Wednesday, June 29, 2011

L.A. Noire Review

Article first published as Xbox 360 Review: L.A. Noire on Blogcritics.

L.A. NoireForewarned is forearmed.

L.A. Noire is a terrific game, but it is an odd duck for a Rockstar game. Don’t go in expecting Grand Theft Auto IV or Red Dead Redemption, and you’ll be fine.

L.A. Noire looks like its predecessors. It reproduces a great swath of 1947 Los Angeles in astonishing detail, and you can explore every inch of it, right from the start. There are 94 different cars ranging from milk trucks to a cherry Chrysler Woody to carry you around the city. And don’t forget the gunplay. There’s plenty of that, too.

It's also about rockin' hats.
But L.A. Noire is not about any of those things. It’s about meticulously gathering clues from crime scenes and puzzling out their meanings. It’s about questioning witnesses and interrogating suspects, learning to read their faces, and figuring out when it’s time to drop some charges on them. And it’s about your corrupt bosses stepping in your way, threatening your career and even your life, when your investigations touch people with the money to buy powerful friends in a corrupt city.

It is a noir story, after all.

You play as Cole Phelps, up-and-coming detective in the LAPD. Unlike Niko Bellic (GTA IV) or John Marston (Red Dead Redemption), Phelps is a straight arrow, letter-of-the-law kind of guy. When you control him, you have the freedom to crash into buildings and wreck cars, but they reduce the amount of experience you receive at the end of the case. And don’t even think about running over a pedestrian or there’ll be hell to pay. Well, you’ll have to start the case over from the last save point, but still...

Phelps is a war hero who quickly makes his way up through the ranks of the LAPD by being extraordinarily good at his job. But post-war LA is not a place for straight arrows. The higher Phelps rises, the more enemies he makes. And you slowly discover that Phelps is not as squeaky clean as he seems.

The investigation mechanics are well-done, although true puzzle fans will probably find them too easy. Players are never required to connect the dots between clues themselves. Once you find the right item, the game points out its significance for you and jots it down in your notebook.

"Not everything is going to be relevant."
Likewise, the game provides environmental clues to help with the investigation. Music plays in the background until you have collected all the clues at a crime scene, at which time it ends with a flourish. Also, when you examine an object, the controller vibrates when you uncover the significant part of it. Phelps seems to be able to intuit when an item is insignificant.

You can turn these help features off, which theoretically makes the game harder.

The interrogations are more difficult than clue-gathering. Each time a suspect makes a statement, you are presented with three choices: lie, doubt, or truth. If you accuse someone of lying, you have to back up your assertion with a piece of evidence from your notebook. Many of the people have pretty obvious facial tics that indicate they are not being truthful, but I often found it difficult to determine whether “lie” or “doubt” was the appropriate response.

However, there seems to be no consequence for messing up an interrogation. I’m guessing you would have to get every question wrong in order to fail a case, and then the only repercussion is having to play it through again.

The investigations are punctuated by minimalist action sequences, usually involving Phelps chasing a suspect on foot or in a car, duking it out or even shooting it out with particularly belligerent criminals. Your choice of weapons is limited, and you do not gain advantages as you gain levels, making these sequences somewhat repetitive over the course of such a long game.

The game renders 1947 Los Angeles, its residents, automobiles, and buildings in the kind of loving detail I’ve come to expect from Rockstar. It captures the place and the era convincingly, and makes you want to explore.

Unfortunately, there’s not much to find. Yes, there are a handful of collectibles, including some truly awesome vintage sports cars, but there is little meaningful for Phelps to do outside of the main mission. That’s a shame, given the complexity of the sandbox Rockstar has built here.

On the plus side, L.A..Noire leaves out the tiresome mini-games that haunt other Rockstar games. Not every exclusion is bad!

Much has been made of the effort Rockstar put into creating realistic facial expressions, and the result is impressive. Each person has a different set of ticks that can tip you off to when he or she is lying.

It’s strange, then, to see how distressingly similar many of the female faces are. Expressive, sure, but similar in a way that it was sometimes difficult to tell if a woman was meant to be young or old.

Finally, I want to put in a good word for the voice acting. Aaron Stanton (aka the unctuous Ken Cosgrove from Mad Men) plays Cole Phelps convincingly, bringing more than a little of Joe Friday from Dragnet to the role. And there were few sour notes in the rest of the cast. There were plenty of “hey, it’s that guy!” moments in the game, including at least two cameos from Stanton’s Mad Men co-stars (I noticed Vincent Kartheiser and Elizabeth Moss).

Verdict: L.A. Noire is a good game, but it’s a little different than what I expected. Its sandbox world is a little empty, but the compelling story helps make up the difference. It’s noir in the grand tradition of The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, and even L.A. Confidential.

One final note: There is no ‘e’ in ‘noir.’ Somebody should have told Rockstar that.

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Check out more Shame Pile reviews, if you're so inclined.

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