It was a Raymond Chandler Evening
There are a few caveats to remember when you sit down to play L.A. Noire from Team Bondi and Rockstar Games. One, it's not trying to be a sandbox open-world game with limitless freedom and opportunity to do everything. Two, it's not trying to be the next GTA and three; it has pacing that will probably put off most action fans. L.A. Noire is a game that encourages you to use the Grey Matter and not your trigger finger.
With those things in mind, it's time to see just what makes this latest third person city based crime thriller really tick.
You're cast in the role of decorated war hero Cole Phelps who joins the LAPD after he returns from the war. After a while as a patrolman he rises through the ranks into the first of several LA Detective crime desks and begins to uncover a multi-threaded story of corruption and intrigue set against the alcohol and jazz soaked backdrop of LA in 1947.
To go into any more detail would be a major spoiler so you're just going to have to play the game!
To call L.A. Noire a revolution in gameplay isn't correct, what it is though is a sharply dressed package in the best suits that money can buy. It's got what it takes to stand amongst the triple-A titles and surpass them with clever mechanics and high production values. In other words, it might not be a revolution but it's an evolution and a damn fine one at that. If you don't play L.A. Noire at least once in your life, you're missing out on a vital step forwards for games and game technology.
Never have I seen a game before that manages to really nail an open world environment combined with a linear story and narrative, and make it work enough to engage you from beginning to end. L.A. Noire has a lot of the sandbox elements that we've seen before in GTA-Clones but manages to make sure it doesn't become swamped in endless repetitious small-fry tasks, like delivering pizza and taking a buddy out for a beer.
The whole of L.A. is there in breathtaking detail, recreated right down to the signs and the packaging of the era. This is basically every Noir based movie, book, TV show and more presented for the gamer to enjoy and immerse themselves in 1947. I could even hear the old narration of Raymond Chandler books in the crisp writing, but enough of that...this is what L.A. Noire's gameplay is all about.
The controls are simple enough to use, similar to GTA and Red Dead Redemption but the system has been tweaked so that there's a minimum of button presses to learn. Driving is easy, shooting is simple to do and chasing down suspects consists of you holding down sprint and running like mad after the bad guys, with Cole automatically navigating his way through the environment, leaping fences, scaling walls, ladders, drainpipes and so on. It's all very easy to do and refreshing that there's no need to press a button to jump.
Brawls are also simple to play, holding down the left trigger puts you in brawling stance and from there you can block by holding down X, dodge by tapping X and counter by tapping X at the right time, then hitting A after to perform a powerful move. Fights are also context sensitive and there's always a chance that Cole will use some part of the environment to put the hurt on a mook or two. You can grapple with Y and perform a finisher with B when the opponent is winded or stunned.
Driving is good, the car handling varies from vehicle to vehicle but it doesn't feel too loose or too tight. It's a good mix of handling and game style physics that makes the car chases in L.A. Noire fun and exciting. The police vehicles are some of the best handling and they let you use the hand-break to great effect in a chase. There are Street Crimes (40 in total) that are small chunks of action-based gameplay designed to allow the player to take a break from solving the cases and range from a simple bank job shootout to a complex car and foot chase that ends with a brawl.
Each one is fun and each one nets you XP which helps Cole rise in the Ranks of the LAPD. As you unlock a new rank you'll gain rewards, these can be new Outfits (that often confer bonuses), Hidden Car locations and Intuition Points (explained later on). Amongst other things, there are 20 ranks to attain in L.A.Noire and getting there isn't easy, it will require a good grasp of the game's investigation and interrogation mechanics as well as the ability to think like a detective and put clues together.
The desks in the game are Patrol, Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson. The desks of Burglary and Bunko were cut from L.A. Noire and may be offered as DLC further down the line since both Team Bondi and Rockstar have plans in that regard. Don't worry though, because even though some of it was cut so that it would fit on 3 Xbox 360 discs or 1 Blu-Ray for the PS3...the game is still going to eat around 40 hours of your life if not more when you add in everything else to find.
L.A. is a huge city and you can freely explore it. If you don't want to drive there you can set a custom destination and hold down Y when next to a car, this will let your partner drive and you'll skip to the destination, perhaps after a little banter. This is so you don't miss out on vital clues and interactions as you're moving from place to place.
It auto-saves and there's no way to save the game manually like in GTA.
The 3 Pillars of L.A. Noire gameplay
L.A. Noire's gameplay is an evolution due to the way in which the many elements are mixed together, with the 3 pillars of the game and the whole thing comes together nearly perfectly.
Investigation: there's a crime and you get a little vignette showing the murder/crime that takes place. These are done in true Noir style and you're left wondering as to the ID of both the victim and the assailant. Eventually you'll end up at the crime scene and this is where the investigation pillar takes prominence. Unlike Heavy Rain you're able to walk around the scene and interact with the clues as the Investigation Music plays in the background, and by interact you can move them around, examine an object for any tell-tale markings and solve interactive puzzles. Expect to examine the corpse as well, looking for clues on the body, markings, wallets and so on.
