Developer: Team Bondi
Publisher: Rockstar Games
It has been a long time coming, but at long last L.A. Noire has emerged from the back alleys of gaming development and burst forth into the industry’s mainstream. You take control of Cole Phelps, a decorated hero from the war and member of the L.A.P.D, as you follow his path through the ranks of law enforcement in 1940’s Los Angeles. Starting as a street cop, he becomes a detective and proceeds to work the various cases of the different departments, and depending on whether you find the right evidence, as well as ask the right questions, will ultimately decide whether the criminals of the city are brought to justice.
Let’s not beat around the bush with this one. I’ve been looking forward to this title for a very long time, as when it comes to Film Noir I am drawn in like a moth to the flame. While the obvious attraction for many people will be to see the MotionScan technology in action, the real reason to check out this title is how it is, along with last year’s PS3 title Heavy Rain, the return of the adventure games of yesteryear, replacing the point ‘n’ click mechanics with a virtual hands-on approach. Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because Rockstar Games are involved that this is just Grand Theft Auto on the other side of the law, as you will be vastly disappointed.
So, with my Trilby firmly on (no, really, I wore it the entire time) I threw myself into the digital recreation of 1940’s Los Angeles.
The heart and soul of the game comes from the investigations you conduct, beginning with a crime scene and a hunt for evidence. Each area you are sent to is littered with items, some of which are clues whilst others are just circumstantial, with audio hints in the music and vibrations with the controller to find objects to interact with. Additionally, Phelps will have a partner with him who will provide help when needed if finding clues turns problematic. There were points early on in my play-through where I thought this made proceedings too easy, but during the later cases the mechanics were instrumental in helping to find important, and much needed, evidence. When holding said items (and even corpses) you can use the controller to inspect them further for that all important clue, using the analog sticks to find the ‘sweet spot’ with the use of vibration.
Everything that is found is noted down in the notebook, the single most important item in the game. Here you will find clues, suspects, and important locations to review. It is also instrumental in the other main part of the investigations; the interrogation. During these segments you select a question from a list of topics and must then read the expression of the person Cole is talking to. From here there are three options; Truth, which takes their answer at face value, Lie, where you must prove they are holding back the truth with evidence you have found, and Doubt, which is for when you can’t prove they are holding back information but believe they are being economical with the truth. Unfortunately, picking the right answer isn’t a straight forward affair.
It’s going to take a portion of you cunning. No, wait. ALL of your cunning.
This is where the MotionScan technology, which has been covered in great length in the media, really shines. With detailed recordings of the performer’s expressions you can tell when a suspect is calm, confident, worried, or even angry with your accusations. While there are some expressions that will give away the right response to use, there will be times when you will be caught out. The game does a great job at making you feel like an idiot when picking the wrong choice or piece of evidence, and it is largely down to the performances recorded with MotionScan. Getting it wrong also means missing out on key testimonies, which will later come back to haunt you if you make one too many mistakes. When you get it right however, prepare for a grand feeling of satisfaction as Cole digs a little deeper for the truth.
I do have one rather large issue with the MotionScan technology however, and that is how it exposes a lack of refinement of the body animations in comparison. It isn’t an experience killer by any means, but the slickness of the facial expressions highlights the unnatural way everything below the neck moves. Hopefully any further products (be it a sequel or otherwise) will incorporate full body scanning along with the facial expressions to avoid repeating the issue.
Depending on your skills of deduction and how savvy you are, you will gain experience which will progress you through twenty ranks, each one gifting you a reward. Whilst you will gain new outfits and reveal locations of hidden cars, the main prize available is Intuition Points. Being able to hold on to a maximum of five of them at a time, these points act as ‘helping hands’ during play by marking clues from a current crime scene out on the radar, or removing a wrong answer in during an interrogation. Alternatively, you can “Ask The Community” with your Intuition and reveal which how popular certain answers were by previous players of the case. It’s a great little feature, allowing that feeling of connectivity in a single player game.
You’ll also have someone else to blame when you get it wrong, which is handy.
