L.A. Noire (PlayStation 3 [reviewed], Xbox 360)
Developer: Team Bondi / Rockstar Games
Publisher: Rockstar Games
To be released: May 17, 2011
L.A. Noire is a game that will take many players by surprise. With its arcade driving controls and open world, not to mention the backing of Rockstar, your average gamer could be forgiven for thinking that this 1947 detective game might merely be Grand Theft Auto played from the other side of the law. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. L.A. Noire has more in common with point-and-click adventure games than open-world crime simulators, and it's better in practice than it may look on paper.
This isn't just a game where you drive around shooting drug dealers and chasing fiends in the name of rough justice. While there are plenty of shootouts and car chases to go around, the main spine of the game is in good old-fashioned detective work. Each case from the game's four main desks -- Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson -- starts with a crime scene, and as detective Cole Phelps, players will need to investigate for clues.
The collection of clues is an integral part of any case, as players will need to not only harvest them, but know when to bring them out during an interrogation. Some clues require manipulation, which is easily handled by the movement stick. Moving the analog stick causes Phelps' hand to rotate, allowing the player to spot vital information. Some items can also be opened up or unfolded, revealing evidence hidden within. L.A. Noire is good about player feedback, with vibrations and musical cues letting you know when you're near an item, or when all clues have been discovered. If a player feels this is too much like hand-holding, the cues can be turned off to make things more tricky.
L.A. Noire's many cases are split evenly between clue-hunting and interrogating. At various points during the course of the game, players will need to interview witnesses and suspects, and here's where L.A. Noire's utterly astounding facial animations come into play. L.A. Noire relies on a player's own ability to read body language and facial expressions, as they attempt to determine if a witness/suspect is being truthful, telling a lie, or omitting a vital piece of information. Giveaways, such as averting eye contact, false smiles, and awkward scratching, all come into play, and some characters are better liars than others.
I cannot express enough how impressed I am with the facial animation, and how it's been used not only as eye candy, but as an invaluable part of the gameplay itself. It's a joy to interview suspects and watch them talk in such a realistic fashion, using their movements to inform your own decisions. Without the animation, the game simply would not work, but I'm thrilled to report that it works beautifully.
Phelps can deal with a suspect's statements in one of three ways. He can take them as truth, call certain facts into doubt, or accuse them of telling an outright lie. If he makes an accusation, it needs to be backed up with evidence recovered from the locations explored previously. If the player suspects a lie but lacks the proof, a statement can be called into doubt. Naturally, characters aren't always hiding something, and in that case, their words can be taken as fact. Should Cole read a suspect correctly and select the right answer, he may get a new lead. If he fails, he could miss out on vital information.
For the most part, the interviews work to a fabulous degree, but they don't always make sense. Some of the logic seems a little arbitrary, especially when it comes to using contrary evidence against a suspect's statement. One also doesn't always know exactly how Phelps will call a statement into doubt or phrase an accusation, with his more unpredictable statements occasionally ruining a line of inquiry for you. While these moments do occur, and can be rather frustrating, I must stress how satisfying it is when it does work and you successfully interrogate a person. Getting a suspect on the ropes and making him divulge something crucial is particularly elating, and will make any player feel instantly more intelligent. Conversely, in those times when you screw up a question and it's definitely due to your own lack of perception, it can really sting. It can also affect the way a case plays out, too.
It's the fact that L.A. Noire's interrogations rely so heavily on natural intuition that really makes the whole thing work. As humans, we know how to read faces, and that's what L.A. Noire exploits. To be able to have a player think, "Okay, I can tell this guy is lying, but do I have proof?" is what this game is all about, and the fact that it works so well is truly, truly jaw-dropping. There's nothing about the game's internal algorithms that determines your success in this arena. It's all about how good you are, as a human being, at knowing when someone's being straight with you and when they're trying to be sneaky. I can think of no other game that has exploited a player's innate mental faculties so deftly.
L.A Noire isn't just about finding clues and asking questions. Action sequences are peppered throughout the game to keep things frisky, and Cole will have to pursue various suspects on foot and in cars, get into brawls, or engage in violent shootouts. There's certainly a greater GTA flavor in these sequences, but they feel a lot tighter, with some impressive scripting and pacing, especially in the game's multitude of car chases. Avoiding screeching cars, having your partner shoot out tires, and stopping just as your suspect's vehicle gets hit by a bus and skids out of control all add up to create some of the game's most memorable moments.