Not every clue in a scene is vital evidence and some of the clues are red herrings, you'll have to use your analytical skills to work out which is which though. Cole will give a verbal comment if you find a clue that's nothing to do with the scene, or the crime. Most of the time though you're going to have to figure it out on your own, even though you can get a hint by talking to your partner. You can also usually talk to people at the scene. Once you have tracked down all the clues, the music gives you a gentle reminder and fades down. It's a subtle effect but it prevents you from poking around a scene for hours.
You also get a small vibration and a chime when you're close to something that you can interact with, this gives you an idea that there's a clue in the area.
If you're stumped for ideas you can spend an Intuition Point that allows you to show the location of all clues on your mini-map. It still doesn't give you a fully accurate reading so you need to search around a little bit and find the right spot to pick up the clue from. Once you're happy that you've everything from the scene...you may be called to interrogate a witness.
Cole has a notebook and this is your lifeline, it stores all the information about the current case, people, locations and evidence in a handy format and it's fully accessible at any time with a press of the back button. From here you can review the notes that Cole's taken, see any clues with his commentary and catch a break via Intuition.
Interrogation: This pillar lets you ask the witness or suspect a series of questions, watch their facial and body reaction for the various tells. Make a choice between Lie, Doubt or Truth and hopefully learn something new about the case in question. This is one of the best features of the game and I've seen nothing like it before, it truly does work and it works really well. Cole has a series of questions you can pick from in the notebook based on clues and detective work that you've done at the scene.
Then you must observe the person and watch their body and their face, if you ask them if they've had an affair and you found a note proving it for example, you can watch to see what they say. If they give you furtive glances, look worried, scratch their arm and so on...they might be lying, you can hit Y and accuse them. Be prepared to use the note as evidence and watch them squirm if you have it right. The music that plays after you use a successful piece of evidence is a clear indicator that you've done the correct thing. If you get it wrong then expect the interview to go a totally different way. It might cause the suspect to shut down, clam up or become overly aggressive...perhaps even violent.
If they're lying and you don't have any proof, you can always press X (to Doubt) and if you're correct, you'll know. If you really believe them you press 'A' and accept what they said as truth. It might seem simple in the outset, but it's a very involved process and great fun to watch the actor's reactions. This game actually teaches you something about lies and the process that goes into a lie.
You can also spend an Intuition Point to clear a wrong answer, leaving you with two possible answers and as a side-effect it will also cross-out any wrong evidence pertaining to the interview in question. It's a great system and it works so well that after a few cases you find that you have an intuition for this kind of thing and start to spot the tells.
Action: When things go south, the suspect becomes violent or there's a need for a car chase or other kind of action scene this is where the game kicks into high gear. There are numerous ways that a case can play out based on your detection skills and interview technique, which provides a great amount of replay value since you can always see where a case can go by replaying it and making a few wrong decisions and missing some evidence here and there. You might get to tail a suspect, go incognito or rough them up a little in a back alley to get what you want. This is 1947 and the police handbook was different back then. If you fail at any of these, gunfights and car chases you'll get the option (as long as you have it on) to skip that scene and get on with the investigation.
This makes it near-impossible to fail a case, but it's not a ticket to free ride city...if you want those 5 stars and the best possible result, then you're going to have to mix all the pillars and figure everything out to the last detail. Your case result at the end will depend on a lot of factors and your reputation in the department and on the streets does so as well.
Cole isn't a gang-banging killer or an immigrant stealing cars for his cousin, he's a true blue lawman with a gun and a badge. He does what's right and that's reflected in the gameplay mechanics - you can't kill innocent people, if you do so by accident expect a severe reprimand or a game over screen. This isn't GTA...there are certain things the game forgives but it doesn't reward you for being a psychopath.
L.A. Noire manages to take all the pillars of the game and combine them extremely well; the result is a gameplay experience that engages you in the life and troubles of an L.A. Detective from start to end and immerses you in a Noir movie or TV show that weaves a dramatic and disturbing story. L.A. Noire doesn't pull any punches in terms of its depiction of graphic violence but it's not done to excite or titillate, it's done to show just how heinous the crime being committed is.
As one final point of note, Rockstar and Team Bondi researched a lot of crimes and drew their inspiration from the real thing. Including the infamous Black Dahlia murder, so expect some harrowing scenes when you're investigating the crime scene. Don't think this is a game aimed at kids, this is a proper mature game and this is how mature games should be done. It's not a guns-blazing action game at all, the pacing may appear slow and flawed to some but as a fan of Noir and of the genre in general I found the pacing is perfectly suited to the whole game and as a result this could well be my favourite Rockstar title to date, sorry John Marston!
L.A. Noire is one of those games that can be described as luscious; it paints a picture of 1947's L.A. in a gritty and dramatic way. Every single element of L.A. has been reproduced and downtown L.A. according to the game's hint-notes has been reproduced 90% accurately. It's this commitment to detail in the graphics that feed nicely into the aesthetics and immerses the player. It's easy to forget that you're playing a game with the latest in texture design and all the bells and whistles of a modern console and so on. Graphics are less important than how the game feeds the aesthetic and the atmosphere is pretty much perfect. From the environments, the cars, the people and the clothes they wear, it's a faithful replication of the era and there are some sharp suits in this game.
