Let’s get the most important distinction out of the way first: L.A. Noire is not Grand Theft Auto. Despite all of Rockstar Games’ assertions on this point, there seems to be a belief out there among some that this week’s Team Bondi-developed release is basically a 1940s-set GTA. Not so. L.A. Noire finds closer comparison with the world of adventure games. There is an action focus at various points, but the thrust of the experience really boils down to investigation, interrogation and careful observation. It is undeniably inventive, more than a little imperfect in some ways, and a refreshingly different interactive experience for those who are open to embracing it.
Police Work in the City of Angels
L.A. Noire tells the story of Cole Phelps, a young, do-right LAPD patrol officer who quickly climbs the department ladder thanks to his superior skills as a “case man,” as his salty, street-worn colleagues put it. In gameplay terms, this means a progression for Cole to different crime desks in the city police department as the story progresses, with higher-profile cases bringing more complexity… and a trickier political landscape to navigate. Wrapping around the present day 1947 narrative are cutscene flashbacks to Cole’s time overseas as a military officer during World War II, a thread which ultimately ties into the game’s overarching plotline.
Each case tells its own self-contained tale, many of which then tie in with a larger arc related to the crime desk Cole is currently working. The homicide cases, for example, all have links with the famed real life “Black Dahlia” murder of Elizabeth Short. This is where L.A. Noire‘s narrative is at its strongest. The self-contained nature of the cases gives the game an almost episodic feel — perfect for playing hour or two chunks of and then putting down — and the arcs all tie together nicely for each desk.
Unfortunately, Cole’s larger story doesn’t entirely work. I’m not going to spoil anything in this review, but there are elements of our protagonist’s personal life which aren’t adequately explored prior to becoming major plot points in the latter parts of the game. It almost feels as though a few key establishing scenes are missing from the early sections. It doesn’t ruin the experience by any stretch, but it makes some of the later strokes miss their intended emotional marks.
We get a very clear picture of Cole as a no-nonsense, mostly humorless detective, but not enough time is spent developing his personal life. The game is very much about the experience of being a cop, and it succeeds admirably in that regard. Team Bondi clearly had some more far-reaching aspirations for the story, however, and some of those elements are not fully baked into the game’s text. It’s unfortunate, but in no way a dealbreaker.
All the Pieces Matter…
What might be a dealbreaker for some is making the mistake laid out at the top of this review: L.A. Noire is no GTA clone. The more action-driven segments find comparisons with Rockstar’s premiere open-world franchise, but the bulk of Noire‘s 17+ hours are filled with crime scene investigations and the interrogation of witnesses, persons of interest and suspects. Both of these require players to zero in their powers of observation.
On the investigation side, you’ll move Cole around a set area and search for clues, which are automatically added to your notebook and later used to inform and influence interrogations. The process of locating clues is woven into the game’s soundtrack. An atmospheric jazz number swells up whenever Cole enters an area containing clues, quickly fading away if he steps outside that area’s borders. A brief tinkling piano plays and the controller rumbles when Cole gets close to a clue; pressing X (A on a 360 controller) then moves in for a close-up, at which point Cole can rotate the object in his hands and, when applicable, subject it to an even closer examination. Each environment is filled with circumstantial objects as well. Very often you’ll find yourself looking at a useless beer bottle or crushed cigarette pack that has no bearing on anything. That’s detective work for you though; not every overturned rock will yield a case-closing clue.
Interrogations are where Team Bondi’s use of the facial performance-capturing MotionScan technology gets to shine. MotionScan delivers an unparalleled level of nuance in each actor’s performance, right down to subtle twitches of the eyes and mouth. You’ve not seen anything like this in a game before, and it ties in well with one of the principal play mechanics. As you put question after question to your interviewees, you must watch and listen carefully as they respond. The trick is to measure everything at once; not just the words alone or the expressions alone, but both of those along with the context. Based on how your subject responds, you can either accept what they’ve said as the truth, express doubt about their sincerity or call them out on a lie, the last of which must then be supported with hard evidence.