Between each crime scene you will have access to the digital recreation of Los Angeles, driving around in one of the many vehicles that are scattered across the map. While some creative liberties have been taken by Team Bondi, the faithfully recreated City of Angels is a joy to behold. At one point I was driving around at night with rain falling all around, the siren of my police car blaring whilst the sublime soundtrack played, and it was beautifully atmospheric. The artistic direction has been perfectly executed in my opinion, and while the graphics are not the best the industry has to offer I felt myself not caring. Team Bondi have even allowed players the option of maximising the Noir experience with a Black and White filter option. You’ll be forgiven for leaving it in colour though.
As mentioned, there will be a fair bit of time spent driving around the game world, and in comparison to driving mechanics in other games I found controlling the cars to be slick and responsive, which helped during some of the extended chase sequences which felt cinematic in their presentation. You have a siren at your disposal as well, although the usefulness swings between hit and miss far too much with some cars reacting, and others arrogantly refusing to get out of your way. Alternatively you can active the fast travel mechanic by hold down the Enter Vehicle button and have your partner drive there for you.
Additionally, here’s a helpful tip for you all as it isn’t mentioned in the manual, if you press the Talk button (Square on the PS3) whilst driving with your partner they will tell you the best route to take to your next objective.
It’s important to note that while the entirety of the city is open to you at all times, this isn’t an open world game and is in fact fairly linear. Similarly to Mafia II, you will be tasked with going to and from the main areas of interest of the game, but unlike the Mafioso title I felt L.A. Noire does a good job of ensuring everything you do has a point to it. There is always something to keep you busy, and if you decide to side track yourself by finding the collectables in the game then you can with no real punishment.
There are also street crime dispatches to respond to during your cases, which help to break up the investigations if you so wish. Unfortunately these dispatches focus on the worst part of L.A. Noire; the combat. Using R2 as acceleration for a car is fine, and using it for running would have been forgivable as well, but as shooting is also designated to the same button (no, really) it makes going from sprinting to shooting a clumsy affair. Combat modes are activated by holding L2 (and are only available at certain points when combat is necessary) and while brawling is a stiff affair that functions well enough, gunplay is somewhat temperamental, especially the use of cover. There’s isn’t anything game-breaking about it all, but it is definitely the weakest part of the entire experience, and it could wind players up the wrong way. Of course you do have the option to skip all the action segments completely, but I feel that would cut the play time considerably.
However, it is quite clear than the ‘physical’ action was never meant to be the true focus of L.A. Noire, and despite the annoyances that appeared during my play-through it never stopped me from enjoying the experience. The investigation segments were a great reminder of the adventure games I played when I was younger, specifically the masterful Blade Runner game. It is this matching of evidence to accusation along with hunting for items that draws me to the comparisons of those games of the 90’s. The plot, while not perfect (there are some questionable choices by certain characters during the course of the game) is well above par with many other games, and ensured I was enthralled from start to finish.
I felt my drive to continue with the story was invested in a manner similar to how I would a TV series more than a game, watching as Cole Phelps backstory, along with the fantastic performances from the cast (with plenty of recognisable faces from the world of film and television) as well as the investigations I was tasked to solve, progressed in front of me. This could probably be due to how the game presents itself as something of a slow burner, so those expecting instant action may want to skip this one, but the pacing only had me wanting more. There is limited replay value to it all, with the completest able to replay cases for better results and discover all the collectable. However, for me L.A Noire did more than enough to make me wish to play more adventure games again. The experience was dark, gritty, even brutal at times, all of which made it great Noir, and a great adventure game.
- Deep investigation segments that hark back to 90’s adventure games.
- A wonderful plot that does the Noir genre proud.
- Incredible and emotional character performances thanks to MotionScan…
- … but it highlights the less-than-stellar animations everywhere else at times.
- Combat controls and mechanics are below par.
- Those expecting fast-paced action will be disappointed.
The Short Version: The Noir-based adventure Team Bondi has created may not be perfect, but it is a wonderful and dark experience that rises above the blemishes it exhibits. The investigations and interrogations are put to a well-crafted backdrop of 1940’s Los Angeles, and the MotionScan technology moves past that of a gimmick and helps reflect some fantastic performances by the cast. If you can get past some clunky control issues and slow pacing, you’re in for a real treat with this one.