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Best Games Of 2011 – L.A. Noire

Best Games Of 2011 – L.A. Noire

“We’ve mentioned some minor, niggling faults in this review but L.A. Noire won’t be remembered for them”.

Oh dear. That was Chris McMahon in issue 206 of Play. He’s not Nostradamus and in fairness, none of us were able to see a future where the backlash against L.A. Noire would be as loud as it was. Team Bondi created an authentic 1940’s L.A. yet didn’t put anything to do in it. The detective work was compelling until you realised it was impossible to fail. Psycho Phelps became his own meme because HE’D START SHOUTING FOR NO REASON.

Then the internet was able to do its own Psycho Phelps turn when stories emerged of 12-hour working days at Team Bondi and excessive overtime during the ‘crunch’ period… and that was it. Game over. Whatever grand legacy Rockstar had in mind when it picked up L.A. Noire back in 2006, its story would forever be intertwined with the dark working practices at Team Bondi along with those very same minor, niggling faults that we presumed would be forgotten. Whatever advances L.A. Noire had made, Psycho Phelps would outlive them.

And it does have its faults, most of which come back to the same problem that underpins the 20-odd hours you’ll spend with the game – you don’t have any real influence on what’s happening. In L.A. Noire, you never fail. Never does your own skill as a gamer or even a detective direct cases. Miss evidence, upset witnesses, mash your face on the pad, do whatever you want – eventually, you’ll stumble through its funnelneck design and towards the conclusion L.A. Noire wants you to reach.

The Golden Butterfly case is a perfect example of this. As the case draws to a close, Hugo and Eli are both prime suspects for the murders you’re investigating, a situation that you always arrive at no matter what else you’ve done in the case. L.A. Noire asks you to choose a suspect and charge him with murder. As it turns out, neither of them are guilty. Even if you suspect as much, and there’s enough evidence that isn’t followed up (the rabbit blood on Hugo’s shoes for example) to leave you feeling uneasy, you have no say in the matter. You have to choose one of them. There’s no option beyond Hugo or Eli. Then L.A. Noire gleefully reveals, shock horror, neither of them are guilty and you got it wrong. It mocks you for your lack of influence. Great.

This wouldn’t matter nearly as much if there were other distractions to take the spotlight off the linear progression, but there’s almost nothing else happening in Team Bondi’s big, empty L.A. You can find hidden cars but you’ll still fast travel to cases. Golden film reels are almost impossible to find without a guide and don’t provide the same incentive to explore that GTA’s hidden packages did. You get police calls for when assistance is required but these side-missions feel like neutered cases. Beyond that, there are no mini-games, no diversions, no interaction with the world, nothing to enjoy.

The real question is – how much of this really matters? That’s what will define your enjoyment of L.A. Noire. If you’re not bothered by your lack of influence, if you’re willing to abandon some semblance of control and let L.A. Noire pull you though its story the way it wants you to go, then its strengths shine and it becomes a gripping, thrilling game.

While empty, Team Bondi has created arguably the best looking city in any game to date. It’s all about the detail – the fonts, the companies, the buildings, the cars, the weapons, the people and ultimately, the atmosphere. Team Bondi’s L.A. has been beamed into our PlayStation3s from the 1940s, a place where dreams take hold before they’re crushed by the seediness and corruption. The city is underpinned by a lush jazz soundtrack, that switches from aimless piano tinkling to a sense of emergency when the situation demands it.

Then there’s the story itself. It notably drags towards the end – nobody liked the Arson desk, apparently – but the Facial Tech MotionScan lent itself to some brilliant acting, helping sell a game with a morally conflicted detective at its heart and strong enough to support a gameplay gimmick based on it. The idea, and key marketing hook Rockstar hung its advertising on, is that you used your own intuition to spot when someone was lying by watching their face.

It didn’t quite work out as advertised, as everyone in the early cases overacts and you’re trying to second-guess L.A. Noire’s bizarrely inconsistent Doubt/Lie system later in the game – a shame as this is the one place skill could have at least been brought into the formula. But the fact that this was even viable shows that L.A. Noire achieved something no other game had and the likes of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Batman: Arkham City and other titles that followed soon after had characters who looked stiff and awkward in comparison.

Even so, Team Bondi still managed to create a compelling cast. Jack Kelso, the earnest investigator with a chip on his shoulder. Roy Earle, the sleazy detective who slithered his way out of trouble. Leland Monroe, the slimy businessman with the insincere smile. Each character had their own personality with L.A. Noire’s MotionScan and voice-acting strong enough to sell it. Even Psycho Phelps became strangely endearing.

The story itself lulled in places before crashing to a disappointing conclusion – yes, we know, the ending was keeping with the film noir genre and so on – but overall, it was still a good few notches above anything else seen in gaming. The emphasis was firmly on story and character, perhaps sacrificing some of the gaming side to do so, but L.A. Noire had the confidence to stick with its convictions and convince you of its strengths.

Most of all, L.A. Noire was something different. Being different alone isn’t enough, otherwise El Shaddai: Descent of Metatron would have trotted out to 11/10 scores, but L.A. Noire had the quality and conviction to see its ideas through.

It dealt with mature themes like murder, prostitution and even paedophilia without smirking or being patronising. Detectives didn’t draw their guns unless it was necessary, a point of frustration for those annoyed at the lack of interaction or influence on the world around them but a nice counter-point to gaming’s drive for a bigger, better arsenal of destruction than its rivals. In many ways, it felt like how the much-loved point and click genre would have evolved had it not died out – an elaborate puzzle game where your progression is driven by wanting to learn more about the story and characters, not by exhibiting the skills you’ve learnt.

There’s no denying that L.A. Noire was the most polarising release of this year and arguably this gen, as gaming tries to find a middle ground between those who want a more cinematic experience and those who want an actual game. L.A. Noire sticks firmly to the cinematic side of things and does a better job of that than most other games dare to dream of. Our same review praised L.A. Noire as a “cerebral game where others are visceral, considered and clever rather than fast and stupid” before slapping a 91% score on its arse.

That much, at least, is still valid today.

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