It is not simple, especially as the game progresses further. Some of your interviewees are easy to read, sometimes the situation makes it simple; for example, the owner of a recently burned down home is going to be speaking more from an emotional place. If you play video games regularly, there might be some confusion as you reflexively try to “game” the process and and work out the mechanical logic of these sequences.
That just doesn’t work in L.A. Noire. You have to read these people, and respond naturally to what they’re saying or not saying, as situations dictate. Sometimes a seemingly sensible response from Cole results in a response the game deems as “Incorrect.” It’s not because you’re doing it wrong, but rather that people don’t always make sense. In short, you have to be present in the various conversations and learn to trust your gut, which is an odd skill to tap into for a video game.
L.A. Noire picks up more of an action focus as the story progresses into its late stages. You’ll still be checking out crime scenes and interviewing people, but you’ll also be more frequently asked to tail suspects (both on foot and in a car), chase bad guys (same) and fight with both your fists and your gun. These sequences are common to most cases, but the late game’s more sprawling investigations break from previously established patterns. The action bits can also be picked up a la carte by taking on Unassigned Cases that come over the radio from police dispatch. In addition to breaking up the gameplay, these cases grant Cole experience and, in turn, more outfits, vehicles and Intuition Points, which can be spent to make crime scene investigations and interrogations easier.
Actually firing your weapon and taking down bad guys has the same general feel as it did in Red Dead Redemption, but Cole is nowhere near the crack shot that John Marston was. There’s some light snap-to aiming, but no weapon lock-on beyond that. The driving physics also feel more arcade-y than fans of Grand Theft Auto IV will remember, with the hefty feel of that game’s vehicles replaced by zippy autos that all have better cornering than a car manufactured in 1947 has any right to.
Not that any of this ever became a problem during the review playthrough. While Cole’s case work is unforgiving in its difficulty — get a response wrong and you’re stuck with the repercussions of that unless you want to restart the case — the action leans more toward cleansing the palate after these heady detective sequences. It’s light, undemanding fun with the driving and the gunplay, and you’ll rarely find yourself failing and being warped back to a checkpoint save. These are in fact the only sections of a case that can (and actually must) be replayed until they are gotten right.
As much as L.A. Noire is not about the open-world action, this is most definitely a Rockstar game. The level of detail in Team Bondi’s 1947 Los Angeles is remarkable, no other way to put it, and it’s even better on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Environmental cues replace any need for a HUD, beyond the occasional “Press X to [perform action]” prompt, which can be turned off. Gold-handled doors are the ones that can be opened, clues are highlighted by music, various nooks and crannies around the city hide collectible newspapers, vehicles and film reels… yeah, you know the drill. Explore and be rewarded. On the new Nintendo Switch version of the game, you can even use the Joy-Con controllers to manipulate objects.
Unfortunately, a few technical issues are present in the final release version of L.A. Noire. Most noticeably, the audio sync will drop out from time to time. While this only happened during cutscenes, never during an interrogation when it really counts, it was still a semi-frequent distraction. The A.I. on your partner also behaves a little funny at times, freezing him in place or removing him from the map entirely. Heading to your next destination typically solves the problem, but it also means you can’t skip to said destination by forcing your partner to drive, a very welcome feature which significantly cuts down on the potential monotony of driving from scene to interview to scene and back again.
An overarching story that misses its mark and a few technical issues don’t diminish from what is ultimately a compelling and highly innovative interactive experience. This is a Rockstar take on an adventure game, Police Quest in an open 3D game world. You can feel the publisher’s brand identity writ large on this game, in much the same way that Manhunt offered a very Rockstar take on the stealth genre. L.A. Noire may fall short of perfection, but the core gameplay is so refreshingly different, so immediately engaging that it never quite matters.
Score: 9 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by Rockstar Games)