The glitz of 1940s Los Angeles paints a thin veil on the corrupt underbelly of society. Greedy real estate developers, psychotic serial killers, hardened World War II veterans, corrupt cops, hit men, arsonists, and junky jazz musicians are but a few of the citizens that inhabit L.A. Noire, the latest masterpiece from Rockstar Games. The same publisher that is famous for focusing on brazen anti-hero thugs now turns its attention to an actual hero. Cole Phelps is a decorated and respected veteran with a stern sense for the law. His compassion makes him likeable; his human flaws make him relatable. If Rockstar ever needed a protagonist for a feature film, Phelps would easily fit the bill. But while L.A. Noire is easily compared to great TV cop dramas, murder mystery novels, or even classic films, this is a game, but it’s unlike anything you’ve ever played.
Phelps faces all kinds of criminals. He’s at home behind the wheel during a high-speed car chase. He can handle his own in a fist fight and he’s not scared to use lethal force when necessary. But while these action sequences are ripped right from games like Grand Theft Auto IV, any comparison to Rockstar’s celebrated crime juggernaut ends there. L.A. Noire is subtle; it is one of the few games that doesn’t reward players for headshots or how fast you can complete a stage. Instead, gamers are rewarded for their attention to details, their ability to read facial expressions, and their personal cunning and intuition. Gather a stack of evidence at the crime scene, take statements from witnesses, and create your case for your top suspect. This accounts for more than half of the game. Pepper in action sequences, and add a heavy layer of interrogation, and you have the making of truly unique gaming experience.
Team Bondi has created an immaculate title. The level of detail is absolutely incredible. Characters are pulled directly from old cop dramas, with men wearing tailored vintage (circa 1940s) suits, while women wear their hair in a bun with thin silk scarves caressing their necks. Explore a home and you don’t see a generic backdrop; instead, every house and building is unique, with each detail inside specific to its residents. Los Angeles is meticulously rendered and detailed; you can almost smell the unspoiled air. Drive the streets and you won’t just see a fake movie set or billboard, you will see actual recreations of the city’s famous landmarks. You get a sense that the city is in transition as soldiers return home from a long war. Old homes are torn down to make way for new building developments, women still struggle to hold the smallest desk jobs, and the city is learning how to deal with new drug addictions. Everywhere you look, L.A. is a changing city, struggling to maintain peace.
The new MotionScan performance capture technology is truly revolutionary. If you thought games like Heavy Rain showed off crazy facial detail, you will be shocked what L.A. Noire has to offer. Again, the game is all about subtleties, and L.A. Noire’s facial detail is no exception to this. You may not notice it at first, but just wait until you question a witness or interrogate a suspect. Each character is incredibly unique and you’ll have to judge if they are telling the truth, withholding some information, or giving you a big fat lie. Your job is to figure this all out by watching for little things, like someone fidgeting, blinking too much, looking away, or squinting. As expected, some characters are better at lying than others. Try to tell if a gangster is lying and you’ll be sent for a loop. When you do sense someone is lying, or you know they are based on the story so far, you can call their bluff by selecting “lie” when prompted. At this point you’ll have to back up that claim with hard evidence you’ve collected throughout the case. If you don’t trust yourself, you can always use Intuition—which is available as you collect experience throughout the game—to either eliminate a potential answer (truth, doubt, or lie) and evidence, or ask the community for help.
Playing as Cole Phelps, you are tasked with rising through the ranks of the LAPD as detective on different desks: traffic, homicide, vice, and finally arson. While each desk has a different feel, the basics are generally the same. Phelps starts each case in his desk’s briefing room as his superior delves out the initial details. You may take on a series of disturbing homicides, investigate a corrupt housing developer, or connect the dots on a morphine distribution ring. You are given a notebook that contains all of your case notes. Inside you’ll find a description of people involved in the case, locations, and any evidence you’ve found so far. Finding evidence involves snooping through crime scenes or other locations and waiting until your control vibrates. This is one example of how the game helps players put the story together. In addition, music plays when there is evidence to collect. When the music stops, there is no more evidence to find. Not everything you pick up is worthwhile; in fact, the majority of objects you investigate are irrelevant to case, only adding another layer of realism to this deeply engrossing game. You can manipulate objects you pick up, and the control will vibrate again if there is something worthwhile to check out. This vibrating feature, along with the aural hints, may be turned off in the options menu if you want to truly test your abilities.
The cases are tied together, but not every case seems to fit. The homicide cases initially were the most interesting, but they didn’t play into the overall story so much as the other desks. Think of the game like a TV series with each desk acting as a season, and each level acting as an episode. Like any good cop TV show, it initially draws you into the story and introduces you to the bulk of the characters you’ll meet throughout the series. You’ll meet bartenders, pest controller salesmen, gangsters, fellow detectives, crooked cops, a manipulative doctor, and a sexy jazz club singer. While the plot develops well early in the series, the middle season seems detached from the overall drama, but it’s wrapped up nicely in the end. And, like a good show, the ending isn’t really a huge shock, but it’s upsetting, and not only for the plot points, but also because all the characters you took the time to know and love are looking for another job.
L.A. Noire is a joy to watch. In fact, it’s almost (I mean, really close) as fun to watch as it is to play. Since a lot of the gameplay involves an actual case investigation, you can collaborate with a friend trying to put the pieces together. This is one of the first mature titles that I’ve played together with my girlfriend, and she actually enjoyed it as much as I did. In fact, I could see playing a case in front of my mom and she would get drawn right into the story.
That’s not to say L.A. Noire is simply a slow-progressing story that’s more in love with asking questions than shooting a thug square in the face. Just about every case has an action sequence to keep you from falling asleep (not because it’s overly dull, but because the cases are typically pretty long). These sequences may include running down suspects, tailing a taxi, or an all-out gun battle. Driving is everything you remembered from GTA IV; the R2 button controls the gas while the L2 buttons controls the brakes. Fist fighting and gun battles aren’t terrible, but they are sometimes troubled by control issues, especially ducking behind cover. I also have some issues with how the run button is mapped to the same button used to shoot. In addition, there are some typical camera control issues that will slow things down, but these are very small problems if you are comfortable in third-person environment.
You will find plenty of replay value that works quite well into the 1940s L.A. backdrop. The map is absolutely massive and populated with more than 400 actors. You can collect 95 classic vehicles, including hidden cars scattered through the city, and respond to an assortment of street crime like brawls or shootouts. There is little doubt we’ll see a bevy of DLC in the near future, and luckily the game is crafted in such a way that it’ll be easy to slide in a few extra cases. In fact, I can’t wait to see more cases, especially if they add to the story.
There is a narrative that stretches throughout the entirety of the game, but it’s well worth discovering for yourself so I’ve made it a point not to spoil anything. The story has more to do with Cole Phelps, and his personal development, than it does the actual events. Yes, the story drives you forward, but watching Phelps grow and fall, watching him uncover massive cases, and seeing how he reacts in the face of personal trouble makes L.A. Noire more of a case study than a simple narrative.
Push all the hype aside, forget about the incredible new technology, look away from the massive billboards and TV commercials, and go explore the corrupt streets in the city of angels. With its robust investigation and interrogation system, an authentic recreation of 1940s, and an incredible cast of characters, you’ll struggle to find a game that marries action, story, and drama better than L.A. Noire. There will always be a crowd that doesn’t like this style of game, perhaps because it’s too slow or because they want more intense action. L.A. Noire will not sway those gamers, but it is certainly a leap forward in attracting a whole new class of players. Sit back, get comfortable, grab some Scotch, and sport a fedora because you will be sucked into L.A. Noire, and it’ll keep you inside for a long, long time.