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L.A. Noire Review

L.A. Noire Review

L.A. Noire is a difficult game to review. On the one hand you’ve got an undeniably rich, polished and progressive title that explores territory that videogames have never ventured into before, on the other you’ve got a game that’s somewhat handholding, certainly repetitive, and that occasionally fumbles over its own internal logic. The question that requires answering here is, do the more impressive elements of L.A. Noire negate those small, niggling faults? Is L.A. Noire a game that’s more than merely handsome? Or, like the LA setting itself, is there something uglier residing beneath?

L.A. Noire’s City Of Angels is certainly pure James Ellroy. Outwardly beaming with glitz, glamour, and the enviable fortunes of Hollywood, this Forties LA hides a sordid underbelly of greed, vice and murder. Fame and wealth go hand-in-hand with crime and corruption. Here, everyone’s guilty of something.

You enter this tarnished diamond in the brogues of WWII vet turned LAPD detective Cole Phelps, a straight-laced and self-righteous cop who’s nevertheless sincere in his quest for justice. Starting out as a patrolman and working your way up through the detective ranks at the LAPD you’re tasked with solving 21 cases – each taking anywhere up to an hour to complete – and watching the core narrative unfold throughout each as you do so.

L.A. Noire quickly settles into a familiar routine that shares some elements with Grand Theft Auto – foot chases, cover-based shootouts and open-world driving are all featured – but this is not GTA from the other side of the law. The pace is slower, the tempo a gradual burn rather than bursts of high-velocity action. If anything L.A. Noire can be more accurately likened to Heavy Rain or the point-and-click adventures of the Nineties. It’s a game of dialogue and lateral thinking, except here your inventory is made up of clues found when scrutinising a crime scene, and the items you use them on are your suspects.

The structure falls into place early and stays there for the majority of the game. You go to a crime scene and search for clues, further investigate by driving to locations and people of interest, and then usually end in an interrogation room attempting to draw a confession from your prime suspect.

You couldn’t be blamed for labelling the experience somewhat repetitive, but the truth is that the seams with which L.A. Noire is held together are so well concealed that you barely notice the cyclic succession of events. Team Bondi’s dedication to the period setting and ambience of Forties LA is so deep and meticulous that every location, case and event feels totally unique. It’s a world so rich and absorbing in its detail that it’s easy to forget that you’re just wandering around a room and picking up items for the umpteenth time.

The cases themselves are well written and often twist unexpectedly, making the underlying structure that governs them all the less obvious. This is all thanks to Team Bondi’s facial capture tech MotionScan, which truly does represent every tick, nuance and furrowed brow from an actor’s face as realistically in game as you’d see in real life. What this means is that you must use natural intuition to decipher your interviewee’s honesty. Human instinct as a game mechanic? That’s certainly something we haven’t seen before.

Unfortunately, interrogation scenes aren’t always as organic and natural as we’d hoped. For one, it doesn’t help that Phelps will occasionally phrase a response in such a way as you didn’t intend. At one stage, when interviewing a recently abused 15 year old Phelps shouted at her in a rather callous manner most unbecoming of his character.

But even if you know for certain that an NPC is lying that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily select the correct response from the options of Truth, Doubt or Lie. No matter how much your suspect gurns you’ll sometimes – not all the time – find yourself in ambiguous circumstances where the correct response is difficult to work out, and a response you assumed correct is met with stonewalling. Furthermore, the game’s logic can feel arbitrary, particularly when it comes to using evidence to challenge a subject’s statement that you feel makes sense but the game refuses to acknowledge.

But these are momentary faults that are pronounced only because for the majority of the game the interrogation scenes are incredibly well constructed and believable. For the most part, they present a never-before-seen videogame mechanic that elevates L.A. Noire above standard videogame fare and towards an interactive experience altogether more meaningful and human.

Does this make L.A. Noire an important videogame? For some, the recurring nature of the mechanics and the inability to deviate from the game’s one narrative will be reason enough to deny L.A. Noire such high stature. But for others – we included – L.A. Noire is an experiential game, not a mechanical one, and in viewing it from that perspective it excels. It’s a mature game, too – not just because it includes sex and violence under the pretence of being for adults – but because it delivers such dark and macabre content with the same level of intelligence we would expect from a major television series.

So yes. We’d say L.A. Noire is undoubtedly important, because like Heavy Rain before it it’s a slightly flawed but nevertheless brave attempt to push the medium into new territory; to move away from the guns and space marines stigma that’s plagued the industry for so very long. It’s a cerebral game where others are visceral, considered and clever as opposed to fast and stupid. It’s an open-world game that doesn’t require you to constantly unholster your weapon. We’ve mentioned some minor, niggling faults in this review, but L.A. Noire won’t be remembered for them. It’s only ever going to be remembered as a pioneer in its medium. And in many respects, it truly is.

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  • Sean

    Great review. I really appreciate that Rockstar/Team Bondi decided to develope something very different, not just a deviation from Rockstars usual games, but from alot of the generic games that have been churned out recently. Can’t wait to play this.

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  • Zayle

    When he called MotionScan a “tech”, I couldn’t help but wonder what Leonard Nimoy would have to say about it.