L.A Noire isn’t anything like Grand Theft Auto. That’s the first thing you need to understand before you even contemplate buying into what’s sure to be another blockbuster title under the Rockstar roof.
There are elements of the crim-sim floating about – the circular radar, the white dot reticule, the driving and shooting button layout and that leaning sprint technique – but it’s all superficial. To get the most from L.A Noire; nay, to play it effectively, you’re going to need to forget all about Bellic and co.
For starters, there’s your protagonist, Cole Phelps. Working on the right side of the law, he’s a 1940s war hero turned LAPD cop, characterised by a humble duty that’s a world away from gaming’s usual assault rifle-wielding boys in blue. Phelps is tough and courageous, but he plays by the book, and in L.A Noire, you’re reaching for your notepad far more often than your gun.
In fact, reaching for your gun isn’t even on the menu for most of your time in 1940s Los Angeles. As you rise through the ranks of the LAPD – from uniform-sporting Patrol cop to the Traffic, Homicide, Vice and finally the Arson department – you’ll spend a lot of your time wading through investigative procedure, ticking boxes and crossing off names.
These are intrinsically linked to a number of gameplay sections, almost like mini-games, that are repeated throughout each case.
You’ll start off in the briefing room of your particular department with your senior barking details at you before shouting something like “Well, waddaya waitin’ for?” or “Now get out there and catch me a criminal!”
Off you trot, partner in tow, to a given crime scene that’ll be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen an episode of CSI or other popular US whodunnit dramas. There’s usually a body (if you’re dealing with a death), a number of scattered clues and maybe a couple of other officers, witnesses and the coroner.
CSI: LOS ANGELES… 1947
This initial section is all about finding leads and filling your notebook full of evidence. You’ll probably have a few words with the coroner before having a snoop around yourself, fully backed by some slow, tense, snooping, trumpet music.
When you do come across a clue your pad vibrates and a few piano notes provide a sonic indicator. Pressing ‘A’ slides you into first-person view as Cole bends down to pick up the item, whatever it may be. Cole might analyse the clue straight away, or some further eye work may be needed.
Here the left analogue stick is used for wrist action, enabling you to tilt and rotate the object, scanning all its surfaces for detail. If it’s a receptacle, like an envelope or a box, pressing A will open it up. When you find the sweet spot with the stick (representing the useful bit on the object) your pad will vibrate, prompting you to hold the position for Cole to finish his analysis.
Bodies can be knelt over with a touch of ‘A’. Cole lets his hand hover, waiting for you to move it over the body part you wish to examine (hands, torso, or head) before pressing ‘A’ again to focus on the area as if it were any other clue.
When the slow trumpet music stops in each of these scenes, you know you’ve found all there is to discover, by which time you’ll have a notebook full of clues, locations and people to follow up on. Perhaps a book of matches suggests that a victim spent a lot of time at a certain bar, or a note on a fridge gives details of a dinner date with a friend only moments before a fatal incident. All new possible leads, locations and people of interest are automatically added to your notebook to be called upon later.
Visiting one of those people of interest is usually where the next ‘mini-game’ in each of L.A Noire’s cases begins – that of interrogation. They might be the victim’s landlord, brother or mother; they could be completely innocent. Either way, it’s rare to come across anyone who doesn’t try to deceive Phelps to some extent at least once.
This is where the famous faces come in… and for that we have to take a moment. We struggle to adequately describe just how mesmerising the MotionScan technology that Team Bondi has used to craft its characters can be. We realise the word gets banded around a lot these days, but MotionScan really does seem to offer a geuine revolution in gaming.
You can see every blink, every gulp, every half-glance to the left every bite of the inside of the lip. We can list all the facial nuances we want and you still won’t understand the microscopic detail that all of L.A Noire’s characters are blessed with. The trailers were impressive enough, but you can only truly appreciate just how sophisticated the MotionScan rendered faces are when you’re sitting in a quiet interview room staring into the eyes of a potential killer looking for even the slightest hint of nervous deceit. It’s often breathtaking.
Indeed, sometimes it’s a bit too much. Occasional suspects don’t have a hope in hell of getting away with their foibles, as they offer a big cartoon glance to the side that shouts, “I hope he didn’t pick up on that massive lie.” They may as well take an evil moustache out of their pocket, press it onto their upper lip and give it a good old twiddle.
You’ll learn to love these poor liars, though, because when L.A Noire’s murderous deceivers are good, they’re almost impenetrable. We’d advise taking a good hard look at their faces before you’ve even fired the first question (you can look up from your notepad where you select your questions at any time) to take note of any idiosyncrasies that you might mistake for tell-tale signs later. Sometimes even that’s not enough – one suspect was so old and wrinkly that we couldn’t even see which way his eyes were looking. Well played, Wrinkles. Well played indeed.
After every answer that your suspect or witness provides, you get the chance to accept it as truth, doubt the claim (if you’ve got a bad feeling but no evidence) or call them out as a straight up liar – at which point they’ll demand to see/hear the evidence you have to back such an outrageous claim. You’ll get new leads, evidence, or new question opportunities depending on your success.
