LA Noire Review (360)
Sometimes a media blitz is not what you want when you’re waiting for a major title to be released. Sometimes what you want is teaser trailers and whispers online of a title that will change everything, but with no details or specifics. Sometimes you want to be surprised; to only truly understand what a games all about when you play it for the first time. You want that “Ahhhh, I get it!” moment when you’re in the game world, not when you’re looking at it in a video or hearing about it in a review. Thanks to Rockstar’s cagey marketing of LA Noire and my own self control in avoiding the press coverage of this major release, I managed to capture that rare feeling of discovery and delight. If you know you’re going to buy this game already, you should stop reading now and go and play it immediately. If you’re still on the fence, let me convince you.
LA Noire is the culmination of Rockstar’s storytelling. It finally combines the strong, well defined and well written characters of their previous games and integrates them with its fundamental gameplay. Grand Theft Auto consisted of well directed cut scenes dropped unceremoniously between chaotic open world missions which almost always involved racing, crashing or shooting. In comparison, LA Noire makes the GTA series’ mishmash of disparate elements seem chilidish. It sees story, character and gameplay combined better than almost any other game I’ve ever played. It really is as revolutionary as we all hoped it would be.
Despite this, breaking down the elements of the game make it sound like a horrible Frankenstien of a game. The opening moments see you drive through a fairly standard open world version of LA, the whole time feeling like you’re back in the recent awful GTA clone Mafia 2. Moments later you’re examining a crime scene and picking up and manipulating items for clues in a way that’s eerily reminiscent of Heavy Rain’s detective sequences. A few bog standard combat sections, cover based shooting and a chase sequence with some basic elements of Assassins Creed free running and you begin to wonder if you’re playing a “greatest hits of the last 5 years” game. Its not until you get to the interview sections that you begin to see something new.
These sections see the major technological innovation of the game play a meaningful role: the facial animation system. Team Bondi’s trump card, the developer apparently only got this aspect of the technology up and running two years ago, at the end of the games seven year long development cycle. It would be hard to see how the game could have existed in anything like its present form without this feature. It really is that essential to the games success.
To say that the facial animation system looks good would not be entirely accurate. Its out of place; fantastically human and believable human faces on moderately detailed character models. The disconnect is powerful and takes some time to get over. Despite the contrast between the faces and the bodies, there’s no doubt this is how game characters must be rendered in major videogames from now on. So convincing are the depictions of characters using this technology that it seems likely that Commander Shepherd, Nathan Drake, Ezio Auditore and indeed almost any other videogame avatars will look childlike after playing through LA Noire’s campaign.
And its not purely cosmetic either. Throughout the interviews you will absolutely need to pay attention to facial tics and unconscious muscle spasms in your squirming interviewee’s expressions to accurately guess whether they are lying or not. This section of the game is the most interesting, original and also the most flawed. The closest point of comparison is Pheonix Wright, but even that’s pretty far off as a reference point. Asking a series of questions, you are able to adjudge each answer to be truthful, a lie, or simply cast doubt on the honesty of the response. Only one of these three options will be correct, and claiming a lie is the most challenging as you further need to provide something from your evidence file to contradict the falsehood. The problem here is that occasionally the game will accept only one answer as correct, even when you’re own line of thinking may diverge from that of your characters. Though frustrating, this happens only a few times and generally the punishment for making a wrong guess is more excellent dialogue and a twist to the story. I confess that in a quest to gain the top marks for each case I reached for the reset button a few times to retry a failed accusation.
Nice little touches are abundant throughout the game though. You gather “intuition points” as you’re character levels up. These allow you to shortcut tougher interviews by providing “who wants to be a millionaire” style hints. Asking the community what they guessed should break the atmosphere of the game, but for some reason its so well handled that it doesn’t feel out of place. Elsewhere, a menu system based on a notebook is slick and simple and the controls throughout seem streamlined from GTA’s overly complicated set up. For example, its a joy to run to the edge of a platform and auto jump a la Ocarina of Time.
Soon the games settles into a routine. A cut scene introduces the crime (much like the start of an episode of CSI), then you’re briefed, drive to the scene, search for evidence, question suspects then go on from there to chase baddies, shoot dudes in the face or simply continue chasing the leads and talking more to increasingly shady characters. Within this, you’re free to skip all of the open world stuff by having your partner drive you (like taking a taxi in GTA) or drive yourself and respond to crimes in progress en route. The semi-episodic structure whereby you’re investigating one case at a time overcomes the sense of aimlessness that GTA often exhibited while simultaneously avoiding the pure linearity of Mafia 2. The result is a storyline and gameplay experience so compelling that it pulls you along with few moments when you feel the need to turn off the console, go to bed, eat food or urinate. Suffice it to say escaping the game to write this review is agonising.
And I’ve got this far without talking about the characters or story. Well, that’s one thing I really don’t want to ruin. The 40’s setting is rife with material whether its the Black Dahlia case, the sleaze of the movie industry or the casual racism of the day, Team Bondi misses no opportunities to make the most of the period setting. Like the best games, it surprises you with the risks its willing to take with story and dialogue, and for every cliched or trite reference it makes there’s an equal amount of genuinely brilliant storytelling and characterisation.
I could go on for thousands more words, but neither you nor I want that. You should come at this game as fresh as you can. For anyone with a love of storytelling and narrative, original gameplay, innovation and the sheer power of interactive entertainment, LA Noire is a breath of fresh air. In GTA, I was a gangster but I felt like a super soldier. In Red Dead, I was a cowboy, but I felt like a space marine. In LA Noire, I am Detective Cole Phelps….and you’re under arrest.
9 foiled heists out of 10