Let’s make one thing clear: this year’s release of L.A. Noire is not a remaster. A remaster implies a game that has had its guts ripped out, assembled on the gurney and lovingly put back together again. Look no further than the handling of the gorgeous Uncharted Collection, which came to life anew. L.A. Noire, resuscitated for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch, is more a straight port. Sure, load times and framerates get a very minor bump. Textures are cleaner. Edges are finer. Lighting is improved. But you’ll have to squint to notice these differences at all. Fans of the original expecting a generational leap forward will walk away disappointed.
And truth be told, visuals matter in LA Noire. This is the game after all that sold itself on the merits of its motion capture technology, a process that transplanted real actor’s faces into a game. Even six years later, the motion-capture work on display here is still impressive to look at, and that’s good news in a story where you need to tell the liars from the truth-tellers, distinguishing between the subtle furrow of an eyebrow, the twitch of a lip, the unwavering countenance of the truly honest. More than ever, those lovingly rendered faces grind against the rest of the world, one that has clearly been cut from a different cloth.
But the circa 2011 visuals aren’t the biggest problem. The real downer is unchanged from the original game and, let’s face it, was never likely to get sorted out. It’s you, Cole Phelps, the dour tight-lipped protagonist. The robot in the suit. The sort of guy that tells a grieving widow to stop crying and start answering some questions. The supporting cast make some hilarious quips at Cole’s expense, letting you know the writers are aware of what a purse-lipped jerk Cole is. But that doesn’t make it any better that you’re stuck with him for 20 hours.
Even so, L.A. Noire is remarkably good at scratching the itch for a James Ellroy novel splashed across a blu-ray disc. It’s a mood piece, full of atmosphere and clever window dressing and subtle nuances, like the choice of music, and the murmurings of the Black Dahlia Killer as you take Cole from one assignment to the next. Cole starts life as a lowly foot soldier in stiff starched uniform before getting his break in Traffic. L.A. Noire takes a far more interesting turn by the time you reach Homicide, where a series of grisly murders smack of the work of a copycat killer. In Vice, you dig into the dirty drug-ridden underbelly of post-war Los Angeles. Much of the story up to this point is a series of self-contained episodes, but there is an overarching narrative that rumbles on in the background and by the time you reach Arson, it’s brought sharply into focus. For players who stay the course, L.A. Noire hits a brilliant high note as it uproots you from the routine you’ve settled into and hurtles towards a surprising conclusion.
The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions offer the standard 21 cases alongside the five DLC missions that shipped with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3’s Complete Edition (two extra Traffic assignments, two Vice missions and an extra stint in Arson). That’s 26 cases in all, which, frankly, is enough. By the midway mark you’ll be well familiar with L.A. Noire’s rhythm (a few twists notwithstanding). Episodes begin with a briefing followed by an inspection of the crime scene as you scour for clues before moving to the next key location. But L.A. Noire’s trump card? Its interrogation sequences. Here Cole puts his charmless questioning style to the test against a gallery of witnesses.
Interrogations can be brilliant fun. But equally, they can be infuriating. You see, the whole exercise is built around deducing whether a suspect is outright lying, bending the truth or being honest. Think you’ve spotted a lie, make an accusation and back it up with evidence. Think you’re handling a minor fib, doubt the story. Believe what you’re hearing, placate the suspect. Sounds good, right? Except you’ll make your careful choice and then Cole will wind up saying something completely unexpected, something patently untrue, and you’ll realize you’ve botched it despite your best faith. If only you could see what Cole was going to say.
This was a problem back in 2011. Interrogations are too unpredictable, too hard to control. And cases can be rendered incomplete as a result. And guess what? It’s still a problem now. You’d think six years would be long enough to overhaul the system and get it working properly, but barring one cursory surface tweak, the developers haven’t changed anything at all. Thus, L.A. Noire feels like an even bigger missed opportunity than before. Small things, like being able to save on-the-fly, would have made for a nice change of pace.
If you’re new to L.A. Noire, you’ll find a lot to like. Just don’t expect perfection, or a true open sandbox for that matter. In the vein of the early Mafia games, the world is more a stage for story than a place you ever feel like you need to explore. There are minor side quests you can tackle off the beaten track, but they’re very much concessions, packed in to check-off all the requisite boxes that you would expect from an “open-world” game. In the same spirit, there are half-hearted shooting bits, telegraphed chase sequences and a few car duels.
The beating heart of L.A. Noire is its ability to make you feel like a 1940s detective rubbing your nose against the seedy underbelly of a city full of secrets. At its best, it’s worth savoring: a slavish, methodical recreation of period perfect Los Angeles with the pomp, tumult and glamour of this fascinating time in history. But even these considerable charms can’t hide a half-hearted port that comes with a $40 price tag to boot. Want our advice? Go for the novelty factor of the Switch version instead. Though we’ve only played a few hours of it, curling up to L.A. Noire in portable mode actually offers something measurably new. We’ll take that over a game that’s been booted back to life for newer consoles with only a minor cosmetic face lift to show for it.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided to us by the publisher.
The beating heart of L.A. Noire is its ability to make you feel like a 1940s detective rubbing your nose against the seedy underbelly of a city full of secrets. But those considerable charms can't hide a half-hearted port that comes with a $40 price tag to boot.