Every once in a while a game comes along and changes the face of gaming, whether it be a new gameplay mechanic, graphics enhancement, or something entirely different that interest is peaked beyond normal excitement. Rockstar Games have been known to lead the way when it comes to action games, most notably the open world experiences we’ve all grown up with, and are no strangers to pushing the boundaries. The GTA series has been one of a generation, unmatched and forever moving forwards with each iteration. However, with Sydney(Australia) based development studio Team Bondi taking the development reigns, they have come up with a game which has all the hallmarks of fitting the ideal of genre changing advancements. Announced years ago as a PS3 exclusive game, L.A. Noire enters the fray, not necessarily to challenge Rockstar’s other greats, but to sit snugly alongside them, offering its own take on the open world genre. So, we roll back to the late 1940s, in post war Los Angeles, during the dark times of depression and where some movie makers in the famous Hollywood adopted a more darker approach with their presentations of dark and moody anti-hero protagonists. Whilst some producers aimed high for post war feel-good factor imagery as the country certainly needed it, others were playing with the darker undertones of our society, and thus the genre of Film Noire was born and it is this approach that Team Bondi has captured with its now very modern medium of video games.
You play as war veteran Cole Phelps, a man who unwittingly receives high accolades for his efforts during the war, but as you’ll discover during play via various flashback cutscenes, that the past has a huge bearing on Cole’s character, his outlook, and reasoning; and there are more sinister goings on which befit the film noire presentation. As a member of the LA Police Department, Cole rises through the ranks, fighting crime and generally being the do-gooder citizen almost flawlessly. There are no spoilers here, so that’s all that will be said of the game’s plot other than as you move through various desk jobs within the LAPD, you’ll encounter different aspects of police investigation.
To begin, Cole starts out at the bottom rung of the ladder, a beat cop with more curiosity than any cat. It’s here where his intuition and investigative streak propels him away from the mundane, and into the more glamorous police work. Playing as Cole you’ll rise through Traffic, Homicide, Vice and finally Arson desks as detective Phelps and it’s here where you’ll be partnered with several very different personalities. You’re never left alone, as it’s always you and your partner conducting the investigations, although your sidekick never really intervenes too much, and stands as a guidance tool should you require some minor assistance.
You’re gradually introduced to the game’s features from the opening investigations, but you’ll notice that they all follow a similar pattern once the chilling intro sequence is played out. You’ll visit the crime scene, look for clues, and then piece them together by visiting any related locations which you can manually drive to or quick warp to if you’re not keen on driving through the bustling city streets of LA. Once you begin your investigations you’ll be able to interrogate witnesses which eventually lead you to the suspects themselves. Here you’ll either be presented with a chase sequence on foot or in a vehicle, or in some cases a shoot-out. Once a suspect has been put away, you’re then evaluated on your performance, depending on how many clues you discovered and how well you interrogated witnesses and suspects. In a nutshell, this is LA Noire in it’s entirety, bar some action based side missions, and collectible hunting.
What L.A Noire does best is draw you into each case and the characters contained within, and to a degree, the action seems to be secondary. The use of the much touted new facial animation techniques become a well integrated part of the gameplay, which is something you won’t see in any other game to date; so When questioning, you’ll be able to look at what evidence you’ve collected (by referring to your notebook), and then press whether you feel the individual is being truthful, offering doubt, or flat out lying. Whilst these three fairly broad choices might be quite far reaching, the fact that you’re having to decipher the best approach by means of reading the persons facial expressions and mannerism offers a very lifelike method and are puzzling in their own right. The real detective work comes from the very fine line between doubtful responses and flat out lies, and it’s often quite hard to piece the right bit of evidence to support your claims. If you press in the wrong direction you’ll lose the angle and possible lead which is quite the punishing gameplay mechanic. It’s clever that once committed you’re not able to reload a checkpoint and start again, and so have to carry on wondering what your mistake was and perhaps rectifying it by either restarting the entire case again, or on a subsequent play-through making different choices if you can remember.
L.A. Noire presents interesting scenarios whereby each differ enough to remain fresh throughout the entire game. Whilst the core structure remains unchanged – and to a degree is quite repetitive – the story , suspense and intrigue continually drives you forwards, leaving you wanting resolution and making it extremely hard to stop before you’ve put your man behind bars. You’ll warm to the main players or detest those under suspicion simply because of their realistic presentation, and if you’re attentive, you’ll spot plenty of smaller details in the dialogue. Sadly you’re not really given much information about Cole himself who is so squeaky clean that it’s sickening. Cole is like the snivelling swot at school, or the person so one track minded that you wonder if there’s anything else to his character and whether he is in fact a robot! There’s the odd sparkling hint at a personality tossed in there, but it’s always related to the task at hand, and it’s only during the latter portion of the game, you’ll be presented with more emotional details. This is perhaps the biggest failing of the game’s story approach, as you’re so focused on detective work, that there’s no room for expansion and depth of the main character.
L.A. Noire’s action is well travelled and comes at you from a similar approach as seen in the GTA games. The driving is remarkably solid, despite the car handling feeling a bit off and seemingly little differences between models and makes. The hand to hand fighting is intuitive, and allows you to duck and weave, before countering and landing successful blows. The shooting is solid, whereby you can use destructible cover and lean out and fire volleys of shots using various of the period weapons. However, a few thrown in action sequences kills any flow you might have with your detective work, and in some cases you’ll begin to groan at how Cole makes the same stupid mistakes over and over, resulting in the repeated, dull on-foot chase sequences again and again. There’s a real lack of control over Cole, as you’re totally restricted in what you can do, and perhaps this is the biggest gripe. You’re a cop, not a gangster and therefore cannot deviate from this role. You cannot draw your gun at will, engage in fisticuffs with passers by (who are sometimes rude to you and deserve a good kicking). You can’t arrest random people (a mechanic we saw in the game True Crime Streets of LA many years ago), and there’s a real disjointed factor holding you back. L.A. is full of life and character, yet you’re unable to let loose in a way you might want to. There’s no good or bad cop routine, and you’re merely stuck within the framework of Cole’s unrealistically clean image. Even being able to respond verbally to the citizens of L.A would have been welcome but this simple feature is not granted to you.
