Upon hearing about Rockstar’s next upcoming title taking the GTA model into the 1940s and casting the player as a straight-laced LA police officer, I was understandably excited. Seven years in the making, LA Noire promises to place the emphasis on narrative, detection and human interaction rather than shooting machine guns and running over prostitutes. This approach alienated many fans immediately but excited the keen imaginations of others. The end product for the most part lives up to the hype but history has proven that very ambitious projects such as this often polarises popular opinion and LA Noire’s reach could work against it in the minds of many gamers.
LA Noire is a funny old game and one which is proving hard to pigeonhole. It’s not a GTA-clone sandbox, it’s not a shooter; it’s not a Quantic Dream-level narrative-driven adventure nor is it a puzzle game. It is however all of these things at once, and often something else entirely.
Set in the heart of sin and corruption in baby-booming America, LA Noire is a thrilling crime story that offers an enchanting blend of crime scene investigation, interrogation, car chases and the occasional spat of shoot-outs or punch-ups. The gamer is cast in the role of Cole Phelps, a WWII veteran who survived hell on earth in the Pacific Theatre only to be unceremoniously dumped into the ranks of the LAPD who themselves are struggling to stay afloat amid a sea of corruption, vice and violence sweeping the post-war nation. Phelps’ journey takes him through the many ranks and job descriptions on offer in the LAPD and his career spans routine highway policing, petty arson and culminates in taking down vice bosses, sex rings and ultimately solving a series of high-profile murders. Along this sordid path the player is exposed the seldom-visited and frightfully twisted centre of Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Giving away the story would ruin the single most important aspect of this game so whilst toptoeing around potential spoilers it would be remiss not to mention that the story itself is rock-solid but is interwoven with the authentic history of Los Angeles; among his many cases, Phelps will discover the true identity of the Black Dahlia murderer and lock horns with genuine Jewish Mafioso Mickey Cohen. Weaving a fictional tale in and around real historical events often feels trite and lacks any real verity but LA Noire pulls off the tricky task and the end result is a story that feels deep and Phelps’ presence within it is pleasing.
The game itself was developed by Australian-based (duh) Team Bondi, headed up by ex Team Soho lead Brendan McNamara. McNamara was a director of 2002’s The Getaway, so there’s no surprise that an ethnic, narrative-driven third-person game would feel so concrete when it’s a descendent of one of the PlayStation 2’s most engaging titles.
Much like its cockney forebear, LA Noire’s attention to detail is staggering. Thousands of archived photographs of 1940s Los Angeles were used not only to recreate the city itself but also to accurately model the traffic conditions and tram routes. The number of people playing the game who will have experienced LA in 1947 will be considerably few but regardless, Team Bondi’s efforts to imbue the map with all the minutiae of a living city are admirable and endlessly impressive. Not only is the map incredibly detailed, but it’s massive. If anything the total map area is too big – oftentimes travelling from one waypoint to another takes so long that the return journey is a genuine chore.
As luck would have it, the game is mostly on side. As the player progresses through the campaigns and is moved around from desk to desk, your protagonist’s stamping ground changes from one district of Los Angeles to another. Whilst working on the Homicide desk, Phelps will mostly the working in the southernmost reaches of LA whereas the Vice desk’s area of influence tends to be in the more Northern Hollywood region.
Gameplay itself is mostly based around the dynamics of genuine detective work. A stage will begin with the Chief informing our protagonist of a crime scene somewhere in the city – the stage ends once evidence has been collected, interviews conducted and a conviction handed out. The often dilatory crime scene investigation sections require a keen eye for detail and will test even the most patient players. Missing out on a vital piece of evidence in these sections can seriously hamper a player’s chances of getting a correct conviction later on. One thing that I constantly found hilarious is the 1940s-style investigative methods. In a time before DNA testing and before even fingerprinting technology, the gamer is free to manipulate the body any way they choose, getting their mucky paws all over the evidence and probably urinating into a paper cup in the corner.
The game really shines though during the interrogation sequences. Whether interviewing witnesses at the scene of the crime or following up leads and interrogating suspects, the conversation parts of this game are second to none. Revolutionary technology called MotionScan is responsible for facial animation which is frankly out of this world – there has never been facial animation of this quality in a video game ever. High definition cameras capture every actors face from thirty-two different angles to recreate perfect facsimiles of that actors face, expressions and motion. During interrogations it’s easy to read if a suspect is angry, whether their being introverted or pensive and most crucially it becomes easier to read their tells, to figure out if they’re lying. Reading the characters emotions in this way is new ground for a video game and LA Noire gains mass amounts of credit in this area – the interrogation gameplay is truly revolutionary and revealing the truth in a scenario is an achievement in itself – an achievement any gamer will feel proud of as this requires skill and attention to detail rather than reliance on gimmicks or quick time events.
Unfortunately though the coin has two sides. For all the ground gained in the wonderfully-presented facial expressions and the dazzling acting present in the game, the interrogation sections fall down once the gamer is required to provide evidence. Let’s assume for a second that in a given scenario a player has gathered all the required vidence. Upon asking a witness a question, he notices that the witness is darting her eyes across the room, is awkwardly biting her bottom lip – classic tells that she’s lying. Calling her out as a liar at this point would require hard evidence, or the gamer “loses” that question. Phelps can doubt what she says, but skipping a lie when Cole has the correct evidence will also result in a loss. Frankly it’s these points that let the game down. In many scenarios it’s not obvious at all whether to select doubt or lie.