It has all the nice effects you'd expect from a game like this, day and night are equally well done and it just oozes the feel of 1947.
Also kudos to any game that has a Black and White filter so you can turn it on and get that true Noir feel.
This is pretty much central to the whole L.A. Noire experience; using a revolutionary new facial mapping technology Rockstar and Team Bondi have captured the actors perfectly. They have taken every element of their performance into the game and this allows the player to see the suspect or witness' every motion facially. From a furtive glance to a slight tug on the lip when they're telling a lie, to a direct hard stare when they're being truthful, it's all there and it's all possible thanks to MotionScan. It is this level of graphical fidelity when it comes to the facial mapping that makes L.A. Noire one of those genre-defining and bar-shifting games, this bar has been set really high now.
It would be a crime not to see this tech used in more games.
Ah I think I sense Euphoria in action here, a much more refined version of the technology used in GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption. If it isn't the Skeletal Animation tech then it's just as good. Basically all of the animations are handled by the system and tweaked by hand now and then, they work really well and across the shooting, and driving, chasing down perps on foot and so on...it is all beautifully done. I am a huge fan of the context sensitive motions applied to Cole's movements so that he can step over (and not on) a dead body, cross a police rope and scale a wall or fence without the need for a single button press. The gunfights are made even more interesting by the use of this technology too, since there are no canned death animations.
There's a lot of physics tied into the animation, it's all married nicely together and the vehicle physics are excellent. There's a load of fun to be had in the car chases and usually I dread things like this, but in the case of L.A. Noire it's tuned to near-perfection and tearing around the streets of L.A. is one of the best game experiences I've had since riding the range with John Marston in Red Dead. Physical blows in brawls feel as though they connect and it's possible to lose your hat in a fist fight as the punches connect. There's also some structural damage physics in place, so that shotgun blasts shoot off column masonary etc.
The AI in L.A is solid enough, there is the occasional pathing problem with your partner now and then but they actually resolve it themselves and take alternate routes. Especially when driving, they'll reverse and take a different tactic. It would have been nice to see them slap on the siren and just bust through the traffic true 1947 Noir style though. They're useful in a gunfight and they back you up just like a buddy should, they can scale the same things that Cole can do and each one has their own personality when it comes to action. Rusty Galloway for example is a brawler and a shooter, he will often get you to drive alongside the bad guys and pop their tires.
The world AI is good, there's a lot of interactivity going on around you and it brings L.A. to life as the city goes on about its business. You even get the odd hot-head driver that won't move regardless of your siren.
Just as important as graphics are the sounds of L.A. Noire and the city is a different place during the day, compared to the night. It all feeds into the gameplay mechanics well and there are so many elements it's hard to concentrate on just one. For me though I think it has to be the sounds of the car engines and the sirens, it's so great, and so Noir. That siren brings back memories of watching Noir movies when I was younger. The sounds of the weapons are great, the staccato rattle of a Tommy gun or the pop pop of a pistol are all recreated meticulously to make you feel as though you're in a Noir flick.
The score of L.A. Noire is fantastic, not only do they have some great period pieces on the radio, but the overall score itself evokes that Mike Hammer feel, the Maltese Falcon and a dozen Bogart movies all at once. It's a stalker of a theme; it sneaks around your ears and watches the inside of your brain as you're concentrating on the evidence. It pumps up to a rising crescendo when a chase is on and dies down when there's no action. In essence it's the perfect complement to the game itself. Rockstar and Team Bondi have managed to capture the very nature of Noir with their chosen composer.
Ah...TV and film actors combined to match with their on-screen faces, you can see the guy from Mad Men as Cole Phelps. The guy who played Matt Parkman in Heroes and many more, this is something else and their performances are stellar. I can't say that there's a single duff voice clip in the thousands of voices in L.A. Noire.
It's cleverly written, it evokes the period perfectly and it is a superb bit of writing. In fact I think L.A. Noire's story and script is one of the best ones and it deserves to win awards for providing a gritty and sometimes darkly humoured look at 1947's corrupt and decadent L.A. all the way from the jazz bars, gin soaked patrons and the police procedure of the time. It's all there. The script pulls no punches and it's definitely full of various slurs of the time, curse words galore and a few other surprises. Once again it earns that Mature Rating.
None, this is a single player only game and it would not work with a multiplayer component.
Play it again Sam
Oh yes, I will...again and again, I have OCD in that respect, I have to find every clue and every shred of evidence. I can't stress this enough, this is a true evolution of gameplay and you owe it to everyone that's worked on L.A. Noire from the developers to the PR staff and even the guys and gals that made the tea and coffee to play this game. Support a great title, because this one really does push the boundaries of interactive entertainment and even though it does sometimes have graphical slow down in some of the cut-scenes, it's a keeper and that's a fact.
"If that game leaves the store and you don't buy it, you'll regret it. Maybe not today, Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life."