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L.A. Noire Review

By Jeff Buckland, 5/17/2011

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Rockstar Games has made some of the best crime-simulating video games we've seen, and they've got a great history of making some of the most memorable anti-heroes for us to get behind, and now they're turning things on their head by putting you into the shoes of a homicide detective in mid-century Los Angeles. For once, the chaos and mayhem you're used to sowing in so many Rockstar games gets a break, and you'll be investigating murders, solving crimes, and playing a straight-laced cop that gets results. Australian developer Team Bondi has been working on a little game called L.A. Noire for the last seven years, changing publishers once and suffering years' worth of delays. It'd be easy to discount a game like this - see Too Human for what could have been - but Rockstar's involvement and attention to detail has helped Team Bondi make one of the breakout games of 2011.

It's the late 1940s and you're playing as Detective Cole Phelps, an ex-Marine who fought in the war in the Pacific. He's seen things and done things he'd rather not talk about, but during the course of L.A. Noire, those horrors are relived as he solves crimes of murder, betrayal, perversion, and more during a time of corruption and escalating violence in the city. You'll take on Hollywood producers, mobsters, serial killers, pedophiles, and jilted lovers, but first you'll be investigating crime scenes, interviewing witnesses, and getting physical when suspects raise their fists, run from you, or pull a pistol.

The whole game is held together by a wonderful attention to detail: everything from the look of the burgeoning, sprawling city to the detailed faces of the hundreds of characters you'll come across, nearly everything you see looks unique, original, and polished. The view distance goes pretty far out, showing excellent texture quality (without much pop-in) as you explore the city, and storefronts look great when you get up close as well. But most importantly, with L.A. Noire, Team Bondi wasn't scared of capturing that human quality that games are almost always missing. The developers have secured the likenesses of voice actors and captured their whole performance with an array of special cameras, including facial expressions, and it makes this one of the most truly alive games you'll have seen. Even the best video games with the most amazing voice acting don't connect the technology and visuals to the performance quite like L.A. Noire does.

And what's better is that this isn't just a great game with a few bits of new tech or eye candy as an added plus; Team Bondi had the confidence in their ability to capture and reproduce actors' performances accurately enough to build a truly different kind of game from the ground up, one that pushes the envelope in one of the areas that game developers have previously had so much trouble improving. And it doesn't end with the living, as the victims themselves are often brutally murdered and wind up being part of more complex stories than just a jealous husband or a robbery gone wrong.

You'll have to get in the thick of it, too; there's a coroner that usually gets you some detailed information on a death in the latter half of each case, but the basic clues you pick up at a crime scene are often put to use immediately. You'll be investigating rope marks on a strangled woman's throat, scrutinize more than one naked corpse up close, and find an interesting and unique underbelly of the city that many of today's cop shows can only skirt around because of the mature content limitations of network TV. I firmly believe that L.A. Noire's M rating is totally appropriate, but it's important to point out that this is a different brand of mature content than you'll see in games with much more random acts of violence.

Veterans of Rockstar's games are probably used to a particular formula, one where you play the bad guy, the odd death of an innocent bystander - whether accidental or intentional - isn't such a big deal, where free roaming is a major part of how you play, and where you've got a vast array of activities to participate in. While L.A. Noire includes a ton of unique Los Angeles landmarks to find along with a total of forty unique street crime mini-cases you can optionally take on in a free-roam mode, it's more of an extra, and it winds up not being a big focus here. It is conceivable that some players will see the Rockstar logo, expect Grand Theft Auto: 40s Edition, and lash out when they find out this isn't just another wanton-violence game from the guys that made carjacking cool.

Instead, the structure is that of a linear story of a do-gooder. You've got cases broken up like chapters, and in between completing cases, you'll see flashbacks to Cole's days in the military and see where he came from, and how he got to be the kind of guy he is. You can go back and retry cases where you didn't get the result you wanted, and that's important, because one of the biggest issues I have with L.A. Noire is when you make a mistake in interviews and interrogations, there's no turning back.

You see, this game doesn't just lead you through everything you need to collect to complete a case. You can miss a key piece of evidence if you didn't search a crime scene or a suspect's apartment thoroughly enough, and that will color the rest of your investigation. Then there's another level: when you ask a question, you have to mark your interviewee's response as Truth, Doubt, or Lie, and if you choose Lie, you've got to back that up with a particular piece of factual evidence you've collected. The problem is that there's always only one right answer in these three choices, and while progressing through the game gives you "intuition points" that you can use to highlight clues at crime scenes or take away incorrect choices in investigations, using them liberally isn't enough to cover all the mistakes you might make. (Here's a quick guide that works most of the time: listen closely to their answer before you focus on their face, and then focus on their face once they're done. If they're looking straight at you, it's a good bet to choose Truth. If they're shifty-eyed or can't look you in the face, hit the Back or Select button to review the evidence you've collected, then either choose Lie if you have a piece of evidence that contradicts what they said, or choose Doubt if you don't have hard evidence.)

What's weird is that during the game's action sequences, you're allowed to retry if you screw up, and you're even offered to skip an action scene if you die or fail too many times. I'd have liked to be able to do the same during the interviews, which are L.A. Noire's most interesting and unique scenes by far, but all you can do is start the case over from scratch. And if you fail at getting enough clues or you finger the wrong person as a killer, you might wind up with a result you really don't want, and that can be frustrating because sometimes it happens after you make an honest mistake trying to read a character's face or you simply miss a key piece of well-hidden evidence. What I'd have liked is a way to at least retry interviews and interrogations; it wouldn't even take away much replay value, considering that you can still miss physical evidence, and many cases also include extra branching paths that are only seen when you really start thinking outside the box - like when you revisit a location that's crossed off on Cole's journal.

What keeps me coming back to L.A. Noire is the way everything is so polished and smooth. Sure, there's a bit of wonkiness with some of the physics, and once in a while my partner would bug out and clip right through Cole's body while I was trying to collect evidence, but it was a rare thing, and I can easily forgive that considering the excellent visuals and consistent frame rate that the whole game runs at - even when I'm standing in a lavishly detailed apartment and seamlessly step out on the balcony to admire the view of a fully-fleshed-out version of Los Angeles. L.A. Noire allows you to skip the drive between locations - all you have to do is tell your partner to drive when you get in the car - and you'll still catch the in-car conversation if there is one, then the rest is hidden away behind a short loading screen. These loads, along with the ones in between chapters, are the only ones you'll find, as all transitions between indoors and outdoors are seamless.

Beyond that, this game is overflowing with style, from the art deco architecture and mid-century modern style to the radio stations playing authentic music and commercials of the era. There's an original score, too, with sweeping orchestral action themes when things get intense, and quiet, film noir-style mystery music when you're searching a crime scene or doing some evidence gathering. When you put it all together, I think you'll agree that L.A. Noire can serve as one of the most cohesive and comprehensive period pieces in all of video games. While playing it isn't always sunshine and strawberries - the frustrations you may find in actually working cases can drag the whole thing down a notch - the production values and coolness factor are through the roof. And even as the game annoyed me to the point of wanting to stop, I never seriously considered it because it's just too ... important.

There are few games that I would attribute the word "important" to, but L.A. Noire is one of them. As long as you're not married to the idea of a balls-out action game coming from Rockstar, then you owe it to yourself to play this game.

Overall: 9 out of 10



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