[SPOILERS] In one such scenario, Cole accuses a man of lying and is then told to provide evidence that the suspect is blackmailing a member of the public. Selecting Proof of Blackmail from Cole’s list of evidence is plainly wrong – the correct evidence is the cheque he’d been paid with. In another case Cole is tracking down a serial arsonist and is asked to provide proof that a suspect had tampered with a gas valve. Proof has already been levied that ties the suspect to the scene of the crime, so the obvious proof is the tampered valve itself. Sorry, wrong answer; the correct answer was a testimony from another murder suspect.[/SPOILERS]
It’s points like this in the game which seriously get my dander up. The game offers precious little to help the gamer find his way through the often confusing questions. Sure, a little detective skill is required to excel at this game, but surely the main reason people enjoy video games is that they get to role play, to spend some time in the shoes of a hero. If Call of Duty required players to physically run around with a heavy rifle and a burgen full of kit on their back I predict it would be played a lot less. If Tony Hawk’s required the player to already be professional-level at skateboarding I doubt it would be one of the most popular games of all time.
When you accuse a suspect of lying, they often respond in a confusing manner. A conversation might go like this:
“I think you’re lying – I know you were at that diner this afternoon”
“Oh really? There’s no proof tying me to that communist propaganda”
The above is a fabricated set of questions, but the nonsensical response is one players will deal with when playing this game. This completely throws the gamer off-balance – what is the correct evidence to use now? Do I use the witness testimony tying him to the diner, why has be suddenly mentioned something else? And more importantly why I can’t I ask the same question twice or try another piece of evidence? Is this how real police work is undertaken?
In an attempt to combat the invidious problems herein, Team Bondi have allowed the use of a finite pool of “Intuition Points” which work surprisingly like lifelines in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? This is a good addition but gamers are likely to use them up too quickly whilst still learning the ropes and these points are incredibly hard to earn in the later stages of the game. LA Noire will be remembered for its conversations; the essential quiddity of this game is in its interactions, it’s just such a shame that on this occasion the reach exceeds its grasp.
The remaining game is frightfully lackadaisical. There is precious little feeling of urgency – even mid-case, where time is of the essence, Cole can casually drive around the city looking for landmarks or secret cars. The entire game occurs at walking speed – there are even large sections of the game where running is literally disabled. Gunplay is toned down and for a game like this that works – the atmosphere of the game would be easily ruined if Phelps whipped out a 12-guage and started shooting up the place during a routine witness interview.
Occasionally though whilst driving from place to place, an APB will come across on the police band radio – any officers please respond. These sections are called street crimes and occur at random, often inopportune times. The street crimes pepper the main game quite pleasantly though, offering a small detour from the main case and are the main source of the game’s action; whether the player is tasked with thwarting a robbery, talking down a would-be suicide or responding to a domestic disturbance, most often the street crimes culminate in an exciting car chase or a shoot-out and are over in around three minutes. A lovely way to punctuate the otherwise slothful proceedings of the game proper. Also the first street mission I took part in ended with a punch-up, which the game does staggeringly well. During the fight, Cole got hit so hard in the face that his hat fell off – a moment which still makes me laugh thinking about it now.
My closing comments are about the game’s rakish presentation. Each case is presented with a title plate which harkens back to film noir and really sets the mood. Movies like The Maltese Falcon or White Heat are clearly being channeled and the atmosphere is tangible in these sections, something which this reviewer enjoyed a great deal.
As well as the staggering facial detail, each actor is very well-realised with era-authentic costumes and hairstyles. Considering practically the entire cast of the game is the cast of Mad Men, I imagine the transition was fairly easy for the actors. The audio is of an exceptional quality – the voice acting is extensive with hours and hours of conversation, interrogation and incidental snippets and a brilliant cameo from John Noble, whom I love.
LA Noire is the first game I’ve played which boasts true global illumination technology. This is something which adds to the visuals no end – gone is the pre-baked lighting from previous games and in comes a truly global daylight engine – no mean feat for a console.
Truly there are elements present in LA Noire that cannot be bested – the game is visually bewildering; lighting, animation and presentation are top-notch; the story is brilliant and is executed meritoriously but the game is seriously let down by its technical and design-based aspects. The game really is too long considering the sleepy pace the designers have laid out; I would have enjoyed this game more had the main story finished after the Black Dahlia case – the next two desks could easily have been saved for a sequel and the side-quests and collectables would add just enough replayability. The interrogations are sometimes excellent, other times infuriating and nonsensical which leaves the player bewildered and distrustful of the game. The cars control like crap too, but that’s a minor gripe to be honest.
LA Noire is a game which will be remembered for breaking new ground and pushing the medium of video games further toward interactive fiction. It’s a landmark title which unfortunately falls short of the lofty goals it set itself. There is no inherent shame in that and Team Bondi deserve credit for the bravery and dedication they’ve invested into their title – here’s hoping LA Noire 2 is truly the 100% game they deserve.