L.A. Noire

9.0 Overall Score

Written by on July 7, 2011 in

It was a hot July night, all clear skies and not a single rain cloud in sight, not even the wispy kind. And it was only going to get hotter. She walked in and flicked her cigarette onto the floor just as I was wiping the sweat from my forehead. Of course, she was all cool and perfect. Not a bead of sweat as she crushed the smoldering ashes beneath her high heeled size sixes. She sat, crossing her legs, knee over knee while adjusting her skirt the dainty way dames do. I knew she was going to be trouble just by looking at her ruby reds and legs that went on forever.

Trouble. I certainly didn’t think that when I started playing L.A. Noire. But as I finished the main story well into my 30th hour, I knew that trouble, indeed, had found its way to me. It’s not that it’s a bad game. Being a noir inspired game set in a post World War II Los Angeles, a game where I got to play a war hero cum detective certainly has its appeal. Not a bad game at all. On the contrary, it’s an excellent game once I learned to get over a few things.

One mental hurdle I had to overcome was the game’s own pedigree. On the one hand, it’s being published by Rockstar. L.A. Noire rides the successful and controversial coat tails of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Protagonist Cole Phelps follows the wild west act of John Marston in the acclaimed Red Dead Redemption. The notion of quality is nearly built into games being published by Rockstar, and those are some big shoes to fill.

On the other hand, both GTA and Red Dead Redemption are open world games. It’s not surprising that there’s an expectation of equally open world-ness in Los Angeles. It’s also not surprising to expect the reluctant criminal archetype that Rockstar games have become known for. It’s a wonder that L.A. Noire wasn’t critically crushed under the weight of expectations like these.

  

In all honesty, the game’s critics needn’t look far to spot the flaws. Visuals in general are nearly PS2/Xbox era. The clothing looks stiff, resembling cardboard more than cloth. The environments are detailed just enough with believable textures and colors, but they’re nothing to marvel at. The facial animations on the other hand set a new high bar that future games should aspire to. Compared to L.A. Noire, the character faces of recent games seem robotic, with voices that never quite sync with mouth movements. In L.A Noire, however, I was able to see actual acting that involves facial expressions as well as vocal performances.

Overall, the acting is excellent. However, there’s a very noticeable unevenness to the conversations with our hero, Cole. Usually, there’s a flow to real life dialogue where one person’s tone affects the tone of another. In L.A. Noire, it can sometimes be painfully clear that the actors were recorded separately. At some points, the person being interrogated speaks in low, calm tones. Yet Cole’s reactions can get jarringly loud and aggressive. It was distracting to the point of taking me out of the moment.

Although the performances are great to watch, they play a vital role during interrogations. Using clues gathered throughout a case, the player can ask a witness or suspect a series of question and determine whether they are telling the truth, lying or if there’s any doubt about what they’re saying. Watching a suspect’s facial expressions, the movement of their eyes and their general body language should provide enough feedback to determine which of the three options fits best: truth, doubt or lie.

I haven’t quite decided which I like more, the interrogations or the crime scene investigation. Aided by an optional controller rumble when a clue is near, examining a body and scouring the surrounding area for clues appeals to the part of me that enjoys television crime dramas like CSI, Bones or NCIS. It’s a welcome throwback to the classic adventure games from the glory days of Sierra and LucasArts.

     

The rest of the game’s mechanics are standard fare. Getting from point A to point B can be done by walking or by driving. The player can opt to drive or have his partner drive, which can lessen the tedium of long car rides. Case work centers around Cole’s notebook where the player can review clues and set destinations.

In terms of story, I understood the mix between current time and flashbacks only when I forgave the disjointed manner in which Team Bondi stitched the chronology together. Collecting newspapers randomly strewn around various L.A. locales triggers cutscenes that offer a side story dovetailing into the main plot. Unfortunately, the newspapers came off as an arbitrary vehicle for narrative because Team Bondi ran out of ideas on how to tell that part of the story.

It may seem like I’m judging L.A. Noire rather harshly, and I am. Yet, I finished the game, played through the Naked City and A Slip of the Tongue downloadable cases and plan on getting the Nicholson Electroplating DLC as soon as payday rolls around. For some reason, I am motivated to get a five star rating on each case, find all the possible clues and get all the interrogations perfect. As of this writing, I have clocked in over 50 hours of game time and I am enjoying it immensely.

With all its flaws, how can that be? Well, if there is a game that is more than the sum of its parts, L.A. Noire is it. I’ve harped on what it got wrong. Let’s go over what it does really well.

First and foremost in my eyes, Team Bondi has created a sense of time and place in 1947 Los Angeles that has really kept me mesmerized from the start. The fantastic acting, the new and period-specific music, and the nature of some of the cases allowed an intriguing peak into a culture where men wore fedoras and where a little bit of misogyny was A-OK. Modern urban settings, we’ve seen. Westerns, there are few of those out there. But the 1940’s after the war? The newness of it is almost exotic.

The City of Angels is almost a character in itself. Although I am no Los Angelino, I was able to get a sense of the layout of the city. I had a great time finding all the landmarks and exploring the city for the collectible cars and movie reels.

I also loved how the cases were segmented. There were four or five cases in each of five desks, each desk having its own mini story arc. It reminds me of a television show where each desk is a season and each case is an episode. A case can run from 20 minutes to an hour, appealing to my preference to digest a game in small snippets.

To keep that type of pacing, Team Bondi did the game the greatest justice by putting deliberate mechanics in place to make sure people didn’t play it as if it was “GTA 1947”. For instance, I am penalized for damaging property, cars or hurting people between case locations. I also cannot draw my weapon when not in a predetermined action sequence, reminding me that I can’t run amok the way GTA has conditioned gamers to do. Heck, fail them enough times and there’s an option to skip the action-y bits altogether. This helps L.A. Noire focus on the storytelling while keeping its identity separate from Rockstar branded sandbox games.

LA Noire is a joy to play, but when it comes down to articulating a “review”, the task is surprisingly difficult. How do I assign a score to a game that falls short in some areas but knocks it out of the park in others? The moment I popped the disc in the tray, it became an exercise in how much I was willing to forgive to enjoy what the title does really well. When it comes right down to it, a score by stars or by number just isn’t enough. Despite its sizable flaws, L.A. Noire has got to be one of the most mediocre games that I absolutely love. I would, without hesitation, recommend it to anyone.

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Author: John Catuira View all posts by

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