One way of knowing whether a film is a success or not is if it manages to engage its audience by sucking them into its world with its use of ambiance, spectacle, and performers. Once the audience can feel themselves entertained with the film they’re watching, they will have an enjoyable visual and sensory experience. But wait. This isn’t a movie I’m writing about here.
You could say L.A. Noire is like a film because it provides you with very similar aspects that the film noir genre once brought its audiences. It gives you a compelling L.A. crime story set during the post-war years of the late 1940s. Common themes of treason, murder, and deception come up a lot throughout the game, but instead of sitting back and watching it all take place on-screen, you, the audience, can actually partake in it.
As soon as you start playing L.A. Noire, you will realize this game is different than what you’re used to playing. You will, in fact, feel as if you’re manipulating characters in a movie, telling them what to do, and affecting their lives in the process. But because it’s a game, you won’t have full control over their lives, and will somehow manage to “win” despite your mistakes. The game’s three main gameplay structures – investigation, interrogation, and action – are effectively integrated and create a delicate balance that gives you a seamless gaming experience.
At first glance, you could say L.A. Noire is like a Grand Theft Auto game because it was published by Rockstar Games and has that familiar open-world atmosphere. Actually, the game is more linear than its cousins, and it’s a lot smarter too. You can’t just drive any car down the road, kill some pedestrians along the way, and shoot down the bad guys to complete missions. You are Detective Cole Phelps, after all.
Each case begins with a crime scene that you and your partner need to investigate for clues and evidence. Whether it be a hit-and-run or a homicide case, the game pays close attention to all aspects of a crime scene. You’ll see evidence markers on the ground, police barricades blocking onlookers, and even pesky reporters trying to get their scoop. Whenever Phelps picks up an object for inspection, you can rotate and interact with it. Not all items will be critical in an investigation, but the ones that are will be added to your notebook that you can use later on when interrogating suspects. Depending on the case, once you get enough clues from one area, you can then travel to a suspect’s location for more clues and to interrogate them for answers.
Rockstar Games is known for incorporating cutscenes into the action of their games, but they have never done it so perfectly as in this one. Using a new technology known as MotionScan, each actor’s facial expressions were accurately captured as his or her dialogue was recorded. This means that the minute you start the game, you will realize that everyone around you feels alive and that their lips move in sync with their words.
Once you begin an interrogation, you will use the high-quality facial expressions of your suspects to “read them.” Like in real life, those who are lying might avoid making direct eye contact with you, their foreheads might wrinkle, and their neck muscles might tighten. It’s all very intriguing, especially when you include three simple, but effective, ways Phelps can conduct his interrogations. After a suspects shares what he or she knows, you can either accept it as truth, doubt and challenge them for more information, or directly accuse them of lying. If you do so, however, you need to provide them with some form of evidence that supports your claim.
Making mistakes during the interrogation portions of the games will cost your overall case score to go down and will prevent you from getting more clues to unwrap more of that crime’s mysteries. You won’t fail a case simply by making mistakes during an interrogation, but you will fail yourself in how you play the game. If you get really drawn into the game like I did, you will want to be careful in your accusations and make sure you don’t make a mistake in your questioning. Logic and evidence are keys to your success here.
Receiving successful interrogations also means you will get experience points that will increase Phelps’ rank and unlock intuition points. These act like hints, and you can use them to rule out wrong answers, reveal all clues in an area, or even poll the online community to see what they picked. This option makes the game feel like a game show at times, and you’ll wonder why it takes so much experience points just to unlock one hint. Not all the cases are easy, and sometimes you will need to use these points if you find yourself getting stuck. The game saves automatically at times and doesn’t give you the option to do so, so if you make a mistake and want to do it over again, you can’t just conveniently load a save file. You can either enjoy the game and the outcome of your choices, or you can waste time and restart each case over again.
The way the game is formatted makes me want to say L.A. Noire is more like an episode of CSI than a film simply because each of the early cases you get is different and somewhat unrelated to the previous one, though they do share similar aspects. The characters you found yourself dealing with in past cases are never mentioned again, and you will even lose some partners along the way. It’s a bit disconcerting to never learn what happens to someone who was directly affected by a murder, but I guess that’s what a detective’s job is all about. There are also times that the game doesn’t take into consideration how you did on a particular case. You may have just been reprimanded by your captain on your poor performance on a case, but in the next cutscene, he will be having drinks with you to celebrate your merits.
