Review: L.A. Noire (Microsoft Xbox 360)

L.A. Noire
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Team Bondi
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: 05/17/11

Rockstar Games, over time, has developed into a publishing company that strives to publish games dedicated to refining the craft of storytelling and immersion in video games. From their roots of publishing Grand Theft Auto titles back when no one cared about them and random uninteresting titles to their heyday of Grand Theft Auto III and its many spin-offs and beyond, they’ve shown that they have an interest in making their games as authentic and engaging as possible, and even when those games don’t pan out into good games, they certainly pan out into interesting games. Their publishing track record is a literal virtual talent show, with games like Max Payne, The Warriors, Bully and Red Dead Redemption to their name in addition to their most successful franchise to date, Grand Theft Auto, and to say that they sell a ton of games on release day based solely on their name brand alone isn’t much of an exaggeration, if one at all. So it’s a safe observation that L.A. Noire was, as so many other games from the publisher are, heavily anticipated long before release, as it takes the tried and true open world environments made popular by the company and puts a whole new spin on them once again. Playing as an LAPD police officer in the 1940’s, your goal is to work within the system instead of outside of it, analyzing clues, interviewing suspects and putting away perpetrators, making it somewhat of a contrasting experience from prior Rockstar titles. The good news is that this works wonderfully, and while the game does have its share of flaws, Team Bondi and Rockstar should be pretty proud of themselves; L.A. Noire more or less lives up to the hype.

The plot casts you in the role of Cole Phelps, an LAPD officer with a less than pleasant past who joins the police force with the intention of cleaning up the streets and making a name for himself. As fans of film noir are likely aware, this is far from how things end up, and as Phelps rises up the ranks in the police force, from walking a beat through the Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson departments, he begins to see just how corrupt the city and everything in it really is, and how dearly his desires really will cost him. On one hand, the writing is exceptional; the writers clearly studied the film noir genre and put together a storyline that appropriately highlights the best aspects of that genre. The characters are all somewhat complex, to varying extents, the dialogue writing is exceptional and extremely high quality, and you can really appreciate how much effort must have went into the writing to make it period appropriate while also making it accessible to those with no idea what the 40’s were like. On the other hand, the storylines on display are also good examples of film noir, and as such, unfortunately, aren’t all that great. No one in the game is particularly likable, and while that’s not the point of such a product, the fact is that it’s hard to appreciate the product when everyone’s an asshole. Further, the game has a habit of using the easy way out; every husband is an abusive asshole, every wife is either a horrible shrew or a put-upon saint, everyone feels the need to lie about something or another when talking to Cole and company, and after a while this feels repetitive. It’s understandable that criminals might perhaps beat their spouses, sure, but everyone seems to beat their wives in L.A. Noire, and that just seems a bit… excessive at times. The 1940’s were a different time, sure, but humanity wasn’t exclusively populated with primitive savages, people. It also bears noting that, while the characters continue on from one desk to the next as you play, many of the storylines are self-contained and don’t always relate from one desk to the next, leaving the game feeling like disconnected stories brought together only because you play as the same main character through each, and if that sort of thing bothered you about Dragon Age 2, it’ll bother you here as well.

L.A. Noire is a visually stunning game, make no mistake about that. The characters are easily the best thing about the experience, thanks to the implementation of MotionScan technology. The MotionScan tech on display is used partially to apply proper motion capture to character movements, but also to apply the faces of the actors playing the roles to their characters. By using a massive multi-camera setup to record and map the facial responses of the actors themselves to their characters, the game really brings these characters to life by transferring every facial motion of the actors and actresses to their characters, bringing them to life in a way games haven’t really had a chance to do until recently. The game environments and vehicles and such also look great, though the game occasionally (and noticeably) suffers from rendering issues as elements of the environment draw themselves into existence before your eyes, and while it’s not game breaking, it’s obvious when it happens. The audio, on the other hand, is more or less flawless. The music is equal parts excellent orchestral score and appropriate period music, both of which fit the tone of the game and bring the experience to life exceptionally so. The actors and actresses are outstanding in their roles across the board, bringing real depth to some of the most minor of characters, and their lines are delivered with conviction in a way that’s enjoyable to behold. The game also uses various period advertisements, either scavenged from archival recordings or remade for the piece, that reference popular culture from the period and fit the theme great. Hearing someone namedrop Amos and Andy, for example, was a big shock, and a positive one at that; even if the program isn’t something to be proud of in this day and age, it did exist, and bravo to everyone involved for making a point to reference little things like that. The sound effects are also very well implemented, from the crashing of cars to the powerful firing effects of weaponry and beyond, and overall the sound production is top notch.

