the streets of L.A., and within the Department. Whether or not it was intended, however, is irrelevant, as it is a rather hollow center to an otherwise truly solid and fantastically exhilarating experience.

L.A. Noire pulls off a rather fascinating sleight of hand: using the conceit of an open-world style of game to contain what is, at its core, an adventure game incredibly similar to the Phoenix Wright series.  Sure, there are action sequences, and no shortage of them, though they’re universally easy and fundamentally there to break up the adventure segments while helping to set the atmosphere. Ultimately, this game is one of the industry’s greatest love letters to interactive storytelling, and the tale it has to tell is one well worth experiencing, laced as it is with fine performances, beautiful visuals, compelling investigative work, and an intricate plot about war, loyalty, deception, and the excesses of power. These are all the finest cornerstones of the tradition of noire, from which the game so faithfully and carefully lifts its name, and that is as high a compliment as could be offered.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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