The development of L.A. Noire has been long and tumultuous. Spearheaded by Team Bondi in conjunction with Rockstar, the game has been in development for 7 years, hopping platforms and exclusivity status in that time. With the critically lauded Red Dead Redemption last year, and now L.A. Noire, Rockstar has been going to great lengths to step out of their normal Grand Theft Auto world. While featuring some absolutely astounding new facial animation technology, L.A. Noire fails to reach the heights of Red Dead Redemption, but may still be worth a look for many.
In L.A. Noire, you play as Cole Phelps, a decorated WWII veteran and beat cop intent on moving up the ranks. Cole quickly advances to traffic detective, and as the story progresses, he moves through homicide, vice, and arson, getting a new partner in each department. Cole is well-developed and interesting, and excellently played by actor Aaron Staton of Mad Men fame. As a straight cop in a corrupt town, Cole is unfailingly committed to justice, and his desire to achieve it often conflicts with the attitudes of his partners. Most of the departments have an overarching plot which ties together their individual cases, and these are interesting. Unfortunately the cases themselves don’t always fare so well, with a number of them being forgettable, but overall L.A. Noire has a pretty impressive narrative.
And it’s good that the narrative fares so well, because there’s not all that much “game” outside of it. L.A. Noire follows a simple pattern: investigate, interrogate, accuse. Investigation involves walking around and picking up or looking through clues. Interrogation will have you choosing whether to trust a person of interest, doubt them and press them for more information, or accuse them of lying by presenting contradicting evidence. If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably played an Ace Attorney game in the past, because these gameplay mechanics are almost identical. L.A. Noire’s twist on the model comes with its revolutionary facial animation. The ability for real actors to express small changes in emotion and expression adds an interesting dynamic to deciding how to confront persons of interest. While the game starts out with some almost ridiculously over-dramatic expressions of guilt to clue you in, these become more subtle as the game progresses, making it an interesting and unique form of challenge to decide whether the person you're questioning is lying, holding back, or telling the truth.
Of course, since it is built on the Grand Theft Auto IV engine, L.A. Noire shares some features of Rockstar’s previous game. Firefights, fist fights, car chases, and on-foot chases break out on occasion over the course of the cases. The cover and fire system is the same as GTAIV, and just as in GTAIV it functions pretty well once you get used to it. The various chases, fist-fights, and firefights don’t really add much variety to the game, and eventually the core mechanics become very repetitive. You’ve experienced pretty much every major gameplay element within the first 2 hours of the game, and from there they are repeated endlessly throughout the rest of the game.
1947 Los Angeles has been beautifully recreated for L.A. Noire, and the game features an impressive 95 vehicles in which to explore the city. Unfortunately, it lacks much incentive to spend time wandering the world. As you are playing a police officer, you obviously can’t go postal on a town like you might for entertainment in Grand Theft Auto IV or Red Dead Redemption. The only extras available for exploration are some minor collectables, and the only thing to do outside of the main storyline is to resolve street crimes when they come over on the police scanner, which results in a beat cop mission of chasing down, shooting, or beating up a suspect. These are mildly entertaining, but lack the grit and appeal of the main storyline. The game would have benefitted greatly from a variety of side-activities to make the world feel more alive and interactive.
L.A. Noire is incredibly easy. The game is designed for it to be almost impossible for you to fail, even if you screw up a line of questioning. This is good because you don’t get to retry when you do fail, short of restarting your game system or restarting the case entirely. Instead your ability to perform well in interrogations and clue-hunting affects a rank which you’re granted at the end of every case. Even action sequences can be skipped if you fail them repeatedly. Because of this, L.A. Noire feels a lot like Heavy Rain, in that it’s designed to be almost like an interactive movie, focusing on moving the plot along rather than completing challenges. However, L.A. Noire lacks the emotional bite and powerful cinematics of Heavy Rain, despite its incredible facial animation.
Obviously the most hyped feature of L.A. Noire is its astounding new motion capture technology, and here it does not disappoint. The extraordinary realism and emotion expressed in L.A. Noire’s facial animations is absolutely top of the industry, but not every part of the game fares as well. The hair in particular, a carry-over from the GTAIV engine, looks incredibly fake next to the realistically animated faces, and is clearly nothing but a painted on texture on the heads of most characters. There is also the occasional (but noticeable) pop-in, and some odd glitches are present. At one point I accidentally got out of a car while my partner was driving and could not get back in. I had to commandeer another car to drive to the crime scene. On more than one occasion my partner would get stuck wile trying to get into the car as well, which was frustrating.
Interestingly, the audio is probably the best feature of the presentation. The actors who have provided their talents for facial animation are just as believable in their dialog. The dialog matches the style and slang of the time, although I noticed they shied away from a couple of the more racially outrageous terms of the past in favor of more politically acceptable, but likely less widely used ones. From the awesome 1940s film noire soundtrack to the absolutely stellar voice acting, L.A. Noire’s audio presentation is nearly flawless, with the minor quibble that the music does repeat a little too often.
There are a decent number of hours of entertainment to be found in L.A. Noire. The main story will last you a good 15-20 hours, and on top of that, there are another 40 street crimes you can respond to while driving around, and a number of collectibles in the city. You can also replay cases you've already completed if you wish to improve your scores, although that's not all that interesting once you know the answers to all the dialog. The problem is that all of this becomes incredibly repetitive and routine very quickly, and you’re unlikely to want to spend much time roaming the world or exploring, because there is almost no incentive to do so. As was previously mentioned, the game would have benefitted greatly from some decent side-activities to improve your connection with the game world.
L.A. Noire came out more of a mixed bag than I was expecting. The animation and acting are simply jaw-dropping, but the gameplay itself isn’t all that spectacular. Investigation and interrogation gameplay are nothing new and lack variety. Additionally, the individual cases lack the complexity and mystery of other crime-solving games such as Hotel Dusk and Ace Attorney, and the cinematic flair of Heavy Rain. The game also wants for any sort of variety in side-content like you’d find in Rockstar’s other games, which puts it in an odd middle-ground between genres and keeps it from being spectacular. Regardless, the overarching plots and character development keep the game interesting. It's well worth playing for the acting and animation alone, but don’t expect it to shatter genre boundaries.