Once again Rockstar have produced a game that is incredibly hard to rate purely because it’s incredibly hard to categorise. As with last year’s Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire defies classification by blurring the lines between action, exploration and role playing – and I’m not talking about stats, loot and XP role-playing, I’m simply talking about stepping into the shoes of a specific character and becoming them, completely and utterly, for 25 – 30 hours.
Rockstar have also given us yet another compelling, original and interesting protagonist and along with Team Bondi have delivered a script which proves again that they employ some of the finest writers in the industry. Is Cole Phelps as interesting and troubled as John Marston, or as conflicted and morally-ambiguous as Niko Bellic? No, he isn’t, which is where his strengths lie – because he’s entirely new ground for Rockstar: he’s a (whisper it) good guy.
That’s right: in L.A Noire, for once, you’re playing on the right side of the law – though, given that this is Hollywood circa its late-forties, early-fifties Golden Era, the thin red line is often smudged and hard to spot. You take control of the aforementioned Cole Phelps, a former marine officer who came straight off an honourable discharge into the LA police force. When the game begins, you’re a simple beat cop in a pressed blue uniform, but it’s not long before your prowess at sweeping crime scenes sees you promoted to the traffic desk, and from then on it’s up and up – or down and down, depending on which way you look at things.
Much pre-release noise was made about the mechanics of L.A. Noire, and yet I still went into the game unsure what to expect. Younger gamers expecting GTA 1947 will be sorely disappointed – although frankly the 18 certificate displayed on the box is even more deserved here than in games like, say, Splatterhouse or, indeed, Grand Theft Auto. L.A. Noire doesn’t flinch away from the facts associated with brutal crime, often asking you to actively examine the battered, naked corpse of a murdered woman, for example, to try to ascertain the guilty party.
From the opening case involving the shooting of a man down a dark alleyway, the game makes one thing clear: it isn’t about balls-out action. Called to the scene with your partner, you’re asked to go over the area and see if you can spot anything the attending detectives might have missed. A quick scout of the alley will reveal various physical clues, some of which are pertinent and some of which are total red herrings. Approaching a clue will trigger a tiny chiming sound and cause the pad to gently vibrate; closer inspection will then reveal any number of things: sometimes the object you’re looking at will be useless, but sometimes it might be a book of matches with the address of an important club printed inside, or the victim’s purse with her ID nestled within. Either way it’s vital to examine every item you find, no matter how insignificant it may appear to be.
Everything Phelps discovers is meticulously recorded in his notebook for use when cross-examining witnesses and suspects – which is where the game really comes to life and the extraordinary technology is showcased. Once you’re up close with people, face-to-face, the game becomes something genuinely unique. The facial mapping is, to put it bluntly, totally unmatched by any other title. Every tic, every twitch and every flicker is reproduced, not only bringing a sense of incredible realism to proceedings but also facilitating the USP. The crime scene and the car chases are only half the investigation – the real meat is the interview.
Once you’ve examined all the evidence, it’s time to talk to the witnesses or the suspects. You’ll be given a list of subjects pertaining to questions you can ask, such as ‘Husband’s Alibi’ or ‘Last Contact with Victim’. Whatever you ask will elicit some kind of emotional response, and usually allow you to counter with one of three choices: Truth, in which case you buy whatever their selling and move on to the next question; Doubt, which will cause Phelps to push the interviewee in the hopes of uncovering more evidence or information; or Lie, whereby you’ll outright call them on their last statement. Choosing Lie will require you to back up your accusation with evidence from your notebook, and if you can’t you risk losing both the advantage gained and all the hard work you’ve done beforehand. A question can’t be asked twice either, so you need to be sure of your facts before you start pointing fingers.
Discerning the truthful statement from the fabrications is both fun and challenging. When the interviewee responds, you’ll need to pay attention to their expression and mannerisms to decide whether they’re lying or not. Watching them closely will often give you a good idea as to which option to choose, but there are also times when you just have to go on your gut instinct. The motion capture work is outstanding, but there are occasions when it’s either ridiculously signposted or totally impossible to discern. Just like real life though, I suppose. It’s hard to describe the depth added to the game by the technology alone – it really has to be seen to be appreciated.
The inevitable downside to all the sleuthing is the slow pace. Compared to almost any other game on the market, L.A. Noire is almost ponderous at times. A great deal of time is spent examining corpses, sifting through crime scenes and rifling through bedrooms, or else conducting door-to-door interviews and driving – lots and lots of driving. Ironically, choosing to let your partner drive and skipping the long journeys speeds up the game but robs a lot of the atmosphere. The slow pace is broken up here and there with random street crimes, from hostage-takers to car thieves and good-old fashioned domestic violence. Everything you do grants XP and adds to your rank, unlocking new outfits and rewarding you with Intuition Points to make searching crime scenes and interviewing suspects that little bit easier.
There’s a narrative running through the game involving a sinister psychologist getting celebrities and war vets hooked on heroin, which ties together the various crimes and characters nicely and makes you feel as though you’re progressing through something. Cole Phelps is a likeable protagonist, though certainly more straight-laced a character than Rockstar are famous for producing. The flashbacks to his time in the war are very well-written, showing a different side of the conflict refreshingly free of the pro-USA propaganda that colours most accounts of America’s involvement in major conflicts. The supporting cast are just as well-written, particularly the various partners assigned to Phelps as he climbs through the ranks. The interplay between them at all times is interesting and well acted, evoking a genuine sense of involvement – even with the less savoury characters.
There are moments when L.A. Noire could be accused of hand-holding, and the combat, while adequate, is used so sparsely and over so quickly that it’s hard to get excited about it when it happens. Even the fistfights and car chases are usually over in under two minutes, making it a difficult game to sell to genuine action fans. But L.A. Noire isn’t really about action at all. It’s a homage to all things 1940’s, featuring vintage cars, post-war radio shows and an atmosphere taken straight from L.A. Confidential. The music, the art style and the writing are pitch-perfect, creating a little pocket of 1947 to completely lose yourself in.
Not for the faint-hearted, L.A. Noire rarely pulls punches when discussing (or indeed showing) the victims of some truly horrific crimes, from paedophilia and rape to arson and cold-blooded murder – but it’s well presented in a tasteful and mature manner, meaning it’s less about baiting the Daily Mail and more about creating a unique, captivating experience. By turns disturbing, idling and utterly compelling, L.A. Noire is a triumph for Team Bondi and Rockstar that will no doubt earn the latter yet another nomination for Game of the Year. All things considered, they deserve it too.
The first game Mick ever played was Dexter’s Laboratory on the ZX81. After waiting 45 minutes for it to load he was hooked in moments and has been gaming ever since. He’s gone through almost every console ever released and even had a brief stint in the early noughties as a PC gamer, until he had to give it up to break his World of Warcraft addiction. Now he splits his life between loving his family, playing and writing about games and trying to sell indie novels.