L.A. Noire Review

I need to start off by letting you know that L.A. Noire is not Grand Theft Auto with you on the side of the law for a change. In fact, the game has more in common with classic adventure games than it does with Rockstar's flagship open world franchise. You're going to spend far more time speaking with people and slowly combing crime scenes than you will in shoot-outs and car chases. If you're just looking for the latter, then you're better off looking elsewhere. But if you do that, you'll miss out on one of the most engrossing videogames to date.

L.A. Noire's grip on you begins with its location. The game has painstakingly recreated post-war 1940s Los Angeles with such devotion to detail that you'll feel like you're really there. The game is especially enjoyable for those of us from Los Angeles, as anyone familiar with the city can almost navigate its streets without using the in-game map. The buildings, the cars, the fashion, the advertisements, the Red Line street cars! Walk into a bar, a home, a store, it doesn't matter, every location is meticulously detailed and true to the era. Often games set in historical periods trip up in the dialog, with characters letting slip a Twenty-First Century phrase or colloquialism here or there, but I can't recall a single instance of that happening in this game. I can't say that I know how people really spoke in the 1940s, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did the way they do in the game. In spite of all of this, if you're the kind of person that can't think of anything happening in color prior to the 1960s, the game has got you covered. A black and white mode will let you see the game in the same way that you see the 1940s.

L.A. Noire screenshot 1

And then there's the story, which will slowly suck you in like a good page-turner novel and in a similar vein is difficult to put down, I mean shut down. The narrative is expertly woven, with threads that you didn't even know were threads being pulled together more tightly as the story progresses and culminating in a memorable ending.

Another thing that sets L.A. Noire apart from a typical game is its facial animation technology. Games have been using motion capture for years now, but I've never seen it applied to facial expressions to the degree it is in L.A. Noire. At first it looks a little strange, but that's more a consequence of not being used to seeing such a degree of expressiveness in videogame characters than it is any shortcomings of the technology.

So the game looks and feels great, but what's it about? You play as Cole Phelps, a veteran and hero of the war who's returned home to Los Angeles to serve on its police force. Starting as a uniformed patrol officer, Phelps' ambition and drive coupled with his meticulous investigative work has him quickly rising to the rank of detective. However, this rising young star of the LAPD doesn't manage to endear himself to anyone on the force, and also harbors some dark secrets from his time in the military. Half of the fun in the game is the story, so I'm just going to leave it at that and let you experience the rest for yourself.

The game plays out as a series of cases that all naturally begin with a crime. You'll begin by investigating the crime scene and looking for clues. This is one of those places where the classic adventure game nature of L.A. Noire comes through because you'll be hunting around the screen for any items of significance to the case. The game aids your hunt in a couple of ways, first by vibrating the controller when you are near an object that can be examined more closely and second by fading out the background music when all of the clues in the area have been found. If you think that that's too much help and it takes the fun and challenge out of things, either or both of these assists can be disabled. At first you'll spend a lot of time looking at objects that are of no significance to the case, but as you play more you'll develop an eye for what bears closer examination and what doesn't. By tossing some red or dead herrings your way, the game is actually helping you build your detective's eye. As Phelps becomes a better detective, so do you.

Being a detective is not just about collecting evidence; you'll need to interview suspects and witnesses as well. This is where the game's facial animation technology really comes into play. As you interview people, you'll have to determine if they're lying or not. At first the game makes it relatively easy for you to spot the lies with exaggerated indicators such as overly shifty eyes, but like the evidence collecting, as the game progresses these indicators will be far more subtle and you'll have to hone your skills in reading interviewees.

