L.A. Noire – the PS3 Attitude review
L.A. Noire is a crime procedural drama from Australian studio Team Bondi, which is looking to recreate the mood and melodrama of classic Noir films of yesteryear – think Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. But unlike most developers who have looked to Hollywood for inspiration only to find a shaven-headed meathead, Team Bondi has used its lessons to create a game that actually has a cinematic quality.
The 1940s LA in the game is packed full of drug peddlers, murderers, stylish dames and corrupt public servicemen. All the Noir themes are here, to such an extent it almost descends into a parody of the genre. It’s great entertainment nevertheless thanks to the quality of the acting and writing, and its great sense of style.
Can I see acting? Surely not.
Aaron Stanton (better known as Ken Cosgrove from Mad Men) is fantastic for 30 plus hours as detective Cole Phelps (you). His forceful, straight-talking approach commands respect, making him a believable detective. On top of that, he is pretty likeable too. However, he is a slippery person, and there are moments throughout the game when you will question his personality. It’s hard, for example, not to feel uncomfortable when Phelps sternly interrogates a young child, who has only just lost her mother. Let’s just say, he is believable and human, which is quite atypical for a gaming character.
Stanton is ably assisted by a superb cast of supporting characters too, particularly his many partners, who provide much of the humour in the game. Michael McGrady is especially good in the role of Rusty Galloway, Phelps’ world-weary partner on Homicide whose answer to every case is, “It’s the husband, Phelps”. However, it’s unfair to single out individual actors because the standard is very high across the board.
A keen bobby
Phelps is new to the force when L.A. Noire begins. He is keen to get ahead, and his reputation as a war hero (having earned a Silver Star in Vietnam) helps him get noticed by his superiors. He soon gets his promotion after impressing on four short missions while out on patrol. The missions are designed to teach the basics of investigating, chasing criminals and fighting.
His first job as a detective is to work Traffic, which sounds mundane but it’s not all hit-and-runs and stolen vehicles. In one case, Phelps investigates a blood-splattered – and we really mean blood-splattered – car found by a railway line. The case plays out in an unexpected and even comical way, and it’s an early lesson for Phelps on not taking everything at face value.
Later Phelps works on other desks, including Homicide, Vice and Arson. Chasing killers on Homicide is bleak of course. It has you studying the corpses of naked victims, who have been stomped and strangled to death. These gruesome murders are inspired by the horrific Black Dahlia murder case.
Imagine some of the grittiest thrillers from the past decade and then picture yourself in those worlds studying the murder scenes. It’s not pleasant. At the same time the cases are completely compelling and, while the team haven’t shied away from difficult themes, they aren’t handled gratuitously either.
Lights, camera, action
Don’t be fooled into thinking L.A. Noire is a long, stomach-churning slog. There is a lot of humour and banter in the game, plus a fair slice of action and drama, especially in the Vice cases, during which shooting gangsters is the order of the day.
There are four kinds of action in L.A. Noire: fighting, shooting, on-foot chases and car chases.
For the car chase sequences, Phelps dodges trams and pedestrians and goes off-road. Your partner even hangs out the passenger seat window and tries to blow out the tyres. There is also a shaky cam effect and dramatic music playing to add to the excitement. Old fashioned car chases have been done countless times in Hollywood but rarely have they been so successfully done in a game. Sure, they are scripted, but that is essential for achieving that cinematic feel. Their scripted nature does, however, become an issue if you have to repeat the chases too often.
On-foot chases often have Phelps having to climb buildings and leap walls. These, while still good, are a little flat and predictable. They often end with a fist fight. The basic, but solid fighting – hold L2 then press X to punch, square to dodge and triangle to grab – works on a stylistic level but it’s not particularly challenging. Still, it’s always satisfying to see Phelps finish a crook with a devastating right hook or a headbutt.
The shoot-outs likewise aren’t much of a challenge, but making Phelps pop in and out of cover to blow away transgressors with a shotgun is always satisfying, and there is a decent amount of environmental damage (glass smashing and stones falling from pillars) to create a realistic level of immersion. The covering system is good too, but the main drawback is the aim-assist; it’s far too kind, which makes all the shoot-outs far too easy. It’s not too much of a concern in the early stages of the game, but by the end – when you’ve killed several hundred criminals – it feels far too routine.
While the studio has shown that it has a flair for creating stylish action sequences, we wouldn’t recommend L.A. Noire to anyone looking for an action-orientated game. It instead appeals to those looking for gameplay that’s a bit more thoughtful than your average shoot-everything-that-moves game. It should certainly appeal to fans of graphic adventures and crime procedural shows such as CSI. Wannabe Sherlock’s then.
You know my methods, Watson
The first stage in a case is always to examine the crime scene. To do this you make Phelps walk around the area and then press X next to an object, making Phelps pick it up. You can then move the left analogue stick to roll the object in his hand, and if you notice something, say a serial number on a gun, you press X again to examine the object more closely. Fans of the old Resident Evil games will be familiar with this process. If Phelps spots a clue he will mark it in his book, which you can access at any time.
There are aids to help you find clues. The DualShock, for example, will rumble when there is an object beside Phelps. Investigative music will also play when you arrive on scene and it only stops once you’ve found all of the clues.
One common complaint about L.A. Noire is that the investigative side is far too easy. For the most part this is true, because it is heavily signposted. You will always know where to go and there is no reason why you won’t find all the clues if you look for long enough.
