Anytime Rockstar releases a new game it’s a big deal, and why wouldn’t it be? With a track record that includes the Grand Theft Auto series and Red Dead Redemption, I think it’s safe to say that the company can do no wrong. Their newest is L.A. Noire, from developers Team Bondi.
Boasting state of the art lighting and mo-cap effects, the game offers players a unique experience by placing them in the shoes of a L.A. cop in the 1940′s. Taking on a film noire approach in both narrative and style, the team at Rockstar come to us with yet another fantastic gaming experience that certainly stands as one of 2011′s best.
Every once in a while a game comes around that totally changes the playing field. A game that re-defines the genre, offering something truly new and unique, something fresh and exciting. L.A. Noire is that game. It’s quite frankly a revolution in videogaming. And while it’s not perfect, it’s one hell of a step forward for videogames and another win for Rockstar.
You play as Cole Phelps, a decorated war hero returning home to a crime ridden Los Angeles. When you start off, Cole is part of the LAPD. He’s just a rookie cop though, working the streets and handling low level crime. As the game progresses, you move through the ranks and as you do, you take on bigger and bigger cases, until you’re investigating serial killers and arson.
If you’ve been following L.A. Noire, you’ve probably heard about a technology called MotionScan. This is what was used to handle the motion capture in the game and it is truly as revolutionary as they said it would be. MotionScan provides for stunning motion capture work, setting a new benchmark in the industry that will be hard to match up to. The facial animations and lip syncing are incredible and completely captivating, drawing you fully into the twisted and seedy underworld of the Los Angeles crime scene. And it’s not only there to marvel at, the motion capture is imperative to the game.
As Cole, you go through the game solving case after case. A key gameplay mechanic that comes into play during every case is interviewing witnesses and suspects. During these interviews you have to determine if the person is telling the truth or lying. This is where the facial animations are crucial. You have to watch how the characters react when they speak. You look for twitches, ticks, blinks, any telling sign that will lead you to properly question them. Of course, if you’re unable to tell if they’re being honest or not, it won’t break the game, you’ll just have a harder time solving the case. So here more than ever, paying attention and watching the facial animations is key. And without the MotionScan technology, the game would have failed on this level.
It’s not only that, the facial animations are so realistic that they really propel the game to a whole new level. The expressions, the nuances, the ticks, everything, it’s also so perfect and backed by some fantastic voice acting, the characters here are really a marvel to behold. The level of emoting is astonishing.
During the interview sections of the game, you ask questions based on evidence you have collected. The evidence comes from investigating the locations and crime scene related to the case beforehand. After each answer the person gives you, you must determine whether they are lying or telling the truth. You can also choose to doubt them. If you make the wrong assumption though, the interview will come to a halt, forcing you to find a new path to solve the crime. And be careful, if you accuse someone of lying without evidence to back up your accusation, they’ll shut down, refusing to talk to you. That’s why it’s important to collect as much evidence as possible before interviewing, so you can back yourself up.
Now while L.A. Noire is an open world game, it really doesn’t need to be. The game is very driven and the narrative pushes you down a preset path. It can feel almost linear at times and you’ll find yourself with an itch to free roam and explore. The only problem is, there’s not much reason to. There are side missions and collectibles but the free roaming aspect of the game ultimately comes off as underwhelming and unnecessary, especially when compared to a game like GTA, which it has an abundant number of similarities to.
You see, everytime you solve a case, a new one starts and you’re put onto the crime scenes to begin investigating it. You can go off course and wander the city, but there’s just not much reason to. The game is very commanding in that it steers you down the path it wants, making sure you end up where you’re supposed to. Its boundaries aren’t as loose as a GTA game and so the open world nature of it feels pointless. You can’t even draw your gun unless the game wants you to. You don’t drive around picking up missions from people either, instead the game is divided up for you into the cases it wants you to solve. Everything kind of feeds into each other.
That being said, the world is most definitely alive and eventful. It’s also wonderfully created. You’ll notice all the landmarks that reside in LA and coupled with some real world icons like gangster Mickey Cohen and the Black Dahlia murders, the game has a great sense of authenticity. The presentation is also great as Team Bondi have captured the time period perfectly, incorporating everything from music to fashion to ensure that we really feel like we’re in 1940′s LA.
Interestingly enough, within each case, you do have a certain amount of freedom. Each case has a few ways to solve it and you have motivation to solve it quickly and easily, since it will earn you praise from the Captain, as well as more experience points. At first, the cases are pretty to the point and simple, but as you progress, they become more complex and difficult to figure out. Some of them will take a good amount of attention to detail, a good use of your brain, and maybe even a bit of luck. They also become more interesting, keeping you intrigued and hooked, wanting to find out how it all plays out.
