Hey everyone, check it out! Game Over... continue? has its very own FaceBook page! Click on the link and 'like' us! Game Over... continue? on FaceBook!!!

Monday, June 27, 2011

L.A. Noire (9.0/10)

Let me preface this review by saying I love Rockstar, they make great games. Red Dead Redemption was probably my favorite game of last year (although it's a close call with Mass Effect 2) and GTA IV is a true classic of this generation of consoles. Plus, Rockstar's Table Tennis was frickin' awesome (to me anyway, for those of you who don't know I used to play ping pong in nationally ranked tournaments). So I was understandably excited for their latest project, L.A. Noire. 

And the biggest thing I've got to say from the get go is that L.A. Noire isn't like anything I've ever played before. It's not really a game as far as I'm concerned. It's not even an interactive movie per say (like Heavy Rain)... but rather it's a sim, as in simulation. A detective simulation to be precise.

You play as Cole Phelps, a war hero fresh from the battlefield, who works his way up through the ranks of the LAPD. Starting off walking the beat and wearing the blues, Cole impresses his superiors by his crime scene technique, shrewd interrogation style, and ability to shoot bad guys full of holes. Before long he's on the traffic desk, then working homicide, vice, and arson cases.

But all the while he's a character that remains shrouded in mystery. I honestly don't know what I think of him. He has a huge chip on his shoulder, won't talk about his past even when his partners ask, and has flashbacks to the war. Not to mention he goes from zero to asshole before you can say "good cop/bad cop" during the interrogations (more on that in a moment) if someone isn't being straight with him. His reactions are almost over the top, like he is so full of anger it's always bubbling under the surface. But as the story develops you begin to understand why...

I've not seen much proper film noir so I don't know if this type of disjointed story telling is par for the course, but the story doesn't make much sense to start with and takes a loooooooooooong time to get going. Cole really is a tragic character, but the problem is that you don't really understand what's going on for the first three quarters of the game, and it tends to drag a bit in places. Those who stick with it will be rewarded though, as once again Rockstar weaves the various plots together (eventually) with their typical brilliance. When you finally are able to put all the puzzle pieces together and see the big picture, well, I was nodding my head in understanding... and sympathy.

Much has been made about the vaunted new facial motion capture scans used in the creation of L.A. Noire. I always give credit where it's due, and I'm glad Rockstar is making an effort to innovate (something we don't always see in this industry... I'm looking at you Activision and EA Sports!). And let me tell you, their efforts paid off. I've never seen anything like it. You can actually tell if someone is lying, read the stress in their face when they claim their innocence. In many cases you will actually recognize the actor who sat in for the motion capture and lent their voice. The unparalleled attention to detail is striking, leaving even the closest competitors miles behind. My fervent hope is that others will take the hint and do similar things in the future.

The gameplay works like this: Phelps take a case, drives to the scene and searches for clues. You have to be meticulous in your investigation, searching grizzly corpses, and looking at it from multiple angles. Leave no stone unturned, even if a lot of what you find is inconsequential. Once you've gathered clues you need to interview witnesses and interrogate suspects, adding to your evidence pile and building your case. This usually ends with chasing someone down either on foot or via car.

This is where the facial animations come to the forefront. When talking to someone, Phelps asks questions, and based on their response you need to either decide if they are telling the truth, hiding something in which case you can say you "doubt" them, or outright accuse them of lying. But be wary, if you call them a liar you need to be sure you have evidence to back up the claim.

For example, in one particularly brutal case a young woman is drugged, assaulted, and essentially driven off a cliff. She survives, but as a starry eyed dreamer trying to make it in Hollywood she is reticent to divulge what really happened. But Cole knows better because he found her torn panties in her purse at the crime scene.

And if you think that's bad, some of the homicide cases are far worse... L.A. Noire is, while not on the level of something like GTA IV, a stark and unrepentant view of what real police see every day; the very worst of what humanity has to offer and the lengths to which people will go. It's uncompromising realism left me a bit slack-jawed at a few points, and the gory crime scenes (especially in the middle sections of the game) are pretty brutal.

On a similar note to the Grand Theft Auto series, L.A. Noire is an open world "sandbox" game. The difference being that this time you play as the cop, not the criminal. Driving around, smashing into stuff, running over pedestrians and banging hookers ain't in the cards. You have to play by the rules or you'll get yelled at... plus they keep track of your indiscretions during cases and you'll actually receive a bill at the end.