It’s at this stage that L.A Noire’s rare spells of gun-slinging action are likeliest to kick into play. When this happens, most of the time you’ll know you’ve got your man; he’s the one running away before you’ve even had chance to lick the tip of your pencil.
The game’s chase sequences take place either by foot or in a car, with both reminiscent of Rockstar’s more famous urban open world baby. While the sprint chases are overly simple (hold RT to run and Cole will do the rest – including jumping over obstacles – automatically), they do feature some nice animations.
The car pursuits, however, offer a far more fulfilling, heart-pumping experience. You’ll barrel through gardens, alley-ways, construction yards and more chassis-unfriendly locales – all of which require some real precision driving at points that feels more like a scramble than a foot-down, super-charged sprint. That said, the sparse roads and short drive times compare unfavourably to what you may have experienced in Rockstar’s other cities.
They’re slower than anything you’ll find in GTA (our max speed was somewhere around 80mph – probably a sign of the times more than anything) and the villain’s car has the strange ability to boost itself a bit further ahead if the game decides you’re getting too close and wants to drag the chase out a bit. That said, the unlikely routes that your foes lead you on often make for driving sections that are fun in a completely different way to GTA.
Once you’ve written off the panicked suspect’s car, the chase might continue on foot, or they might turn and fight for their freedom with fists (a clunky dual, to say the least) or with a firearm – where those of you who had an itchy trigger finger in Red Dead Redemption will feel right at home.
Although the guns don’t feel quite as powerful as those Monsieur Marston would carry, they feel realistic. You can often take villains down with a couple of shots, an event which shows off some nice physics, especially if they’re caught by a bullet when on the move.
Other satisfying touches include shockingly violent blood splatters; claret regularly thrashing against walls in a manner that will make you shudder to think what the related exit wound looks like. Some cool environmental damage includes stone pillars coming away in chunks around the impact, also adding to the drama.
And that, structurally, is how L.A Noire works. It really is quite different to anything we’ve seen from Rockstar before – and something that stirred mixed emotions in us for a long time. More to the point, it’s very, very cool; boasting a hugely impressive mix of cinematics, atmosphere and a stylised world drenched equally in romanticism and brooding threat. But alongside this brilliance, gameplay niggles exist that are difficult to ignore.
GIVE US A CLUE
Searching for clues caused us some notable grief. While it’s all very cool strutting around an authentically designed crime-scene, Fedora and all, after a while it soon dawns on you that what you’re playing is little more than a very pretty but reasonably elementary point-and-click adventure.
As long as that music is still playing, you know there are more clues to be found and, because the environments are so rich with detail and the clues so well integrated in the environment, you usually end up just shuffling around the place waiting for your pad to rumble.
With Cole doing the cognitive work once you do pick up an item, there’s no skill in analysis, which feels a little like a missed opportunity. You don’t need to work out where a technician’s tool box is telling you to go next – the new location is automatically put in your notepad.
The option exists to turn the pad vibration and music prompts off so that you don’t know when you’re standing next to a clue or, indeed, if there are any left in the room to be found. Although this ups the difficulty level to a degree and makes you feel less of a ‘passive’ player, you soon develop a neurosis where you’re pressing the ‘A’ button every second, twitching nervously and convincing yourself that every mundane item is a clue. Neither option is exactly gameplay perfection.
The half-way house would be to stick with one external prompt alone; either turning the pad vibration off or toggling the investigation music so that it plays continuously and doesn’t alert you to clues with a piano twinkle. We tried both, but still the neuroses prevailed; we found ourselves button tapping every second without the vibrations, and reluctant to leave the crime scene without a musical prompt.
Both the casual and hardcore are catered for with the toggle options, but there is a bit of a gulf between the difficulties. With the external indicators in place, sweeping a place for clues is a robotic game of trial and error and waiting for some feedback – too easy. But without these prompts, things can get really tough really fast. Think of how difficult it was to find that one elusive object in a game like Discworld back in the day, when the boundaries were merely the sides of your screen. Now imagine trying to find those object in a 3D environment the size of your house.
Thankfully, the interview mechanic is brilliant, demanding both patience and observation – and rewarding both handsomely. We came unstuck a couple of times because we believed that a certain bit of evidence would surely disprove what we thought to be a false statement, only to be shot down. Other times, we’d side with the interviewee (why would Mrs. A know what shoe size Mr. B was after all?) only to get another fail tone and a big X in our notebook.
Take some time, though, and bring all the evidence to the table, and your success rate will be higher. The more you consider, the more you detect, the better you’ll do. It works a charm. We’ll admit to being a bit overzealous with our accusations at times – sometimes you’ll comes across people that you simply cannot read – but on the whole, the more of our ol’ grey matter we taxed, the better the results.