L.A. Noire alternates its play between combat, driving, detective work and interrogation at different points during each case you’ll try to solve, meshing action oriented Grand Theft Auto styled gameplay with adventure game elements in a way that’s engaging and somewhat unique. When walking around, driving, or fighting, the left stick moves Cole around while the right stick looks around the area, but all of the button controls are context sensitive. While on foot, Cole can interact with objects with the A button, talk to people with X, jump into vehicles with Y, cancel interactions with B, and run with the right trigger. You’ll also end up getting into combat from this mode, either in fisticuffs or gunplay. When fist fighting, A punches, X dodges, Y grapples your opponent, the left trigger brings you into a combat stance, and B unleashes a finishing strike. When shooting at people, the right trigger fires your weapon, the B button reloads, the right bumper enters and exits cover, A allows you to pick up found weapons, the left bumper discards those weapons, and the left trigger aims at opponents. While driving, the right trigger accelerates, the left trigger brakes and goes in reverse, the right bumper is your handbrake, and you can flip on your horn or siren by pressing in the left stick. This all seems incredibly daunting at first to memorize, to be sure, but you’ll get it all down within the first hour or so of play, as it’s all very simple to adjust to and work with, and anyone who’s played a Rockstar sandbox title in the past few years or so should have little trouble adjusting.

While L.A. Noire borrows a lot of elements from prior Rockstar endeavors, however, it plays by different rules and expects you to do different things as a result. As a police detective, you’ll be tasked to report to various crime scenes to investigate said crimes and help bring the perpetrators to justice, which involves a few different sorts of mechanics from what one might be used to. For one thing, evidence plays a big part in the experience, and you’ll spend a good amount of time going over it. By pressing A to interact with anything you find, Cole will move into a position to interact with it, and either hold his hand over it if there are multiple items to look at or simply pick it up if it’s alone. Once Cole has it in hand, he will either remark on it on its own or hold it as you look it over, leaving you to either rotate the object until he notices something or press A to further investigate the object as needed. If the object is important, Cole will often remark on what the object tells him before allowing you to put it down, but if it’s not, he might just dismissively say it’s useless or what have you, leaving you to pick through what is and is not vital to the case and him to make that call. You can do this with any number of things, from purses to lipstick to bodies and beyond, and Cole will add any relevant information to his notebook, either for you to refer to later or for you to use as evidence during other parts of your investigation.

Eventually, you’ll meet up with some sort of character witness or suspect relevant to the case, and after a bit of basic banter and backstory establishment, that’s when the game enters into Interrogation mode. Interrogating suspects is a fairly simple affair on the surface; you’ll have a series of questions that can be asked, based on information you’ve gleaned from others and evidence you’ve found, and you can in turn ask these questions to your interviewee as you wish. Once the person answers your question, you’ll then need to either press A to declare the answer truthful, X to declare your doubt of the validity, or Y to declare the statement a lie and present evidence to prove as such. Doing so, however, isn’t just a matter of simply making a choice and moving onward, as making the wrong choice can miss critical case information or lose you the ability to make a conviction. Instead, you’ll have to monitor your subject’s motions and facial features to see if they’re potentially lying to you, as well as consult your evidence to confirm if someone could be lying in case their facial expressions don’t give them away. You can also burn a point of Intuition to make a scenario easier, in case you really can’t tell what your suspect thinks here, either by removing one of the choices from the list or by consulting the community to see what options they chose when presented with the choice, though neither is a guarantee of success. Burning Intuition will also remove some items from the evidence list if you call someone on a lie, which will also make things easier in that regard. Intuition can also be used to highlight all of the important evidence at a crime scene if you feel you’re missing something, though you only get so many points of it throughout the course of the game, so you’ll need to be somewhat frugal in your use of it if you want to have enough to last to the later cases in the game.

