Game Review: L.A. Noire

Thinking of picking up L.A. Noire preowned or discounted? Here’s a retrospective review of L.A. Noire, played to completion on the xbox 360 last summer.

I am a big fan of Rockstar and their open-world games. GTA IV has taken up huge amounts of my time – it might not be perfect but nothing else has come close to combining a convincing virtual world with a good storyline and solid gameplay. Red Dead Redemption is another Rockstar title I enjoyed enormously, once getting past the fairly slow early stages. Although a barren wilderness, the world of RDR still manages to be beautifully detailed and varied. The game does a great job of keeping you entertained while keeping something back to surprise you later. Towards the end of the campaign the action shifts from dry deserts to snow-covered hills lit by the winter sun, and it looks so good you’ll find yourself stopping just to admire the views.

When trailers for L.A. Noire were released onto the web, it was easy to get excited at how good this game was going to be. The setting of 1940’s LA in a film-noire style promises much in the way of atmosphere and immersion, and the ground-breaking facial animation technology promised the player they would actually be looking for signs of lies and truth in the faces of suspects and witnesses. Also present is a new lighting technology that provides much more realistic shadows and reflections, and was actually the genesis for the whole idea of the game. The demo showed two detectives chasing down a suspect, set in a brilliantly convincing post-war Los Angeles. It looked amazing.

Load the actual game up and things still look good – the title screen and Taxi-Driver-style music are very noire, and as you start to make progress it’s clear that the storyline and characters are not far off Hollywood standards. Driving round LA, gathering evidence at crime scenes and taking part in the occasional shoot-out is quite captivating. If you’ve ever wanted to get into a time machine and experience the past, this is game is for you. It’s fascinating to see Los Angeles before the urban sprawl of today took hold – you’ll be struck by how low the skyline is without all the modern high-rise office blocks and apartments. As you might expect, the police department is similarly under-developed, with questionable behaviour and practices, and corruption being commonplace among your colleagues.

Rockstar made it clear from the start that this game is not GTA. It is more of an adventure game with occasional action sequences, and is best suited to older gamers. The story is split into four sections as your character – Cole Phelps – is promoted (and demoted) around the LAPD. The game eases you in gently by having you work traffic before throwing you into homicide, vice and arson. Cole is ex-army and the back story of his time in the forces is inserted into the game via the use of flashbacks.

If you’re interested in modern history and culture, there’s a lot to enjoy and appreciate. You’ll get to see the large post-war housebuilding projects that took place in California, including visiting a stunning architects office. There’s references to the Black Dahlia, and other cases are inspired by real-life events. Some of the building interiors are a treat for Art Deco fans, and Union station is well worth some virtual tourism. On the flip-side, some of the murder scenes can be disturbing and there’s some other unpleasant subjects covered such as the exploitation of young girls. You’ll certainly see both sides of the city.

Unfortunately L.A.Noire is flawed in a way that detracts from the overall experience quite significantly. Rockstar’s new facial animation technology might be a step forward but it’s still not as good as they would have you believe – I just couldn’t get to grips with interviewing. In many cases the evidence isn’t substantial and the facial expressions aren’t conclusive enough to be able to really tell if a suspect is lying. Many people being interviewed give off misleading signs. A young girl who had been raped was one prime example – she seemed evasive as if covering something up, but pressing her to spill the beans was punished as the wrong option, making me feel guilty for not treating her more sympathetically. There is one intuition point available for when you can’t work out what to do, but in some parts I felt like I needed intuition for every question, and found myself dreading the interview and interrogation scenes. Something else bothered me as well – Cole Phelps looks odd. Something about his face doesn’t look right. Aaron Stanton, who is the actor for Phelps looks normal enough, so I’m not sure what the problem is. It’s a pity because all of the other characters in the game look fine.

Whilst working homicide, your patience and discipline will be tested when you realise that you’re solving murders by locking up innocent people – because you can’t find the serial killer who’s really behind the crimes. While this illustrates what the police could be like sixty years ago, it doesn’t do much for player morale. Of the four sections to the game, I found arson much more enjoyable than the others. There is a common story running throughout, and the cases rely more on evidence gathering at the crime scene rather than trying to work out if a wooden-looking suspect is lying or not.

When I look back on L.A. Noire now, it certainly left an impression on me – some sequences from the game are so memorable they feel like they are on equal footing with real-life memories, demonstrating how immersive a modern game can be. Sadly, the enjoyment and reward factor is lacking in some areas. Overall, L.A.Noire is a typically ambitious Rockstar game, and it nearly delivers. Experiencing a brilliantly realised 1940’s Los Angeles is worth the purchase price alone,  but one of the biggest parts of the game play can be very frustrating. If you’re looking for an atmospheric adventure game with a crime focus, this could be worth a look, but it’s a mixed bag.

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