In the end, L.A Noire charmed us to the point that the irritating clue discovery didn’t rile too much, for one very important reason: This is a game about a story, one set in a world jam packed full of character. It perhaps doesn’t matter too much that the actual challenge is minimal, because the magnetic narrative continues to drive you regardless.
Like the Great Plains of Red Dead Redemption, 1947 Los Angeles is a world that we became totally wrapped up in. And when we weren’t playing in it, we were thinking about it. It’s quite simply the most convincing world with the Rockstar sticker on it we’ve ever witnessed – and that’s no small achievement on Team Bondi’s part.
The design is impeccable; everything from dress-sense right down to washing detergent looks completely authentic. The lighting too is incredibly well thought out; watching Cole climb a drain-pipe in the moonlight casts some poster-worthy shadows. We walked up and down an empty office a few times just to see the striped sunlight shine on and slide up Cole’s suit.
There were a handful of pop-in textures and shadows can look decidedly low-res from very close up but the overall presentation is stunning. From a visual point of view, Team Bondi certainly knows its Film Noir.
The actual characters themselves are similarly sophisticated. It’s a massive cast but everyone, even those in the minor roles, seems unique, helped not only by that humanising face tech but in the way that none of the characters slip too far into clich. Of course there’s plenty of character shorthand and narrative signposting so that you can get a read on the basics quickly, but there’s nothing offensively stereotypical and personalities often show multiple layers.
That’s all topped off with the frankly stellar voice-acting, which is Hollywood quality at times and DVD boxset standard for the rest. The dialogue is tightly scripted throughout, the lines are delivered with intelligence and subtlety (we’d say it just pips Uncharted) and the MotionScan technology is the kicker. You can actually see Cole, played by Mad Men’s Aaron Staton, suppress a smile when he’s being complimented; you can hear every little bit of frustration when he’s somehow being prevented from doing his job.
Further testament to the power and draw of the narrative aspects is that we can honestly say we spent around half an hour tops straying from each objective during the main campaign. The game makes you want to behave as orderly as its star; to sit in traffic waiting for the lights to change and to play patiently through the narrative rather than go joy riding.
If you’re looking for a point of reference for L.A Noire then, GTA isn’t even close. This is a narrative-driven thriller set in an open world that you will use naturally, rather than a gun-touting play-pen full of distractions.
Is the narrative perfect? No, of course not, L.A Noire suffers a mid-game lull. For us this began during the Homicide cases, where we were following murders based on the real-life Black Dalia killings. Each of these offered almost exactly the same Modus operandi – a female victim would left naked, strangled and/or violated with jewellery ripped off by the murderer and/or murderers.
With every situation being so similar, the formulaic nature of L.A Noire was really exposed, leaving us feeling like the hollow shell of the men these gritty detectives often become. (“Another dead woman, another rope around the neck. Same sh*t, different day.”) Perhaps that was the point but, if it was, then the grind was far too real to be enjoyable, and we got flashbacks of Assassin’s Creed. We can’t even say we were satisfied with the outcome of the Black Dalia case by the time we finally moved on to the Vice Desk.
Happily, the available side-quests fly in the face of this sort of repetition; offering much-appreciated snippets of classic GTA-style action (chases, shoot-outs, hostage situations) that require your response over the radio while you drive.
When looked at as a whole, however, L.A Noire’s story ticked along brilliantly. Towards the end of the game, more and more action scenes were thrown into the mix as the overarching plot reared its head and smaller narrative points started to fall into place.
In that sense, L.A Noire stands closer Heavy Rain than anything in the Rockstar canon. Although it offers real (sorry, Mr Cage) driving, shooting and freedom of movement over QTEs, it pins you down in other, perhaps more debilitating ways – not least, choice.
Although Heavy Rain didn’t always give you movement, it gave you story options and a world where your decisions counted. In L.A Noire that’s not the case. It makes you think your actions are affecting outcomes, but that rarely seems to anything more than a titillating illusion.
We always got our man, no matter how horrible our performance. In some cases, that man was a mere latecomer to the scene who may as well have been waving at us with red hands. We can’t go too much further into details without spoiling the experience outright for you, but we soon realised that Team Bondi essentially had us following a long bit of rope connected to two points; from point A you’re granted a bit of slack to wander off course, but ultimately though you’re always going to end up at point B.
This disappointing level of freedom, mixed with a choice of hand-holding or hardcore clue hunting and a typical Rockstar lull in the game’s middle, holds L.A Noire back from being absolute genius. Thankfully, the experience story and characters do more than enough to entertain during the simpler gameplay points and will often leave you open-mouthed at their sheer filmic quality.
If you hated Heavy Rain’s strand of video game innovation and you’re coming to this with cars and horses on the brain, then you’re likely to be disappointed. If you can forgive some linear foibles and missed gameplay opportunities, it’s definitely worth a try.
But if you loved Quantic Dream’s PS3 adventure – or any of the old classic narrative point and clicks, for that matter – and hunger for a touch of Rockstar’s mature class amongst 2011’s spate of gun-heavy blockbusters, you can consider L.A Noire very much a must buy.