You’ll also spend a good amount of time driving around the city from case to case, chasing down fleeing suspects in a car or on foot, and engaging in shootouts with suspects, and while many of these elements will be familiar to fans of other Rockstar titles, L.A. Noire adds its own unique mechanics to those bits of gameplay as well. When driving around town, for example, you can simply hold the Y button when entering a vehicle if you have a destination in mind and tell your partner to drive there, thus skipping the actual drive and only showcasing any dialogue that might pop up along the way. If you’re driving and not involved in something, however, you’ll also receive requests from dispatch to take on side cases, usually something simple like stopping a robbery or pursuing a fleeing suspect, depending on the case. Car chases are often as simple as running a suspect down until their car breaks or following them to a set location, but if your partner’s in the car, he can blow out the tires on the vehicle with well-timed shots if you can keep close enough, offering more options for taking out suspects as needed. Shootouts generally feel similar to something like Gears of War, where you can take cover to avoid fire or heal, pop out to take shots, and reload as needed, though you essentially have infinite ammo for any weapon you use, removing that as an issue. However, there will also be instances where you can fire a warning shot at a fleeing suspect to make them drop to the ground and surrender, or where enemies will take hostages and you’ll have to disable/kill the hostage taker without hitting the hostage to succeed, which is nice for variety’s sake. Fistfights are simply one-on-one fights between you and a suspect where you hit them, they hit you, and this continues until one person is knocked out, though you can dodge around and grapple a bit for variety.

Aside from solving cases and such, there are other things you can do to amuse yourself and improve your overall ranking. You can search for new vehicles to drive, golden film reels and newspapers to collect, famous landmarks to see and so on to tick them off in the counter that keeps track of these things, if you’re the sort of person who wishes to do so. Doing these things, as well as completing cases of various sorts, earns you experience points which improve your rank. Each time your rank goes up, you earn another Intuition point to use during investigations, and you can potentially unlock new outfits and hidden cars play around with, depending on the level earned. The game also grades your performance on the main cases from one to five stars, depending on how many interrogation questions you get right, how many clues you find while investigating, and how little damage you do to the city and to vehicles; the more successful interrogations and clues found and the less damage done, the better you do. Perhaps best of all, however, is that the game can be as easy or hard as you want it to be. You can turn on various audio and physical cues for evidence gathering and interrogations to let you know when you’re right or wrong to make things easier, or turn them off to make them harder, and you can skip particularly hard sections in the game if you’re having trouble, meaning that less skilled players can still have fun with the game without too much trouble. Failing interrogations is still a possibility, of course, but you can always repeat the scene, take notes of when the right noise plays, and choose the same answers if you really screw up until you get it right if you’re using the audio cues, so ultimately, you can choose to breeze through things or take on the game with plenty of challenges in store, depending on your preferences and skill level, as the game does have plenty of challenging sequences, puzzles, and more to go through for people of all skill levels.

If you go through the story cases and nothing else you can pretty much get through L.A. Noire in about fifteen hours, though taking on the side missions and item hunts can easily double or triple that amount of time spent with the game. There’s a lot of content to the game at the first go-through, between all of the hidden items, collectibles, side missions and so on, and those who want to achieve full completion of the game will find this to be a fulfilling experience based on that alone. You can also go back and replay any of the cases you’ve done if you got below five stars on the case if you want to improve your score, or choose to free roam the city in that part of the story to try and pick up collectibles and cases and such that you may have missed. There are also various DLC packages already available for those that pre-ordered the game, as well as several more planned for release down the line, containing new cases and possibly even whole new desks to work on, and as the game is already three discs of pure content, this doesn’t feel like the developers holding back content to gouge money from the customer so much as them having so many ideas that they want to dump out DLC to really explore them all. You can also tie your gamer tag to a profile created on Rockstar’s website, which will allow you to track your progress relative to other players, and there are plenty of Achievements to unlock, all of which are fairly reasonable to unlock, if somewhat time consuming, so for those who want to do this thing, that option is there.

