Upon release the big talking point about L.A Noire- apart from it’s long, conflict ridden development cycle- was the scanning technology used on the character’s faces. It was ground breaking stuff, and while it’s important to the game, it’s a wasted opportunity is many ways. L.A Noire is an interesting game, enjoyable is many areas, but sadly it squanders much of the potential it has.
Developed by Team Bondi and published by Rockstar Games, L.A Noire puts you in the shoes of Cole Phelps, a World War 2 veteran that has decided to try his hand at law enforcement. While the player starts out as a regular cop on the beat, over the course of the game you’ll find yourself climbing the ranks of law enforcement, taking on more difficult cases as you progress, and discovering the dark underbelly of 1947′s Los Angeles. Phelps is a good cop in a city where that’s on short supply.
The gameplay follows the same structure case by case. Phelps, once given a case to investigate, must travel to the crime scene, question witnesses or suspects, find clues, all the while documenting these findings to use as evidence at a later time. Once the initial crime scene is thoroughly looked over, the player then proceeds to use the evidence they found to build a case against a suspect. This process takes awhile as most of the time multiple locations and key characters must be checked out. However, it’s up to the player to find all of the clues in any given case. Finding key clues, or doing well at interviewing suspects, can often lead to an arrest quite promptly, whereas the opposite can lead to a drawn-out investigation. Between these missions the player can either explore the city or take part in smaller, more low scale side-missions that are received via dispatch radio. Regardless, the missions usually follow the structure of investigating a crime scene, finding clues, interviewing suspects, followed by either a shoot-out or chase scene. Additionally, finding clues is rather a cumbersome and clunky affair. It simply boils down to walking or bumping into certain locations and objects until you hear a chime which indicates something can be interacted with. Because of this, I often found myself thinking that the game would have worked better as a first person game. At least then an area could be truly investigated without Phelps obscuring what’s directly in front of you.
The actual cases themselves are excellently set up. Each one begins with it’s own intro screen and black and white depiction of the crime itself. However, faces and many clues are obscured, so while it does show the player what happened that led to the case, only vaguely so. There’s an air of mystery about each interview you conduct, and this is where crux of L.A Noire, the main reason why they developed the technology for scanning real actor’s faces into the game, comes into play. During the interview process of a suspect the player needs to watch how they react to certain lines of questioning. This is crucial as the player has the opportunity to react in three different ways to their testimony; Lie, Doubt or Truth. By interjecting with Lie or Doubt means you need to back your accusation up with evidence you’ve found. If done correctly it can make a breakthrough in the case. However, if done incorrectly, whether through your own bad intuition or lack of evidence, it could set you back quite a bit. The problem is that this much lauded aspect of L.A Noire isn’t executed that well, and frankly isn’t very interesting to begin with. Furthermore, the player can often be confused as what to say as there where times where my tact- lets say Doubt for instance- didn’t exactly go where I expected it to. Phelps completely went in a different direction as to what I was intending. Because of this, this entire element of L.A Noire, while enjoyable and a great example of using new technologies to explore an otherwise rudimentary aspect of a game, is very misguided. Using real life faces is an admirable and respectful approach, yet it doesn’t live up to expectations. However, I must say, from purely an aesthetic point of view, the real life faces give L.A Noire a unique, striking look.
The city of Los Angeles, which is rendered wonderfully, is a thing to behold. It’s massive, grand in architecture, and full of little details that most other games wouldn’t even attempt. Shop windows contain readable posters, items to view, suburban houses on the outskirts of the city play out their slow, sleepy existence, some buildings can be entered with stunning detail, all the while it feels, well, real. Whereas the likes of Grand Theft Auto has never really grounded itself in pure reality, L.A Noire does quite a bit. It perhaps does stick too closely to this though, as the city- as good as it looks and feels- is always begging to be interacted with. There’s something about it that just feels dead and devoid of real interaction. In fact, there’s never any incentive for the player to explore it either. Between missions the player, aside from the sub-missions that pop up on your dispatch radio, isn’t given anything to do whatsoever. While I’m not asking for GTA style collectables or Saints Row-like antics, I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t even explore 50% of the city on your own accord.
Shootouts are brief, deadly, and superbly achieved. L.A Noire is one of those rare games in which firearms really pack a punch, and where a nicely placed shot on an enemy will take them down instantly. Enemies aren’t rubber objects constantly taking in bullets, but real life targets that will react as such. Like the rest of the game, it still all feels somewhat clunky, but these shoot-outs are still some of the more praise worthy aspects of the game.
As stated before, the look, feel, and sound of the game is fantastic. Team Bondi, in their attempt to deliver an authentic take on a 1947 Los Angles, have absolutely nailed it. From the use of real music and radio shows in the cars, the costumes worn by characters, right down to the slang used during the game, L.A Noire, if nothing else, is authentic. That’s a hard thing to nail in gaming, but they did it. Perfectly.
Overall I have conflicting opinions about L.A Noire. On one hand I enjoyed its slow pace, it’s incredibly slick script and characters, the look of the era, and building cases against suspects; something that almost reminded me of point-and-click adventures of yesteryear. While on the other hand I found it sluggish at times, stubborn with how much every mission played out within the same structure, and how misguided the new facial scanning technology is. After seeing the Rockstar brand on it, many people expected something akin to “GTA 1947”. That’s not what you get with this game, and that’s a good thing. L.A Noire takes a lot of missteps, but manages to pull off a competent, enjoyable, and memorable gaming experience. Just lower your expectations quite a bit.