And while greater Los Angeles is stunning and vast (like really vast you understand... driving from one end of the map to the other would take you a fair bit of time), you're actually severely limited beyond sight seeing: finding collectible cars (there are 95 in the game), finding collectible film reels, and discovering collectible landmarks. To be honest, pursuing these optional distractions tended to be a bit hollow. Only the true 'completionist' will take the time to find them all. The cars are a good example. If you take me to a parking lot and show me twenty modern sedans chances are I'll be able to tell you the make and model. But seeing as I'm not my grandfather, I have no frame of reference to the period and thus most of the cars look surprisingly similar to me. I found more than half the cars in the game, but gave up trying to get them all because I kept commandeering vehicles from the good people of Los Angles, only to immediately get out of the car because I'd already "found" it... leaving a long line of stopped traffic and some very annoyed citizenry.

Then there are the "Street" cases. As long as you're driving a police car/partner car with a radio you can get calls from dispatch telling you that a crime is being committed. You race to the scene and deal with the situation (which range from shooting it out with bank robbers, to chasing down a pervert as he speeds away after taking some lewd photos, to rushing up a building to keep some idiot from leaping to his death). These are clever side missions that sometimes even incorporate characters from earlier in the story, but what I didn't realize at first is that they aren't necessarily as random as you'd think... they are dependent on the time of day, your location, and what you have completed in the story to that point. But what's odd is sometimes you have to drive insane distances to get to the scene. I found it was easiest to check the mini-map when I got in the car, quickly pan around the map to look for the tell-tale "running man" icon in red, then highlight it, get out of the car and have my partner drive so we could 'fast travel' there just to save me the hassle and time.

It's actually surprisingly limiting in this regard. I found I was less interested in seeing what the city had to offer, unlike GTA IV for example. Los Angeles of yesteryear is wonderfully realized and detailed, but I didn't feel the need to really explore the city. Instead I just focused on the cases. 

As good as the graphics are, the sound work is also excellent, something else I have come to expect from Rockstar. The voice acting, and there is a lot of it, is excellent. The cast does a great job, and has quite a few recognizable faces/voices. The soundtrack is great, a wonderful example of the period. So too are the sound effects, from the distinctive radio stations to the throaty growl of those older cars.

But as impressive as L.A. Noire is from a technical standpoint, the game itself (again, if it can be called a game) struggles in a few areas. Part of it might be the subject itself. I've known a few policemen over the years (not in any sort of professional capacity I assure you) and the impression I get is that being a cop does have moments of horror, of fear, and of disgust... but for the most part good police work is about attention to detail and being thorough in your investigation. In this regard L.A. Noire nails it, but that's not to say is can't be... well, boring isn't the right word, but perhaps mundane. You're doing the same things over and over with the same mechanics. You spend way to much time walking too and from your car and around the station house (is it just me, or is the layout confusing?) which just gets tedious. The novelty of the awesome animations begins to wear off and I found myself just going through the motions...

While the mechanics are okay, the camera is a bit wonky, as per every other Rockstar game, although this time it seems to pan a little too slowly. The combat and cover system is, in my opinion, below average. It was great in Red Dead, pretty good in GTA IV, but it doesn't work for me in L.A. Noire. I'm not a great driver in life, so driving these old model behemoths that don't corner too well can be a trial. This is compounded by the fact that you need to follow traffic laws. Again, I almost always found myself asking my partner to drive to each destination just to save me the trouble.

And while this isn't really a complaint as such, it's impossible not to notice the distinct lack of the trademark Rockstar humor we've seen in the past. It's all the more obvious once you realize this... Cole's story is a drama in every sense of the word.

L.A Noire is nothing if not ambitious, and Rockstar should be commended for taking a risk. They have invested and promoted technology that will ultimately improve games on the whole. I think going into L.A. Noire my expectations were just too high considering the pedigree. I'd be curious to see what police officers actually think of it. Is it really an accurate representation of their work? Is it, in fact, a proper simulation? But gamers are wondering if it lives up to the standard set by one of the giants of the industry. Is it intriguing, impressive, revolutionary, and clever? Absolutely! Did I like it?

I'm not sure how to answer that... yes, but as I said in the beginning, L.A. Noire is different from anything I've played before. To be honest, I was going to give the game a lower score, but the final sections brought everything together so well I bumped it up. While it may not be for everyone, or what everyone expected, L.A. Noire does show what we can come to expect from this medium. I can't wait to see what they come up with next!


Score = 9.0 / 10


  1. X-play actually had a real LA detective from around that time frame to play it and he said that the game was very realistic, from the fighting, to the detective work, and the facial expressions.

  2. Very good blog. And I have to agree the layout did feel a bit confusing.