The second this
dame game came into my office, I knew it’d be trouble.
They say war is hell, and, well, I can attest to that. Leading good men, good friends, into the shit in Okinawa—it doesn’t get more hellish than that. But that doesn’t mean that peacetime is heaven. In war, you see the horrors a man is willing to commit to survive. In peace, you learn what he’s capable of when it's not his life that's on the table but a quick buck, a cheap thrill. The latter scares me more.
[image1]The streets of L.A. aren’t paved with gold, hopes, dreams, or even good old concrete. They’re paved with the broken bones and dripping corpses of housewives, the tears of abused underage girls weeping for their lost innocence, the crushed empty needles of drooling junkies, and the charred flesh of families burned alive in their homes.
Unlike other G.I.'s coming home after the war, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I came to the City of Angels to make a difference, to keep those evils off the streets. I wasn’t looking to be a hero, but the people needed one to hold above their heads. Or maybe it isn’t really the people, in the end; it’s the politicians, the gangsters, the papers that need some shining beacon to focus on. After all, the brighter the light, the longer the shadows can stretch out beneath it.
Such is the mindset (my interpretation of it, anyway) of Cole Phelps. L.A. Noire is an engrossing look down the rabbit hole of 1947 L.A. through the eyes of an ex-Marine-turned-cop. I’d like to apologize for not staying in character for the entirety of the review, which was initially what I wanted to do. As you’ll come to understand, however, this is actually more appropriate for L.A. Noire, a game that sets a tone of intense immersion but has the unfortunate habit of breaking its spell on the player.
But let’s not get bogged down with negatives right away. This game is a huge leap forward for the medium in many respects. The most obvious and deserving of mention, of course, is the incredible MotionScan technology used to replicate not just the voices, but the entire performances of every actor in the game. If you’ve followed L.A. Noire at all, you’ve heard it a thousand times: MotionScan gives you the unparalleled ability to deduce whether a suspect or witness is lying just by reading their facial tics and minute gestures.
[image2]It works so well, in fact, that questioning is by far the most difficult part of the game. Sure, it sounds simple enough to watch out for shifty eyes, excessive blinking, nervous smiles, uncomfortable swallowing, flaring nostrils, and all that jazz. But the line between truth, doubt, and lie (the three options you have to respond to each statement) is incredibly thin. Is that witness fidgeting because he’s trying to put one over on you, or is it because he’s got a record and can’t help but be nervous in front of cops? You’ll be surprised at how well this technology can fool you and how often you might guess wrongly during interrogations. And when you think about it, that must be extremely close to how real interrogations unfold.
MotionScan also helps a game with far from cutting-edge graphics still wow the hell out of you. The graphics overall have less polish and technical detail than many other older games, such as Uncharted 2 or God of War III, although I’d be remiss not to mention the meticulous detail put into replicating a beautiful and, near as I can tell, painstakingly accurate 1940s L.A. and all the classic cars traversing it. The ability to switch the whole game to gorgeous black-and-white is a great addition, albeit one that makes it harder to make out obstructions when driving at high speeds.
But the facial detail is unbelievable—several times I recognized actors who I’ve seen before, and lit up at the amazing in-game facsimile of the real person. Of course, this advance in technology also puts us that much closer to tripping into the uncanny valley, but that’s a discussion for another day.
As odd of a comparison as it sounds, the core gameplay in L.A. Noire feels closer to Phoenix Wright than gritty, realistic contemporary mysteries like Heavy Rain. Most of the 21 storyline cases have two distinct phases that you’ll bounce between: investigation and questioning. Investigation involves walking around a crime scene and picking up clues whenever you feel a rumble and hear a chime. While that method of playing hide-and-seek with the evidence does hurt the immersion a bit, it’s better than the option to turn off the cues and go blindly, as a lot of potential evidence is tiny and almost impossible to see amidst the clutter on the ground.
[image3]As for questioning, you’ll go through a bunch of predetermined questions in your trusty notebook and use the aforementioned MotionScan to decide whether to believe the response, doubt it, or accuse the person of lying. If you choose lying, you’ll have to present the one piece of evidence that contradicts their statement. (It’s not mandatory to stand up and point at the screen shouting “Objection!” in your living room, but we all know that’s the only way a real man interrogates witnesses.)