If that worries you, you can always turn off the rumble and music assists via the options screen. Nevertheless, it’s not perfect, and Team Bondi missed a trick by not offering two difficulty settings – hard without assists and normal with assists. Rewarding those who complete the game on hard with trophies would give the player a greater sense of achievement.
Nonetheless, even with the hand holding, the investigating in L.A. Noire is enjoyable and addictive. I’m sure I’m not the only player who enters detective mode every time there are clues to find. Every incidental object, even the cigarette butts, seems profound to me. “There’s always foul play afoot!”
The next stage of the case, once Phelps has collected all the clues, is either to move on to the next logical location or to interrogate the witnesses and suspects.
L.A. Noire is at its best when you are interrogating, thanks to Team Bondi’s unique approach to filming actors using the incredible MotionScan technology. MotionScan works by having 32 HD cameras surround an actor as he performs his/her role. This makes it possible for Team Bondi to capture the subtlest changes to a person’s facial expression, enabling you to determine whether or not they are lying – how it’s applied in L.A. Noire.
Phelps will open his notebook revealing a selection of questions – all of which should be asked. After your suspect/witness has answered, you need to decide whether or not they are telling the truth, lying or holding back information. You do this by selecting between three options: truth, doubt or lie. Truth is obvious; use doubt if you suspect they are holding back information; use lie if you think they have told you something that contradicts with what you already know to be true.
The lying part is the most interesting because you need evidence to support your accusation. You do this by selecting a clue from your notebook which you believe contradicts their claims. It’s not as easy as it sounds. You can have as many as eight or more clues in your notebook for some cases; and sometimes you need to think outside the box. The clue may not directly oppose what they said but may reveal a motive.
If you fail to get the right answer you will miss out on vital clues, and you won’t get an opportunity to ask the questions again (unless you restart the whole case). Thankfully, you can always finish the case, no matter how poorly you perform – a lead will often miraculously spring out of nowhere or the case could end with tragic consequences – but your final ranking will be lower.
Each case has a five star rating based on how many clues you find, how many questions you guess correctly, and whether or not you arrest the right guy – yes, you can arrest the wrong suspect. L.A. Noire can leave you feeling guilty if you feel you’ve made a hash of a case, as you worry that you’ve busted the wrong guy. Sadly these occasions are fairly rare because the room for major error is small, and – unless you really worry about that five star rating – you are never made to face the consequences for being a rotten detective.
It would be petty to dwell too long on those issues though, because despite its flaws, L.A. Noire is still smarter and more thoughtful than 90 percent of games out there. Some will find it ponderous but a large part of that will be down to personal taste, rather than a design issue. Complaining that L.A. Noire is repetitive is a valid criticism however, because the format very rarely changes throughout the game. So, how much you enjoy L.A. Noire will depend on how much you enjoy interrogating and investigating.
What to do?
Team Bondi tried to enliven things by filling the game with street crimes. Crimes are announced over the police radio and you can respond to them at any time during your investigations. These are mostly action orientated – chase a wife-beater in the car or on foot, or shoot down a gang of bank robbers. They also tend to be a bit more amusing than the main cases. One has Phelps chasing down a perv who he spots taking up-skirt photos of girls (or “papping”, as they call it these days).
I had a few issues with the street crimes, mostly that they are too short, they end too abruptly, and that many are near identical, but a large part of it was that I personally found them to be a bit of a nuisance. I wanted to focus on the main investigations but I felt pressured to answer the calls when they became available. Usually it would mean having to drive in the opposite direction from where I was heading. It shouldn’t have to be an issue though because you can return to them later.
Aside from street crimes, there’s not much to do in LA, aside from the usual time-consuming collectible missions: find cop badges, film reels and famous locations and drive all the cars. So, nothing particularly exciting – which will disappoint anyone looking for a huge, living, breathing world like Vice City. That would of course be impossible for a team of Team Bondi’s size.
As was the case with Mafia II, you shouldn’t think of L.A. Noire as a sandbox game. You have to treat it as you would any linear, story-led game. The recreation of LA is still remarkably detailed though, and it’s clear the team spent considerable time studying the aerial photographs of Robert Spence to ensure everything is accurately portrayed. It also has one of the most perfectly suited scores of any game. The sound puts you in the moment and really drives on the drama.
It’s understandable why some would want to compare L.A. Noire to Grand Theft Auto, because it really does have Rockstar’s fingerprints all over it. It runs on RAGE (Rockstar’s Advanced Game Engine), and so many things feel familiar — from how it looks to how the shooting and fighting works, even down to the way Phelps gets in and out of cars.
In many ways, it feeks like Team Bondi had an idea and Rockstar finished it – and that could well be true, as you would know if you have been following the ongoing story of the troubled development team. It seems remarkable that this game even reached completion, never mind arrive in stores looking as polished as it does. And, despite its similarities to GTA, L.A. Noire does manage to stand up as its own game. It’s a truly unique title.
L.A. Noire isn’t the era-defining game we were silently hoping it would be, but hopefully it’ll have a strong legacy, because it proves that games can be intelligent, thought-provoking and deep and still manage to sell.
It’s an adult game – that rare thing – with a compelling, stylishly told story, and it actually has characters who have multiple layers. Its final stages are a little rushed and convoluted but it runs to a natural and fitting conclusion for the genre. If only more developers put this much thought into what they produce.