The action sequences are held back somewhat by a few dodgy control issues. Sprinting and shooting in cover are both handled by one button, and needing to manually back out of cover to chase somebody is a little fiddly. Phelp's movement controls could also be better; he takes wild swings to turn, and sometimes moves in stutters due to confused animations. These are minor grievances, however, and once players get used to the way Phelps handles, there shouldn't be too much aggravation.
Much of the action is found in various "Street Crime" missions. These purely optional missions are activated over the police radio. Activating a Street Crime opens up a brief objective that does away with the investigative process and focuses purely on combat or pursuit. Street Crimes are unique to each of the four Desks, and you'll have to return to a previous Desk to clean up any ones you may have missed.
Successful interrogations and Street Crime completions award experience points, which contribute to Rank increases. Ranks bring special bonuses, such as unlockable vehicles, extra costumes and, most importantly, Intuition Points. Intuition can be used during the course of an investigation and can be invaluable to a player who's stuck in a rut. Using an Intuition Point during a crime scene will locate all clues on the mini-map, while using it during an interview can either remove one of the possible answers (for instance, confirming that a suspect isn't lying) or activate the "Ask The Community" option, which will take the game online to find out which answer is most popular among players.
When added together, the various elements of L.A. Noire combine to form one of the slickest, most impressively written games I've played in a long time. While the game has its low points -- with the Homicide desk surprisingly being the weakest section of the game due to some questionable narrative ideas that I won't spoil here -- L.A. Noire's overall plot is decidedly strong, up there with the best the medium has to offer. By the time it concludes, players will be shocked, satisfied and perhaps even a little angry.
The characters are all rather memorable, with some highlights including the overtly religious Irish police captain, the deadbeat Arson detective, and the snake-like Roy Earle of AD Vice. Each case has its own intricately written story, with a unique set of characters and a fitting conclusion. The ability to replay cases is very welcome indeed, as some of them are simply too good to just be played once.
I also have to congratulate Team Bondi on tackling a number of disturbing themes in this game in a most classy and tactful way. There are moments in L.A. Noire that truly shock, with utterly horrifying moments and sleazy characters who run the gamut of the worst of humanity. L.A. Noire never plays these instances for aughs, and never shocks just for the sake of it. There is one particular crime scene that disturbed me more than anything else a game has ever produced, but it only served to make the story that much more compelling. Those looking for maturity and adult themes done right in gaming need look no further than Team Bondi and their efforts.
If I have to dredge up a consistent negative for the game, it's that the AI could do with a little more fine-tuning. Players are given a partner for each crime desk, and while they generally keep out of the way and are good at defending themselves in a fight, they regularly like to hinder a player's movement during investigations, standing in front of them and trapping them in tight enclosures by refusing to move for a few moments. I've also had partners and civilians actually run in front of me while I'm trying to shoot at a criminal. If you hit an innocent just once, you'll fail the sequence.
Aside from facial animation, the motion capture overall is damn fine. Every now and then, you may be able to spot a clear disparity between the animation of the faces and the heads they're attached to, but such occasions are rare and easily ignored. I'm so pleased that the game managed to get characters that moved realistically yet didn't dive into the uncanny valley. These characters look believable, but not to a creepy degree, save for a few female faces that can look a little weird at times. In terms of the environment, a huge deal of L.A is rendered in a highly authentic 1940s style, and there are some impressive draw distances with only the occasional instance of textures or objects popping in. Otherwise, the framerate is smooth and the whole game runs well. I didn't encounter a single glitch, which is rare for an open-world game.
The movements and voice-overs were done by the same actors, who also look frighteningly like their digital counterparts (doing a Google Image Search for the actors can make for a fun -- and terrifying -- meta-game). All the voice acting, with the exception of a handful of bit characters, is outstanding. Professional and naturalistic, one of the finest vocal casts you'll find -- and this is coming from someone who is very discerning about voice acting.
L.A. Noire is a testament to the possibility of bringing dark, adult, mature games to the mainstream market. When I say mature, I don't just mean that it throws in sex and violence under the pretense of being for grown-ups. It is truly mature, with the kind of narrative you'd only expect to see in a major TV drama series or crime movie. No game released this generation has tackled the subject matter found in L.A. Noire with the same degree of intelligence and respect, and no game has blended gameplay from various genres so seamlessly, in a way that delivers something far more unique in experience than the sum of its parts.
Add that sense of uniqueness and intelligence to the fact that L.A. Noire is a terrific bloody videogame, and you have what is guaranteed to be a classic for years to come. True maturity and narrative depth in mainstream gaming begins right here.
Check out extended L.A. Noire coverage on Flixist and Japanator.
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