You have a limited number of “intuition points”, which you can spend to reveal all the clues at a crime scene on your mini-map, eliminate one wrong choice at a questioning branch, or if you’re hooked up to Xbox Live or PSN, ask the community Millionaire-style what the most common choice is. But since you need to ration intuition points wisely, most of your questioning will be educated guesswork, just like a real cop.
Unlike a real cop, however, you can’t fail the case by screwing up the questioning. If you mess up, the case will just continue unfolding another way. Failing to push a witness into giving you an address, for example, means that you’ll have to tail them there instead. Your choices do change how the case plays out, but you’ll always get to the same endpoint one way or another, which is another strike against the realism.
And that brings us to the most frustrating aspect of L.A. Noire. For all the attention to detail and convincing immersion during the investigation and questioning—the bulk of the main storyline—there are inevitable moments that pull you back out. You’ll earn experience as you do well, which pops up on the side of the screen to indicate how close you are to your next rank. There’s nothing like virtual points adding to an arbitrary numbered rank to remind you that you’re playing a video game.
[image4]The other gameplay elements are also not nearly as polished as the detective work. Every so often you’ll chase down a suspect, which really just means holding the shoulder button and following them until you catch them. The gunplay sections control perfectly well, but they’re very easy and just consist of mowing down every bad guy in your way, while using a simple cover system to avoid damage. Likewise, the extremely basic brawling scenes are almost impossible to lose; mash the punch button and dodge the occasional telegraphed attack and you win.
Then there’s traversing L.A. in the open world. It can be refreshing and it’s certainly designed as well as any Rockstar game, but at the end of the day, there's not much of a point. Unlike GTA, your goal as a cop is not to cause mayhem, so driving like a maniac only hurts your end-of-case report. The only side quests, if they can be called quests, are 40 random street crimes that you can respond to via radio as you drive around—and nearly all of them trigger a rather bland chase, gunfight, or brawling sequence. To top it off, you can always have your partner auto-drive literally anywhere on the map, skipping the open-world element altogether for the entirety of the game if you so choose.
All of this makes me wonder—were these other gameplay elements and open-world exploration necessary for a game like this? The investigative gameplay is so well done and gets you really involved... and then a generic shootout pops up and reminds you that this is a video game. I get the feeling that Team Bondi felt pressured to make the gameplay more “balanced” because this is a Rockstar game and there are certain expectations that come with that. Maybe they thought people would get bored with just investigating. But ultimately L.A. Noire doesn’t need open-world exploration or action-oriented breaks in the mystery. This is a detective story and the strengths of the game lie heavily in being that detective.
The story is complex and interesting, using cases based on real historical events (the Black Dahlia case being the most famous) as source material. A lot of recurring characters weave in and out of the cases, and optional newspapers that you can find tell of what’s going on behind the scenes, which sometimes don’t seem related to Phelps at all but eventually contribute to the game’s overall arc. It’s hard to root for Phelps at times, but that’s what you want from a hard-boiled detective. He plays it cool, almost too cool, but if you look long and hard enough, you can pinpoint the flaws beneath his steely façade.
[image5]Yet for all that, the storytelling occasionally stumbles. The writing and acting is fantastic, but there are moments that are overly contrived merely to chug the plot along or create a twist. One twist in particular, about three-fourths through the game, comes out of nowhere and is hardly believable (you’ll know it when you get there). It would have been a great, poignant moment, except for the fact that there’s no prior trace of Phelps’ particular personality trait that leads to it, nor do you even see one of the important characters involved for the entire game until it’s convenient for the twist.
Finally, I encountered a few prominent glitches during my initial 20 hours with the PS3 version (which is the game’s native console). Twice my partner blocked me into a corner and I couldn’t run past him to get out, and once I sank under the ground and got a look at the literal underbelly of L.A. (it’s actually an endless ocean of blue fog—who knew?). These glitches were all game-breaking and forced me to reload from the last checkpoint. A less egregious one happened when the background failed to load before an interrogation started—just a visual hiccup that corrected itself after a few seconds.
L.A. Noire is a lot like Heavy Rain, and not just because they’re both mystery games. They each take bold steps in untested waters for gaming, they each establish an amazing level of immersion (at times), and they each make odd choices that can frustrate you as well as awe you. While I do have complaints, this is still a game that needs to be experienced because the positives are just that strong. Like Phelps, you won't be able to leave this story alone until you see it through to the end.