L.A. Noire Review
|May 20th, 2011 (UK)
|Andy Hemphill (Bandit)
It's so rare, these days, to find a game which really pushes the boat out, which tries something new - L.A. Noire is one of those games, it delivers something I've never encountered before in a videogame - a detective novel which isn't built around a point-and-click adventure. And its bloody good fun too.
Setting you firmly in the gumshoes of LA patrol officer Cole Phelps, the game charts the venerable detective's rise to fame through the ranks of the LAPD, cracking case after case, and banging up rapists, nutters, murderers and serial killers in his campaign to clean up the streets.
To do this, the game wastes no time in giving you the most powerful weapon in a police officer's arsenal - his notebook. This little item is Cole Phelps' life, and gives the gamer an invaluable resource in becoming the sword of justice that cleaves the darkness of Los Angeles.
After a couple of minor missions, which sees Phelps beating the street as a police officer, the gamer quickly finds yourself thrust into the dark underbelly of the city of angels, solving a series of crimes on the homicide and vice desks, walking a fine line between justice and retribution.
To solve a crime, Phelps and his partner have to first piece together the evidence at the scene of the crime. To do this, the gamer has to wander around, looking for clues, using a set of clever musical cues to uncover them. After this, Phelps cruises around in one of the 30 or so 1950's classic cars, questioning witnesses and suspects, using the evidence you've discovered to pick holes in their alibis.
This is where the game really comes into its own, as questioning NPCs, and trying to judge their reactions, is what this game is all about. With four whole CDs, the time put into LA Noir fast becomes obvious - there's some 400 hours of motion capture work in the game, and the facial animations are second to none.
Say you sit down with Phelps (played to perfection by Mad Men's Aaron Staton) and the witness to a crime. You ask him a couple of cursory questions, which are listed in your notebook. You listen to his responses, but you think he may be lying.
At this point, it's back to the notebook - do you have a piece of evidence you know will discount the theory, or are you just suspicious - the choice is up to you - is it the truth, are you doubtful, or is it a lie?
Get it wrong and the suspect might get tetchy, get it right, and you might get a confession. Not sure? Expend an 'intuition point' (earned through the game) to remove an answer, Millionaire-style. It's important to remember, however, that you only have one save file - mess it up, and that's it. An innocent man goes to jail, and Phelps goes back to work.
The questioning sessions are a master class in film noir and tension. Each of the NPCs was motion captured, and reading their facial expressions is key to unravelling each case - can they meet your gaze when you stare at them? Are they shifting in their seats?
In some cases, the motion capture was so good I could recognise an actor or actress in amongst the crowds who I'm sure I've seen before.
If you get it wrong, you'll know - the game uses another musical cue to tell you, and a wrong question can lead to a mistrial, or worse.
The odd thing, however, is even if you make a total mess of a case, and wrong guy gets locked up, the Captain heaps praise on you anyway. Also, after hours of studious police work, the game sometimes throws you a curve ball, leaving you feeling a little disappointed at the wasted effort. As well as this, from time to time, the game decides who to charge for you - say you've got two suspects, and you're questioning one when the interview goes badly wrong - Phelps loses his temper... and charges the guy.
That happened to me, and left me feeling cheated - even if I cocked up the interrogation, it should be my choice as to who is guilty.
Also, when you're not chasing down perps on foot (in nicely rendered chase scenes), or in your car (as your partner attempts to shoot out the escaping car's tires), you might have to take on a murderer in a gunfight, but don't think you can take him alive - oh no, it's death or nothing - even shooting him in the leg does nothing, it's a let-down.
Aside from interrogations, the game features a fair amount of driving, shootouts in dark alleys and street crimes you can stop off and solve - be it a sidewalk shooting or a robbery in progress.
Though the game looks and plays a lot like a cross between GTA and Mafia, the focus is on the police work, and driving down pavements, shooting pedestrians, wrecking other cars and generally doing it GTA-style is a one-way trip to Room 101 yourself, as much as you might like to let off some steam from time to time. That said, the game, while excellent, does get a little tedious after a while.
While the film noir styling, jazz soundtrack and clever cases have a lot going for them, they're presented in a linear fashion and, aside from the cases, there isn't a whole lot else to do. There are some bonus vehicles to be found dotted around, and the landmarks of the city of angels, but that's about it, and as nice as it is to cruise around in what appears to be a living, breathing city, complete with moaning pedestrians, the lack of variety is an issue.
Graphically, the game looks pretty good. While the texture pop-in is sometimes a problem, generally speaking the action holds up pretty well, especially when backed up with the brilliant motion capture work. LA of the 50s is lovingly recreated by LA Noir, and the city seems poised on the cusp of true greatness in the aftermath of World War Two.
The soundtrack is also a nice addition to the game, bringing back classic 50s numbers and a host of decent sound effects in the bargain, as well as an all-star cast for the game's meaty case-notes.
So, in closing, your honour, I declare the defendant, LA Noir, to be excellent, if sadly marred by a few minor misdemeanours. The defendant is to be commended for trying something new, but chastised for a few beginner's mistakes, like a lack of variety and the inability to take a shooter in alive. That said, the defendant should be allowed to go free, and entice other gamers with the promise of bringing a good, old-fashioned film noir cop thriller to life in your living room.
The defence rests.
- Long campaign
- Brilliant facial animations
- Lots of meaty mysteries to unravel
- A new type of gameplay
Not so good stuff
- Case after case gets old sometimes
- No way of bringing a shooter in alive
- Sometimes unfair interrogation outcomes
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