This disjointedness in the game’s plot will make you wonder why Team Bondi and Rockstar didn’t do a better job at keeping things more fluid, more like a film and not an individual episode. But, then again, this is a game and it does need a structured format. After playing through more than half of the game’s cases, you will start to realize that a lot of it will seem familiar over time. Search for clues, accuse this person, get more intel from HQ, and nab your culprit. It’s a repetitive format, but it never gets old since each case has its own list of clues, situations, and motives that make them fun to solve and engaging enough to crack.
Of course, sometimes you will have to get your hands dirty. Whether it be chasing down bad guys down alleys or shooting down bank robbers using your police car for cover, L.A. Noire does give you that familiar Rockstar approach to gun fights. It’s a lot more rudimentary than usual though, and you won’t get too many fancy weapons or gadgets to use. Your health recovers over time and you can’t see your health bar, so the only way to know you’re dying is by seeing the screen slowly change to black and white.
Remember that this is 1947, and many modern-day equipment hasn’t even been invented yet. That means, there is no GPS, cell phones, or computers. L.A. Noire truly honors its setting, and you will see that it incorporates now obsolete habits such as calling an operator for an address, using payphones, and even writing down directions in your notebook. Because there is no GPS, you will have to rely on your map to know where you’re going. You can even ask your partner for directions if you get too lost.
When you’re not searching people’s homes for clues or probing them for questions, you will be driving to different locations throughout the city of L.A. in one of dozens of classic cars. You might notice subtle changes in drift and speed depending on the car you drive, but most of them feel similar to the next. Gone are the radio stations and GPS, and instead your car will automatically play radio segments or jazzy music that somehow match the current mood of the game. If you don’t feel like driving to each location on your map, you can always have your partner do it for you. Think of it as the game’s method of quick-travel. Not only do you avoid the chance of hitting people or wrecking your car (both lower your score at the end of each case,) but you also avoid the many distracting missions that pop up along the way.
Aside from its 21 story mode cases, L.A. Noire also includes over 40 “street crimes” that pop up over time as you’re driving to different locations. These range from burglaries to hostage situations to even simple street chases that are unrelated to the case you are working on. You’ll overhear these missions on your radio and can choose to help out or simply do them later.. You could say that these missions exist to remind you that you’re still playing a game and if you want, you can devote your time to clearing each one. You can also try to find all of the hidden cars scattered throughout the game. You don’t have to find them, but if you get bored of playing an interactive movie, then you have some diversions.
One final element that truly gives the game its larger-than-life appeal is game’s soundtrack. As you walk around a crime scene or enter a suspect’s home, music cues in to transition you into your new location. Chimes play whenever you are close to a piece of evidence, and once you have found all possible clues, the music will fade away to simulate a more relaxed environment. Like in a well orchestrated movie, the music matches your character’s emotions and the current scene’s mood so well that it truly feels like every action you make has a direct effect on the game. Aside from the game’s smooth jazz soundtrack, the voice work will make you think the actors were reading the script of a live action movie. There is so much emotion, enthusiasm, and cynicism in their voices that it all fits perfectly with the tone of the game. Combine this with their detailed facial expressions, and you will feel as if you are playing with and controlling live actors.
I started off by saying L.A. Noire is like a film because it enthralls your senses and gives you a wonderful experience that truly captures the essence of the 1940s, crime thrillers, and a detective’s life. I then said that it’s still a lot like a game because of how it gives you the options to manipulate its characters and forces you to use your head in solving its cases. Finally, I said that because the game gives you different cases that may not be related to one another, it tends to feel a bit disjointed at times and will remind you of your favorite cop drama on television. And as with any great TV series or film, the ride you will take to get to its denouement will be full of action and intrigue, with the occasional mellow segment here and there.
However you may want to compare it, L.A. Noire combines aspects of these art forms to truly give you a unique gaming experience that works well in every way, both emotionally and interactively. Even if you’re not a fan of the film noir genre or even an avid gamer, you will still find something to like about this game. L.A. Noire will last you a while, and even after you finish the game’s story mode, you can go back and replay previous cases to better your score or free-roam the city to find hidden cars or discover city landmarks. Or, you can even play it in black and white and invite someone over to watch it all unfold.
Watch it. Experience it. Play it.
A copy of L.A. Noire for Xbox 360 was provided to us for this review from Rockstar Games.