LA Noire is many things. In here one can find Grand Theft Auto, Ace Attorney and Heavy Rain; some sequences are reminiscent of Assassin's Creed, Uncharted and even Silent Hill. While such diversity can often be the sign of a very scattered and unfocused product, LA Noire is impressive in that it manages to be so many things yet remain entirely singular and focused at the same time.
Set in a staggeringly vivid rendition of 1940's Los Angeles, the player assumes the role of Cole Phelps, a well-to-do cop and war hero working his way up the ranks of the LAPD by solving various murders and scandals which are somehow linked to a massive drug theft. The prevailing sentiment here is one of authenticity. LA Noire had a long development cycle and that very much shows. The sheer level of detail in this massive city is astounding. From the vibrant and animate streets to the folds and creases of a handwritten letter, evidence of the care with which LA Noire was constructed is ever-present. That's not to say it is faultless, but such a cohesive and professional level of presentation rare.
Much media attention was given to the game's facial animations – easily the most advanced to date. A character's demeanour is instantly recognizable, their faces accurately illustrating a whole range of emotions. This plays a significant part not just in aesthetics but in the interview sequences of gameplay where one is required to judge whether or not the interviewee is lying. Certain characters (or perhaps actors) will hide their secrets poorly - the most obvious tell being when they break eye contact. On the other side of this there are some exceptional performances here, John Noble's being particularly impressive. That said though, while the facial animations are superb, the characters' bodies can occasionally behave rather rigidly and seem robotic.
As mentioned before, LA Noire is quite varied. In fact the game itself is a strange patchwork of play styles – driving, examining crime scenes, interviews, chasing and apprehending suspects... As the game progresses, the player works their way through four different crime desks. Starting as a beat cop and moving on to traffic, this is where the basics of the game are learned. This then leads on to homicide, vice and arson, each providing a slightly different take on things. While traffic and vice are relatively short affairs without much substance, homicide and arson feature a more sizable and compelling set of cases.
The most significant parts of LA Noire are arguably its crime scene investigations and interviews. Examining a crime scene plays a lot like the Ace Attorney games, one scans the environment for clues relevant to the case - these are prompted by a controller vibration. Some are obvious and unmissable, like a naked and battered corpse, others not so much. While one can interact with many of the game's objects, they won't always be related to the situation at hand. Though some help is provided here, upon discovering all the clues in a given area, the music will conclude. There is also an intuition system which can be used to reveal the locations of all an area's clues in times of need. In general, these parts of the game are very slow paced and meticulous but discovering new clues and piecing together more parts of the case's mystery can be quite compelling.
Interviews are, again, somewhat akin to Ace Attorney though, in this case, much deeper. The notebook (which also functions as a menu when it comes to examining case information) contains a set of questions for the suspect. After listening to their response, the player is then prompted to choose one of three options, truth, doubt or lie. While truth and lie are self explanatory, doubt can be ambiguous at first. This option should be chosen when it appears that the suspect is lying or perhaps not telling the whole truth but the evidence to support an outright accusation is not available. While it's usually very easy to know when lie is the correct response (there will be a clue in Cole's notebook directly contradicting something in their statement), it's more difficult to know when to choose truth or doubt. Though this system plays out similarly to Heavy Rain with its 'what happens happens' attitude – badly handled interviews cannot be revisited – it's perhaps not as refined a feature. A messed up interview in the early stages of a case can often result in a lack of information required to correctly navigate later interviews or even to understand the case at its conclusion, which is frustrating. Thankfully though, the intuition system may also be used here to eliminate an incorrect answer or indicate how other players proceeded (which at this stage is basically the same as being given the correct answer). This can be very helpful as certain suspects can be frustratingly selfish when it comes to sharing information.
Driving plays a similarly large part in the game's events however it is, to an extent, optional. When travelling between locations one can opt to have their partner drive which simply skips ahead to the next destination – a nice option for those who are primarily interested in the investigation aspects of play. There are occasional car chases, however, so driving is not completely optional. Generally though, exploring Los Angeles' streets is the more rewarding choice.
Shoot outs are fairly simple here. The game features basic cover-shooting scenarios, along with regenerating health and automatic aiming. It's never challenging but it can be fun due to the location a particular scene might be set. A tense sequence in a labyrinthine series of underground tunnels was particularly memorable. But regardless, it won't thrill shooter fans and it won't annoy those who favor other styles of gameplay – it's simply there.
Finally, chasing and beating up criminals are two of the more minor parts of play. Chases, especially across rooftops can be rather fun and often provide some of the game's most scenic adventures. Fist-fights are, similarly, rather basic and not particularly deep but they are few in number and tend to last less than 30 seconds regardless. Like with shoot outs, these sequences aren't generally too thrilling or imposing but do serve their purpose.
Like any open-world sandbox style game, LA Noire has side missions. Lots of side missions. While going about their investigations, the player can respond to street crimes called out over police radio and take part in small scenarios like shoot outs, car chases, fist-fights, etc. Upon completion, one is rewarded with small amounts of experience. LA Noire features a rudimentary levelling system which has little impact on the overall game. Gaining levels generally rewards intuition points which, as mentioned earlier, may be used to ask for hints when stuck. Some other cosmetic awards like different costumes are also available. As well as street crimes, exploring Los Angeles and finding its various landmarks will also award experience. Finally, for the obsessive collectors there are golden film reels scattered throughout the entire city (Assassin's Creed flag collectors rejoice). The side missions here aren't massively significant but they are a nice way to experience more parts of the city that may not otherwise be seen during the main story.
It's fair enough to gather from all this that the plot is the main driving force of LA Noire. As mentioned earlier, some of the characters are fantastically portrayed; Phelps himself being one of them. The main issue here however is that, ignoring the side missions, LA Noire will take at least 20 hours to complete, 30 without rushing. This game is long, possibly too long. Certainly, it has some pacing issues. The plot peaks at about half way through and then takes a long time to regain its footing. The fact that the gameplay remains unchanged throughout its entirety contributes to this issue. There are times where it is necessary to push through some uninteresting cases in order to get to the more exciting ones. Certain aspects of the plot aren't woven particularly well either. About two thirds of the way through, a particularly dramatic event happens yet so many of the characters involved are barely noticed or mentioned up until that point that it is difficult to really care about what is happening.
Such criticisms might seem harsh when the overall standard of story in games is, generally speaking, quite low. The fact is that LA Noire has raised the bar so high with its presentation that it is difficult not to compare its story and plot to similar films or television shows rather than other video games. Make no mistake, it does a fantastic job and the complaints herein are the type made against a fantastic product that could be just a little better rather than a struggling title that needs to patch up gaping flaws.
With the reports of poor working conditions at Team Bondi and the recent news that they are no more, it is bittersweet that their final game was such a tremendous success. LA Noire masterfully meshes gameplay styles to provide a unique experience for its players. Though it may be too long for some and slow-paced in parts, anyone who appreciates the exploration and discovery of an intricately crafted world will certainly find something here to love. By pushing the boundaries of facial animation and employing such a large and in some cases, famous, cast of actors LA Noire has certainly set a new precedent in gaming. Even though Team Bondi won't be around to continue their legacy, it is certain that LA Noire will have a positive influence on future products.