When an interviewee answers one of your questions, you'll then have to make a call on the truthfulness of the answer. The game asks you to determine if the statement is true or a lie. There's also a third option, doubt, which indicates that you believe that he or she is holding out on you. You need to be careful about which option you choose because you could unintentionally let a suspect off of the hook or offend a key witness and suddenly find them to be quite uncooperative. If you find that this all puts too much pressure on you or you just can't tell whether a person is lying or not, the game has a hint system in place in the form of intuition points. As you make your way through the game you'll earn what amounts to experience points for finding evidence, successfully interrogating witnesses and suspects, and solving cases. As you earn experience and gain levels, you'll earn "Intuition Points" which can be used to help you out in an interrogation. You never have a lot of these lying around so you'll have to be careful about when you use them, but they can be pretty useful in a pinch. If you decide to spend one during an interrogation, you'll be able to select from one of two options. The first will eliminate one of the lie, truth, or doubt options, improving your odds a bit. The other is a community lifeline, and will show you what percentage of players of the game selected each option.

Even if you do correctly guess that a person is lying, you may have to back up your accusation. This is where the evidence comes in. If you've discovered a key piece of evidence or information that can be used to show the person that you've caught them in lie, you can break them down and get the full story out of them. If not, then they will remain confident that you don't really have anything on them and stick to their lie.

The interviews are the most important part of each case, because they can affect the outcome. There are multiple endings for each case and when you've completed one you'll be given a summary screen letting you know how many interview choices you made correctly and a critique of your handling of the case. For example, you may be told that if you pressed a witness harder they would have cracked and given up the suspect to you earlier in the case. You can go back and replay cases if you'd like and see how things would have played out if you had done things a little differently.

L.A. Noire screenshot 2

Being a detective isn't all investigation and interviews sometimes things can heat up quickly and you'll have your share of chases in the game, both on foot and by car. As a police detective you're sworn to protect the citizens of Los Angeles and their property, so car pursuits are doubly challenging not only do you have to catch the suspect that you're chasing, you have to be careful not to hit anybody or anything along the way. This is a bit more challenging than it may at first seem to be because the cars in the game feel pretty floaty. It's really easy to start swerving while weaving through traffic and it can be tricky to maintain control and avoid fishtailing. It's not so bad that it makes the cars undrivable, but it certainly makes pursuits more challenging. If you fail to chase down a suspect you'll fail the case, but the game will let you pick things up again from the start of the pursuit.

Foot pursuits are a matter of keeping on the suspect's tail and waiting for him or her to make a mistake or run out of breath. The game thankfully doesn't turn these into arcade sequences in which you have to time a bunch of jumps, wall climbs, and the like. The game will automatically choose many of your actions such as hopping a fence as you're running, leaving you to worry about staying on your target's heels and looking for an opportunity to cut the distance between the two of you.

You'll also find yourself in a gunfight now and then, but gunplay is certainly not a major component of your cases. Gunfights involve staying behind cover and then using the game's targeting assist to fire a few rounds back at your adversaries. The shoot-outs are fun but I wouldn't necessarily call them challenging. L.A. Noire is not a shooter at all and the gun battles are more a consequence of where a case takes you then a primary method of closing cases.

While driving between locations there's a chance that you'll pick up a radio call about a crime in progress. These calls are optional side events and whether or not you choose to respond to them doesn't have an effect on your current case. Doing so is fun, though, as these crimes are always action-oriented and can lead to a pursuit or exchange of gunfire. They're also an opportunity to pick up some more experience, which can lead to more intuition points for you to use on your current case.

If you're in a hurry, you can ask your partner to drive and you'll be instantly taken to your destination. However, doing so means missing out on any potential street crimes that you may have encountered along the way. It also means that you won't have the opportunity to locate any of the game's famous landmarks, which is one of those citywide object hunts that game completists enjoy chasing down.

L. A. Noire's emphasis on careful and methodical detective work and interviews means that it won't appeal to every gamer out there. However, its incredible attention to detail coupled with a narrative on par with those in a good book or movie make it a compelling experience that will appeal to most people. It's one of those games that is genuinely innovative and original, and will be remembered for quite some time to come.

Final Rating: 95%. L.A. Noire is as much an experience as it is a game, and its unique gameplay and engrossing story make it one of the "must play" games of 2011.