Speaking of interesting, the narrative is excellent. Each character is well developed and everyone has secrets to hide, even Cole. The game also does earn its M rating. The crimes are brutal, the language rough and the subject matter, at times, gruesome. Within each case you’ll meet new characters and crooks but there is a greater plot encompassing it all. Certain names, characters and events will pop up again and again and the excellent writing creates a fantastic story that is interesting all the way through. It all culminates in something utterly compelling, especially when mixed with the outstanding motion capture and voice acting.
Gameplay mechanics are simple yet effective. Each case starts off at the crime scene. You’ll walk around investigating, looking for clues. You can talk to witnesses, or other law enforcement officials and you start to build your case. This process is surprisingly detailed and at times the game will throw you little puzzles, having you doing things like piecing together broken evidence or manipulating objects to find the significance of them.
Once you gather your evidence, you’ll likely visit a location in hopes of interviewing a potential suspect or person of interest. Upon your arrival at the location, you can do a bit of investigating and gathering evidence and then you’ll start the interview. Each question only has one right answer, and you can only get to it by correctly choosing between truth, lie or doubt. The good thing is though even if you don’t get the answer right, instead of restarting you simply continue on with the only downside being that you lost out on that piece of information. But fear not as the game will have you make up for it some other way during the case.
Now there’s a bit of a learning curve here. Sometimes it’s quite obvious when a suspect is telling the truth or lying but at other times, it’s quite tough. Especially when trying to distinguish between doubt and lie. You’ll have to compare and contrast their different reactions and kind of put yourself in their shoes, look at the motives and all. Think how they would think and see it from their point of view. That’s the only way you’ll guess correctly between the three options.
And while this may come off as a frustrating experience to some, you will get the hang of it. That being said, sometimes it does feel like there really is no way to know if someone is lying, telling the truth, or holding back and there will be instances where you’re very certain you have the right answer only to be shocked when you find out you were wrong. The logic doesn’t always add up and sometimes guessing plays too big a factor.
Despite this, the game never really becomes too difficult. You get the hang of it after a short while. When you start off you’re not exactly sure what to do but eventually you learn the routine. You arrive on the crime scene, start looking for evidence, speak to the coroner, gather enough evidence before talking to a witness etc. You’ll subconsciously know the drill so to speak. Little things that the game points out at the start, like looking on mailboxes to see which apartment the suspect lives in, will become second nature. As you get into it, you’ll really feel like you’re doing the job.
As mentioned before, there is a lot of freedom in cases. You can’t ever fail a case really, you will always get the bad guy (although the more effectively you do it will mean the more experience points you get). L.A. Noire is more about how you get the bad guy, not will you get the bad guy.
Did you notice all the clues? Was there a crucial piece of evidence you missed that may of helped lead to a quicker arrest? Was wasting your time at that location really necessary, maybe you could of solved it by only going to 2 locations instead of 3 if you had got the right answers or found the right evidence. It’s things like these that will have you replaying cases (which you can do so easily). You’ll find yourself wanting to solve cases in the most efficient and effective manner possible.
Now if you do solve a case sloppily, with little evidence, the Captain will have some words with you but it never really results in anything. He’ll tell you he’s disappointed and he’s going to put you back on the street. The problem is, you never experience that, after the cutscene is done, you’re right back to your old ways, starting off on another case. You may end up with a poor ranking on your case report but it really doesn’t effect you that much so there’s really never any real punishment for solving cases in a sloppy/poor manner.
Breaking up the dialogue heavy cases are action sequences which are punctuated throughout. You’ll find yourself engaged in on foot and in car chases, shootouts with criminals and hand to hand combat. It all feels a bit lacklustre though when compared to the rest of the game. Still, it’s good enough for the amount that we’re actually engaged in it and it never breaks the game or anything. Also, while we’re talking about downsides, the AI, especially from your partner, comes into question at times and can become a hindrance.
Spanning over 3 discs, the game offers 21 story missions and 40 side missions, there is a lot for you to do here. L.A. Noire will eat up a lot of your time but it’s ultimately an utterly satisfying experience. The whole routine of solving cases can become repetitive at times but the gripping narrative and excellent characters will have you hooked. It’s easy to see why the game may not be for everyone but it truly is a fantastic experience that has honestly set a new standard in the gaming world, and one that will be hard to follow.
L.A. Noire was released on May 17th, 2011.