A woman, beaten and bruised, lies dead across a set of railroad tracks; she has a crack in her skull and rope burns around her neck, but at least she still has her clothes on. Poor girl, she is just another notch on some sadist’s trophy belt. How many victims does this make anyway? The papers are calling the killer “The Werewolf”; people are in a panic. We have to catch this person.
From the crime scene we check out her known hang out spots – bars, liquor stores, and back alleys; the places she called home. The store owner said she was sick – that she needed to drink, but he also said she was a good girl and that he tried to help her by keeping a cot for her in the back. He seems like an upright guy, but something is off – the twitch in his grin and his wandering gaze leads me to believe that I’m not getting the whole truth. Press B to doubt.
L.A. Noire is the latest sandbox title from Rockstar, and it is something wholly different from the lawless “do whatever you want” titles that precede it. It forces you to be slow, methodical, detail-oriented, and a good judge of character; it captures the essence of what it means to be a detective – for better or worse.
As the title suggests, L.A. Noire takes place in a post-WW2 Los Angeles during the midst of a large economic boom brought about in part by a flood of returning G.I.s. Players take on the role of Cole Phelps, a young war veteran and all around straight-arrow cop who quickly works his way up the LAPD ladder. As a detective, Players are assigned cases based on Phelp’s assigned desk (traffic, homicide, vice, and arson), and as the game progresses a number of overarching plots are revealed that address Phelps (not so shiny) character.
Rockstar’s approach to noir-style storytelling starts out strong with each case being set upas like an episode of a 40’s/50’s TV crime drama (catchy episode title included). Aiding this tone is an omniscient narrator introducing the player to each “episode” with gritty observations and philosophies that pertain to the case, and a series of cut-scenes that depict Phelps actions during the war are also sprinkled throughout each case.
Some aspects of the story are disappointing though. For instance, sometime during the first half of the game the omniscient narrator stops introducing the cases, and while Phelp’s wartime cut-scenes do lend some insight into his character, much more could be done. These gripes pale though, in comparison to a couple of very apparent plot holes that deal with the stories involving Phelp’s wife, and a man named Jack Kelso.
From a technical aspect, frame-rate drops can be noticeable during some of the game’s more action-oriented sequences, and some reports of systems crashes have been reported early on in the game’s launch. In terms of gameplay, the mechanics of gathering evidence, interrogating witnesses, and chasing down bad guys are fun, but they become repetitive. Phelps will also make an arrest regardless of the player’s ability to gather evidence or interrogate witnesses correctly, making the player feel as though they don’t have an impact on what happens in the world.
Consequences for screwing up a case should be more dire (especially in the later cases), and gameplay sequences that break the signature mode of the game (like what happens during one of the homicide cases, or at the end of the game) should occur more frequently.
L.A. Noire features MotionScan technology that utilizes 32 cameras to record an actor’s every wince, swallow, and blink which is then transferred to in-game animation. This makes for some of the most stunning facial animation that I have ever seen in a video game, and by effect, some of the best acting. More impressive than the technology though, are the number of named and un-named characters that feature it (more than 40 named characters).
In regards to overall tone, Rockstar nailed late-1940’s Los Angeles in every aspect, from the city’s layout and major cultural details (such as music and clothing), to the social climate of the time (ie. How women and minorities were treated). The mastery of these details is brought to light more in the number of cinematic cut-scenes that pepper the game.
If you are in the market for another run-and-gun sandbox title, L.A. Noire might not be for you. It is a slow and methodical game that requires players to think deeply about their decisions. There is also the issue of replayability, Rockstar re-created 1940’s Los Angeles to a T, created a fun story that players could really get into, and designed it all around a new motion capture technology that might (should) become the new standard in video games. Despite this, when the story ends there is nothing much for the player to come back and do (aside from hunting collectables). Rockstar put themselves out on a limb by radically changing up their gameplay formula, and L.A. Noire, has its faults, but it is nothing less than a fantastic and memorable game.