L.A. Noire Review: Redefining Expectations

When Rockstar puts their name on another game, it’s an event. This is, if course, evidenced by the fact that we’ve devoted an entire week to honouring them and their achievements in gaming in the past. This week, we’ve looked at Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption, the past and future of the company, and we’ve celebrated the company and their work as a whole.

Today, we cap off this week-long celebration with our review of their newest, and possibly most exciting game, L.A. Noire.

Set in post-World War 2 Los Angeles, L.A. Noire is the story of Cole Phelps, decorated war hero and rising star in the Los Angeles Police Department. Not too much unlike typical Rockstar characters of the past, Cole is inherently good. He will do whatever it takes to preserve the law, and he will fight for truth, but just like the Niko Bellics and the John Marsdens before him, he too has his secrets and his demons that all inevitably unravel and catch up to him as the game unfolds.

As Cole, you must rise through the ranks of the LAPD, first as a patrolman, then through four detective desks, including Traffic, Homicide, Vice and finally Arson. As you progress, the cases become more complicated, more intertwined and the intrigue builds, all the while fighting politics from the top just as hard as you’re fighting the thugs on the street.

GAMEPLAY
From the very start of the game, you take control of Cole as a patrolman for the LAPD as he and his partner are called to a crime scene and tasked with finding a murder weapon. You immediately begin to use investigation tools to discover evidence, using the music of the game, the vibrations of your controller, and, eventually, “intuition points” to discover the secrets of a crime scene.

More importantly, and arguably the staple of the game, you must use similar tools to interview witnesses, suspects, people of interest in order to further the case, uncover new locations, new leads, and form opinions on your cases. The beauty of this new gameplay mechanic? It is aided by brand new technology called MotionScan that motion captures the actual facial expressions of actors, with the help of up to 32 cameras filming said actors simultaneously. This is unprecedented in gaming, and the result is some of the most beautiful and most realistic characters we’ve ever seen in a video game, as well as an unprecedented gameplay twist.

You actually have to use your own intuition, on top of “intuition points” earned throughout the game as you level up that aid you in making choices, to decipher if a character is lying, whether you doubt them, or whether you flat out believe him or her. If you decide that a character is lying, you actually need to use evidence gathered as mentioned above in order to prove their lies. It’s an incredible gameplay mechanic that’s original and executed to near perfection, and in actually, it’s actually pretty difficult to pull off, a sport of natural difficulty that many more linear games seem to lack these days.

On top of these “main” gameplay mechanics, you also have your shooting and your driving, as well as your fighting. It is a Rockstar game, after all. All of these things have been simplified, because, frankly, they’re not the main point of the game. You will be doing a lot of driving, and there may not be anything better in the game than exploring the fascinatingly rebuilt city of 1940s LA, but the shooting segments are definitely canned and oversimplified, but at the same time, very cathartic, especially after long segments of gathering evidence. But if there isn’t enough shooting for you, the very well executed chase scenes will definitely make up for that, whether they are in car or on foot.

GRAPHICS AND SETTING
As you can probably tell, I’ve been dropping hints about how amazing the graphics are in this game. Rockstar outdid themselves in GTA IV, building a full Liberty City. They outdid themselves again with Red Dead Redemption, rebuilding the Wild West and pulling off the desert and wooded settings to a tee.

In L.A. Noire, they take this obsession with detail even further, rebuilding a real city to near perfection. In maybe their most ambition undertaking yet, the great people at Australia’s Team Bondi actually recreated Los Angeles in the game. I’ve never been, but according to many from the city who have played the game, it’s incredibly accurate, from street names to landmarks to the scope and size of the map, for the time period anyway. The graphics look crisp and while it doesn’t completely escape the occasional glitch or screen tearing, you really can’t complain about anything at all. Nearly the entire map is dynamic and explorable, and you won’t find yourself stuck behind any invisible walls.

This is, of course, without going any further into the absolutely amazing-looking people in the game. The facial expressions are perfect, it’s almost as if looking at real people. Rockstar has used known actors in the past, but in this case, it’s actually as if you’re watching Ken Cosgrove from Mad Men hound Matt Parkman from Heroes about his dead wife. It’s incredible.

PLOT & WRITING

L.A. Noire is kind of a rare case. I almost wanted to use our movie rating system instead of our game rating system for this game, because it’s truly the most cinematic experienced I’ve ever had in a game. This is Rockstar, so that’s obviously kind of the point, as the game is meant to be sort of a “film noire” and a character piece. However “typical” the plot may end up being – as I said, without spoiling anything, this is, after all, Rockstar Games we’re talking about – the actors, aided by the new motion technology, really put this over the top and immerse you in a great story of a cop trying to stand for good while fighting his own demons.

You might be saying, well, how can there be more to this than just solving cases and debunking plots? Oh, there’s much more to it than that, my friend. A back story that included flashbacks to the horrors of World War 2 in the pacific, an “evil” doctor taking advantage of a veteran, corruption, drugs, adultery, the story has it all.