Aside from the storyline and visual hiccups, however, L.A. Noire has a few other minor issues that, alone, aren’t a big deal, but taken together are a bit noticeable. The most obvious and unfortunate of the bunch is that, after a while, the mechanics of the game get repetitive. Every case is more or less a combination of several investigation scenes, several interrogation scenes, and a couple car chases or shootouts to deal with, and while the car chases and shootouts can be interesting and action-packed, the investigations and interrogations are basically more of the same over and over again. The first few times you do these, they feel fresh and exciting, but by the time you get to the halfway point of the game, you’ll find them to be repetitive because it’s basically the same grind in each section with little change from one point to the next. It’s not that the scenes aren’t still effective so much as it is that these scenes take up about half of the play time, and unlike the action-oriented sections which are changed up by context, the investigations and interrogations never really are. It just feels like you’re saying “okay, you’re looking shifty now, let’s call you on it” instead of feeling organic, when a less is more approach would have kept these scenes exciting instead of making them rote the first game we ever see them in. The game also has some odd mechanical hiccups here and there, such as when you’re chasing after suspects and you get hung up on the environment or when you tell your character to get in the car and, as the pathfinding kicks in, your character walks into the path of a car and dies instantly, losing fifteen minutes of progress due to the computer not considering this to be a problem. Oh, and as one expects, the driving mechanics, as one has come to expect from Rockstar overall, could use some polish in a few places, and while they’re mostly manageable, there are times when they can feel unfriendly, especially during high-speed chases.

The complaints about L.A. Noire are few, however, and the praises that can be heaped upon it are many, and at the end of the day, that’s the mark of a good game, which this definitely is. Make no mistake, L.A. Noire borrows elements from sandbox action games and adventure games, mixes them together with some excellent experimental mechanics, and produces a product that, while not flawless, is easily one of the best games to come out this year, no question. The story is mostly solid and features plenty of development and depth, the visuals are generally excellent thanks to the amazing facial modeling and overall beautiful visuals otherwise, and the audio is top notch in all possible respects. The game can take a little getting used to when you first play it, but the mechanics all come together in a way that’s accessible and enjoyable, as there’s plenty of variety within each case to keep you going, and between the variable difficulty options that make the game accessible to virtually anyone and the tons of content in the game and more promised down the line, L.A. Noire is really a game that strives to impress. The characters aren’t especially likable and the plot doesn’t fit together as well as it could have, however, and there are some obvious visual rendering issues at some points in the game. Further, the investigation and interrogation elements can become repetitive, as they are a major focal point of the game, and between some minor mechanical issues, control annoyances and AI hiccups, there can be some frustrating elements to watch out for here and there. Taken as a whole, however, L.A. Noire is an incredibly impressive product and one of the best experiences available on any console today, and while it’s not without some issues, it more than makes up for them in a way that makes it easy to recommend to anyone.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: GREAT
Originality: GREAT
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal: GREAT
Miscellaneous: CLASSIC


Short Attention Span Summary:
L.A. Noire is another excellent product from Rockstar and an excellent first shot for Team Bondi, as it combines the sorts of mechanics we expect from Rockstar titles into a crime drama with adventure game elements that, while not perfect, is immensely enjoyable and well worth playing. The storyline, while populated with unlikable characters and occasionally disjointed narratives, is exceptionally well written and enjoyable to play through. The visuals and audio are mostly excellent, thanks to some excellent casting and production, and while there are some rendering issues in the visual department, between the amazing facial animations, lively game world, and excellent aural experience, the visual issues are minor. The mechanics are involved but easy enough to learn with some practice and there’s a great variety to the mechanics, between the expected driving, fighting and shooting elements and the investigation and interrogation mechanics that really make the game, and there’s a ton of content to the game all around to keep it interesting for a while. The investigation and interrogation mechanics, however, are used as cornerstones of the experience and get old after a while as a result, and some minor mechanical issues pop up here and there that can be frustrating on occasion. The game is more than the sum of its parts, however, and while some parts can be wonky, L.A. Noire as a whole is an amazing experience that really shows what some innovation and determination can do, as it’s an engaging experience everyone of all skill levels can enjoy, and is easily recommended as a result.



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3 responses to “Review: L.A. Noire (Microsoft Xbox 360)”

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