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L.A. Noire review

by Xav de Matos, May 26, 2011 2:45pm PDT
Related Topics – L.A. Noire, Review, Features

There's a great quote from the classic film Chinatown that perfectly explains the world of L.A. Noire: "This business requires a certain amount of finesse." The new game from publisher Rockstar and developer Team Bondi is an amalgamation of various inspirations, offering players the chance to be an investigator rather than an instigator in a crime-filled late 1940's Los Angeles. Success in the story isn't based on body count, but a willingness to sit back and pay close attention to everything around you.

L.A. Noire is no action game. Though the game sports a similar open-world environment as many other Rockstar titles, the game is primarily focused on staying in one isolated area and investigating a crime. You're part of the team that examines the areas after the action has occurred. Pacing in the game is slow and looks to the player to progress the narrative by examining clues and discovering motives. This might be a sore spot for some--the process can seem tedious after a few hours--but, for me, I never felt bored by it. In fact, I loved the investigation and interrogation in the game.

It's realistic in many ways: investigators examine every shred of a scene to discover the figurative "smoking gun" and then square off against suspects to get the scoop on who belongs in bracelets. Interrogations are sometimes easy due to obvious body language, but more skilled liars can offer a great challenge where keen investigation skills are put to the test.

Sometimes, however, the game falls into basic storytelling tropes by offering "action sequences" that almost always end with a pile of dead bodies. A Rockstar rep told me that the "random crimes" found throughout the game are intended to be more action focused. While they are, it conflicts with the game's core concept of being an investigator with a dark past. Detective Cole Phelps--the game's lead character--usually ends up adding to his body count, even in situations where you try to avoid a visit to the morgue (as explained in my Field Report for the game).

The late 1940's Los Angeles looks marvelous and most character faces--when modeled using the game's highly-touted performance capturing process--look great. This sometimes works against the game, though, as the realistic performances embellishes how unrealistic the character models are. The effect sometimes look like the face of a character is being projected on a blank slate, rather than one solid model. Additionally, characters created without the process really stand out.

The game's main focus is telling the tale of one war vet's rise in the LAPD. For the most part, I enjoyed the game's narrative. There are moments--especially at the end of the Homicide division--where the story does some wonderful things and (later in the game) completely changes the gameplay approach. But the narrative structure is extremely abrupt. Questions (and tension between characters) are raised for a moment, but then the story progresses quickly past this conflict and moves on to the next item.

L.A. Noire's ending is the biggest culprit of abrupt storytelling. As stated in promotional material for the game (so it's not much of a spoiler), Cole Phelps is a man who is known as a war hero but doesn't consider himself to be one. The game offers flashes of his past, unlocking the story of who the man was before he donned the dark blues of the LAPD. When players finally find out the real story and redemption is offered, the game ends. You don't get the payoff for the entire journey until the last three minutes of the game--and it's all offered in a cutscene. I actually liked the ending, but this (and far too many other narrative threads throughout the game) just end by slamming the brakes and hitting a solid, concrete wall. It was disappointing to fight so hard for the answers and get a piece of the overall puzzle during each police division's ending, but not be rewarded with more for my hard work.

It was the overall journey that captured my attention, though. L.A. Noire is a mature game on many levels. It doesn't give players command of weaponry at all times, rather it forces players to stop what they're doing and think. It's a new form of interactive media, pulling in threads of inspiration from everything from film and novels to adventure games and the past of the game's publisher. It offers the chance for people to test their power of intuition, deduction, and dexterity. Though these are elements found in a lot of games, it has never been as prevalent as it is in L.A. Noire.

[This L.A. Noire review is based on a retail copy of the game for PS3, provided by Rockstar Games.]





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