And if an awesome story arc wasn’t enough, the writers STILL found the time to put together a side-arc within the Homicide desk that’s almost as awesome as the main story itself. Once Cole gets promoted to Homicide, he must fight the scepticism of his partner (one of many sceptical partners) to uncover a string of murders orchestrated by a serial killer similarly to the famous Black Dahlia murder.

The end, again, without spoiling anything, is very typical of the company that made the game. This si Rockstar, and they can’t let anyone live in peace, and Cole’s demons, and the pressure he faces from every direction eventually catch up with him. If I had any complaints with the story, it would be how fast the end seems to come. The cases in Arson seem rushed, as you quickly take control of a second playable character, Jack Kelso, with nearly no warming, after only a couple of cases, as Cole and Jack work together to uncover the game’s truths.

As much as I’ve thought about it, I can’t associate it to another other than Rockstar facing pressures to reduce the game’s size and scope. The game already takes up three full discs on the Xbox 360 (versus one Bluray on the PS3), so it’s safe to assume they had to cut out a fair bit, as evidenced by all the DLC they’ve promised to release. Some people assumed they cut full desks out of game suck as Burglary, but to me, the story really seems to be lacking in Arson and Vice. I wanted to play a couple of cases unrelated to the major conspiracy the tail end of the game follows, and I didn’t get it. And frankly, it kept me from giving this game a perfect score.

SOUND & MUSIC
Just like any other Rockstar game before it, the music in this game is perfect. The music obviously belongs to time period of the game, but the best part of this category are the sounds and music of the game, which are integral to the actual gameplay. Players must use sounds and music to help them find evidence at crime scenes. Otherwise, the music is perfectly paced while driving or cutscenes, and really reaches the tipping point with the song from the end credits (of course, you’ll be missing context while listening to it, but regardless):

REPLAYABILITY
Again, as any other Rockstar game before it, there are plenty of things to do outside of the main story, each of which will earn you a shiny trophy (or achievement), and they include (but are not limited to):

  • Discovering Landmarks: In their recreation of the great city of Los Angeles, Rockstar erected actual landmarks throughout the city. You unlock them as you drive past them. This is arguably the best extra in the game, as it actually becomes relevant to the story in the Homicide desk.
  • Street Crimes: If you grow weary of looking at murderers’ faces and picking up beer bottles and cigarette butts off the floor, you can take a break from the main story to do quick “street crime” cases. There are about forty of them, and they generally involve a quick shootout or car or foot choice. They’re fun, they’re quick and the variety is pretty good.
  • Film Reels: Maybe the most annoying extra of the game, there are fifty film reels scattered throughout the city. I’m the type of player who liked to explore and do side missions as he moves through the story, and I didn’t find a single reel the entire first play through. You literally have to set time apart to find any of them. That said, they’re based on reel movies from the area and fun to collect. A 2-3 hour campaign should allow you to collect them all, and frankly, you can do other side missions in the process. You will need a special walkthrough or map, however.
  • Classic Cars: There are 95 different car models in the game, most accurate to the time period. They use real names and look incredible. Many of them look very similar, so if you want to drive all of them you’re going to need to do a lot of getting in and out of cars, but some of the “higher end” models, especially the hidden vehicles scattered throughout the city, are a lot of fun to drive.

Add this to the star ratings attributed to each case (you need five stars in all of them for a trophy), and the pure awesomeness of the story that will allow you to go back and play through the game without any boredom, and you can’t really ask for much more from a game in terms of replayability.

FINAL RATING
As I mentioned a little earlier, I can’t give this game a perfect score. It has its issues, like any other Rockstar game. Usually I won’t let small issues hurt the score, but in the case (no pun intended) of L.A. Noire, the problems I have with it are unfortunately related to the pacing of the story. It’s not that it wasn’t long enough, or that the story wasn’t good, but that it’s obvious they had to cut significant chunks out of the game to make it playable on the 360, and it takes a lot away from the game. There’s a lot of DLC announced for the game, so I’m sure that will help us feel the gaps, but the game leaves you wanting more, and not necessarily in a good way.

Otherwise, everything about the game is perfect. The music is perfect. The graphics are at the peak of visuals in gaming. The gameplay is, at times, unique, dynamic, and complicated, and at other times, nearly perfectly simple, canned and cathartic. The replayability factor is top notch... but as usual, Rockstar could have done a little better with the story.

L.A. Noire, simply put, is a unique game. Comparisons will be raised to Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto, but it’s truly a unique game. If anything, you could likely take a combination of GTA’s fighting and driving mechanics and graphic scope, Red Dead Redemption’s pacing, Uncharted’s visuals and cinematic story, and Heavy Rain’s unique gameplay style to really describe what kind of experience you’ll have playing the game. But in reality, this game cannot be described as anything other than Rockstar Games’ L.A. Noire. And that, ladies and gentlemen, makes L.A. Noire one of the best experiences in the history of gaming. Dare I say, it’s revolutionary.

Can’t say we didn’t see this coming, after all, it was our number two most anticipated game of the year!

From Better With Popcorn, L.A. Noire received a “Freshly Popped” rating of 9.5 out of 10.