‘L.A. Noire’ Review: Channel Your Inner Detective In This Instant Classic

by Sean Bell on May 25, 2011 · 41 comments

in Rockstar Games, Sony PS3, Video Game Reviews, Xbox 360

At a time when high profile games typically involve breakneck action, 3D graphics or motion-sensing gameplay, Team Bondi and Rockstar are asking you to slow things down a bit and digest the more subdued, measured elegance of L.A. Noire. In an even bolder move, said developer and publisher would like you to forget about the contemporary stylings of games set in modern or futuristic backdrops and travel back in time to the 1940s, a time when life wasn’t replete with any of today’s technological distractions. Can such a predisposition to dial things back a bit result in innovative, captivating gameplay? The answer is a resounding yes.

LA Noire - Screenshot

L.A. Noire is the latest from the publishing arm of Rockstar, sandbox experts known for always bringing something new to the table. In this instance, Rockstar and developer Team Bondi pay homage to the film noirs of old, movies that were frequented by the likes of Hollywood legends Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. At its core, Noire is a crime thriller, complete with an alluring narrative that plays out just like one a circa 1950 Tinseltown film.

You are Cole Phelps, a new cop walking the beat who has aspirations to climb the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department. As you march him from promotion to promotion, you’ll encounter some of the seediest personalities and gruesome crime scenes that a town like the post-World War City of Angels had to offer. It’s a time when Hollywood is experiencing unprecedented growth and success and where its young inhabitants are too busy chasing the dream, no matter what the cost. It suffices to say that this city, with all its glitz and glamour, has a dark and sinister underbelly that needs policing.

Phelps, too, is chasing his dreams, which means you are tasked with becoming the best detective in the LAPD.  Beyond the story, Noire is all about good old fashion detective work: canvasing crime scenes, interviewing witnesses and finding that missing piece of evidence that is not apparent to the naked eye. Success on the job means relentlessly closing case after case, each of increasing difficulty.

LA Noire - Crime Scene

How this translates into gameplay comes down to L.A. Noire’s most innovative aspect: facial expression emulation. Your job as a detective means that you’ll have to become an expert at judging whether people are lying to you or as you interview persons of interest that may or may not be involved with a crime. You’ll take to your notebook, writing down clues and facts about a case and then use all gathered information to interrogate suspects. You can accuse people of lying, but you better have the facts to back it up or the interrogation will go sour.  When you don’t have enough evidence to prove a lie, the “doubt” choice is the next best bet. Becoming adept at reading people’s nervous habits and body language will allow you to more accurately tell if they’re giving you the God’s honest truth. The better you get at this, the better you score (which means you get more skills as a detective). To add to the realism, you can’t rewatch a suspect’s reactions to a question. Therefore, it’s imperative to play with a keen eye as it will often times mean the difference between getting a crucial piece of evidence and getting zilch.

As you score more points through the game, you’ll develop Phelp’s detective intuition. Intuition points will allow you to pinpoint all the clues at a crime scene as well as eliminate on of the incorrect choices from an interrogation (you get to choose Truth, Doubt or Lie). These points don’t come fast and furious, so it’s best that you use them sparingly over the course of the game.

The cases structure the game, ushering along the plot. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, where you’re more likely to get distracted with side missions, Noire keeps you focused on going from case to case. That’s not to say there aren’t side missions; there are street crimes that you can decide to get involved in. These typically involve a shootout or a chase and can be a refreshing change of pace from the involved mindwork of a case.

Speaking of the cases, as expected, things start out in real basic fashion, but can get complex quite quickly.  The earlier investigations will be a breeze, while the later ones can be rather time-consuming and hard to crack. Similarly, the suspects that you interview will become increasingly harder to read and you can expect some interrogations to go wrong, real fast.

At times, the search for clues can be a bit cumbersome and if you’re not absolutely in love with the game, it may be a deterrent from just picking up the game and playing. However, if you can digest the slower, realistic pace, then you’ll wear the detective’s fedora with pride, meticulously going over every crime scene and looking for that angle that’s just not apparent to the naked eye.

Interspersed in the cases are some action scenes, which typically involve fist-fights, foot chases or shoot-outs with a powerful foe’s minions. These sequences are probably the game’s weakest feature as their execution comes off as a bit rigid.  In fact, the game borrows liberally from the controls of Grand Theft Auto, especially in the weapon and cover system. This means you may die a frustrating death or two as you struggle to figure out where you’re being attacked from or getting Phelps to turn around and get to cover. However, given that the controls are familiar, gamers will be able quickly pick up the controller and play with ease.

As a package, the game is dripping with authenticity. The attire, the cars, the HollywoodLand Sign all make this period piece look genuine. Team Bondi really nailed the noir aspects as well from the dark, moonlit crime scenes to the jaundiced and labored attitudes of the city’s inhabitants. And if you really want pay respect to the noirs that the game emulates, you can set the graphics to black-and-white only mode. The realism doesn’t stop at the cinematography though, the acting and voice over work are also top notch. Fans of Mad Men may recognize several of the show’s actors that who lend their likenesses to the game.

It’s tough to say that Noire has good replay value. Once you know the pertinent clues to find, there’s little challenge in figuring out a case (unless you’re going back to get the ones you missed). However, the almost episodic nature of the cases makes the game a great candidate for expansion through DLC (which is slated to start releasing in June).

All things considered, L.A. Noire is an immersive, groundbreaking experience that must be had by all gamers (and friends of gamers who like to just watch). Despite its serious subject material, the game is ultimately fun. You’ll race from case to case, crime scene to crime scene, wondering just what kind of sticky situation awaits your masterful detective skills. Save for some clunky action controls, L.A. Noire brings something fresh and new to the table that’s sure to stick with gamers for long time. With its engaging story, challenging interrogations and stellar visuals, it’s no mystery why this is the title to play right now.

LA Noire [Xbox 360]
Buy LA Noire - XBOX 360

Genre: Sandbox
Platform: Xbox 360 (Also available on PS3)
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Team Bondi
Release Date: May 17, 2011
Rating: 9.2 / 10

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