What you do get are some weird moments which feel tacked on and more fitting to a Spider-Man game as Cole climbs up drainage poles to reach the rooftops or makes huge hurdles over obstacles to continue pursuit of suspects. For a game steeped in so much realism, it does seem like an odd choice to include, and frankly one that is quite unnecessary where ladders and perhaps pulling out a pistol and shooting a leg for a non fatal take-down would be suffice. Sadly the game does not allow for such antics, perhaps it’s the noire element which prevents non fatal take-downs, where suspects can be jailed rather than gunned down in cold blood. In this regard, resisting arrest only has one conclusion for the most part, and it feels a bit of a shame you’re not given the choice.
Team Bondi recreated 1940s LA with some painstaking details, making the game world look very much the part. Whilst it’s easy to laud the facial expressions as the best thing since sliced bread, the other details shouldn’t be overlooked either. There’s a real vibrancy within the city streets, whether that be at night, during rainy moments, or humid fog, or during sun filled daytime. You’ll be rewarded if you explore a little rather than use the quick option for getting around, however, after a while and due to the time it takes from getting from A to B, the temptation to fast travel becomes more attractive. There’s a lot of space unused, in LA, and it’s great there’s a well realised city to explore, it’s just a shame most of it is merely for effect.
There are some issues which perhaps is to be expected within an open world game. On occasion our partner got stuck on scenery, or couldn’t enter a vehicle due to how it was positioned. Some of the vehicle AI looked a bit suspect as well, where cars would seemingly be drawn to block your path when driving fast. You might also notice some texture loading, and objects being drawn in the distance regardless of whether the game is installed on the hard drive. What killed some immersion were reused character models making appearances in other places – even some of the secondary plot related ones. Whether this was deliberate is unclear, but did take away some immersion. Another glitch that was noticeable was when pursuing a suspect in a vehicle and having the car flip over on its roof, only to appear corrected during the subsequent cinematic. There were more less aggravating issues but these minor quibbles are worth mentioning all the same.
As mentioned previously, the facial expressions are second to none, and being an integral part of the gameplay are a heavy focus. Characters are given much life and alongside the dialogue it’s almost like watching real actors in a movie. It’s probably safe to say the character animations (above the neck at least) are the most realistically animated of any game to date which is quite the achievement.
Team Bondi did a great job with the soundtrack which fits the themes of the 40s period perfectly. The film noire score outside of the game’s singular radio station, sets the mood, and is as every bit as suspenseful as you’d expect. The voice acting is probably some of the best you’ll ever hear in a video game, with performances that are on par with the impressive animation technology. The script has been well written and you’ll find some absolute gems if you pay attention; especially during the character interactions with your partner Rusty (Finbar) in the homicide cases. If there’s something to gripe about then that would have to be with Cole’s constant need to shout and be overtly aggressive throughout the game, sure he’s a cop, but does make his performance bordering on the one dimensional side. Other gripes would be with the NPCs using repeated phrases, often back to back, which can be a little off-putting when an important character is talking. Other than these few minor quibbles, the audio is top quality in pretty much every department.
L.A. Noire is not your average game in terms of game length, offering some 21 main story cases, 40 side missions (although some of these repeat) and a bit of collectible hunting. You’ll spend in excess of 20 hours, and by the end of the game might be relieved it’s all over. For those of you wanting to get the illusive 100% status, then expect to increase that time significantly. With the cases not allowing for checkpoints within interrogation sequences, there’s a fair bit of replay value, especially if you’re wanting to get a maximum five out of five stars rating at the end of each case. Much like Rockstar’s other games, you can spend many days, and weeks in L.A. Noire’s world. Although as mentioned already, it’s a shame there’s not the huge diversity of cop related activities to embark on.
L.A. Noire is a grand and technically superior game, and possibly a bit too big for its own good. whilst there’s no denying that you’ll be hooked into the story and intrigued by the presentation, the gameplay perhaps lets the overall experience down. There’s just too much omitted that you’d expect from such a vast game, too much focus on Cole Phelps’ singular mission to do good in L.A at the expense of fun. On one hand you might fall in love with Cole’s one dimensional goody two shoes attitude and naivety, but on the other, might want to let loose a little and be a bit more hard boiled. This isn’t granted to you, and therefore suffers as a result. L.A.Noire was never billed as being a 1940s GTA and perhaps in this regard gamers should take note and not have preconceived ideas; but with so much more content that could have been incorporated, it just feels like a wasted opportunity.
If you can ignore what’s not included, then you’ll find a game with lots of neat touches and flourishes of brilliance from its stoic opening gameplay to its tragic conclusion. Team Bondi and Brendan McNamara have captured the essence of what film noire is all about, minus the cheese, and very much tipped towards the serious, and should be praised for their faithful recreation in video game form. What could have ended up as a parody without meaning to, ends up being a classic game and one that pushes the detective genre far forwards than any other game has done before it. If you like a more cerebral gaming experience, then L.A Noire is certainly well worth a look, an essential purchase, although if you’ve got an itchy trigger finger and a low attention threshold then is likely you simply won’t “get” what’s on offer here and be left feeling unfulfilled and possibly bored after the first hour or two. L.A Noire is an epic game for all intents and purposes, and whilst not the most accessible, does prove that film and gaming can work in tandem to produce amazing and awe inspiring results.