Sunday, April 1, 2012

Review: May not have the level of content you'd expect from a game bearing the Rockstar brand-name, but L.A. Noire's a unique, fun, and immersive experience

When L.A. Noire released back in May 2011 (it's April 2012 as I write this) it was one of the few Rockstar Games titles that I didn't have a ton of interest in. None of the trailers grabbed me, the setting didn't look all that interesting, and the detective gameplay seemed sluggish and repetitive. One of my friends picked it up on release day, and I had the benefit of watching large portions of the game as he played through it, which, I have to say, didn't sell me on it either.

What I've learned though is that L.A. Noire's a game that has to be played to be understood. It's hard to see what's so satisfying about what Team Bondi (with help from Rockstar Games) built here unless it's actually you solving the mysteries, making your own decisions, interviewing people at your own pace, and letting yourself be absorbed into 1940s Los Angeles. Though I waited a long time to play it myself, in the end, I'm happy that I did. This may not be a perfect game; it certainly isn't up to par with the open world adventures Rockstar Games develops in-house, but L.A. Noire's a fun and highly immersive experience, one that does its own thing and isn't afraid to be something other than a GTA clone, which it definitely isn't.

Graphics and Sound: I have to combine these two because both work to achieve a stunningly immersive world. 1940s Los Angeles has been re-created here with such care; everything from the radio stations to the cars, the advertisements, and the look of the city gives off a great sense of time and place. The audio is equally impressive, with the convincing sounds of the city set against a backdrop of birds chirping during the day, crickets at night, and other such environmental touches that really bring the world to life. Even the California sun has been faithfully re-created with L.A. Noire's graphics engine. On a technical level it may not hit the heights of GTA4 or Red Dead Redemption, but artistically, L.A. Noire's a beautiful game that really takes you there. One of the biggest selling points has been the use of Motion Capture technology to create realistic facial expressions, something that proves crucial to the gameplay, as determining whether people are lying or telling the truth is often reliant on properly reading certain facial expressions and subtle details. It works more often than it doesn't, as most of the facial expressions are natural and convincing, while only occasionally will they look blurry or just downright strange. With the motion capture being such a key aspect to L.A. Noire's gameplay, it was crucial that the tech be up to speed, and the results are impressive, especially given all the scrutiny that the game demands you place on it. The voice acting's universally strong, as you'd expect from a Rockstar Games release, though main character Cole tends to overact (both facially and vocally) just a little bit from time to time. It's an important category with this game, moreso than with most games, so it's good then that the graphics and audio are able not only to transport you into its world, but are able to power the interview sections convincingly.

Gameplay: L.A. Noire's different from other open world games in many ways, and it won't be everyone's cup of tea. There's not much to do outside of the main story, with cars and landmarks to be found while driving around the city pretty much the extent of the sidequesting available. If you're expecting a large list of side stuff to take on and mini-games to play, you will be disappointed. You can't access your weapon until the game allows you to, so you can't run around wreaking havoc, GTA-style, either. Instead, L.A. Noire is a guided and cinematic experience that takes its main story quite seriously, and if you're not interested in that, then this probably isn't for you.

You are Cole Phelps of the LAPD, a man still haunted by the memories of his days as a commanding officer in Japan during WWII. Driven primarily by his desire to prove himself and to move up in the force, he's not the most likable main character, though he does become more interesting as the game goes on, with flashbacks to his military days revealing that some of his actions may not have been all that respectable. L.A. Noire's story carries you across several different cases as Cole moves up (and down) through the department, and all cases involve you investigating crime scenes, interviewing suspects and witnesses, and engaging in the occasional chase scene, fistfight, or shootout. When investigating an area, the controller rumbles when you are near an object that can be examined, and doing so will oftentimes reveal a clue, which Cole will write down in his notebook. The more clues you have, the more leverage you'll gain in the following interviews, where the clues can be brought up, forcing the person being interviewed to tell the truth. This is the heart of the game, and a very high percentage of L.A. Noire is devoted to the act of examining evidence and interviewing suspects. While it may not sound like too much fun on paper, in practice the interviews are rife with tension and wind up being incredibly addictive. There's little that's as satisfying as backing someone into a corner and forcing them to reveal what they know, or correctly reading a facial expression and knowing that someone's lying. Though some of the interviews later on can become a little too challenging, the game (for better or worse) doesn't punish you too much for botching one, most of the time allowing the story to move on regardless, or letting you retry when it doesn't. If you don't have enough evidence to charge a suspect, or you mess up the interview, it's very possible that you'll arrest the wrong person, and in most cases the game lets these scenarios play out, which is a good thing.

Far less substantial are the action scenes. Fight scenes, car chases, and gunplay are in there but these scenes are often kept realistic and short; there are no over the top action scenes like what you'd expect in GTA. The shooting utilizes a cover system similar to the one featured in GTA and Red Dead Redemption, and it works well for what it is. The combat system's all new, and the cars handle well. These parts are fun but certainly don't make up the bulk of the game. For those who are more interested in this type of gameplay, you'll be offered the chance to answer dispatch calls as you play through the story missions, and these supply some additional action. To me they came across as interruptions more than anything, so eventually I stopped bothering with them, but they can be fun and I understand why the developers felt the need to throw them in there, even if their "shoot first, ask questions later" nature is completely at odds with the rest of the game.

L.A. Noire is almost unapologetically guided. When conducting an investigation, the game will tell you what objects you can examine, and when you do, whether that object is a clue or not; you don't get to make that decision. Nor do you get to decide when to start shooting enemies, or when to engage them in hand to hand combat. Though it may appear at times that you have some leeway in which clues to tackle first (do I follow up on the Bar lead now or first interview the person down at the warehouse?) going to one location will often just lead you to the other one. ("Hey, nobody's here, I'll come back later.") It becomes clear very early on that you're just along for the ride, something which some won't mind and others will hate; even during certain on-foot chase scenes the game almost seems to control your character for you. You can't upgrade your weapons (unless you pick a more powerful one up in the middle of a shootout) and your pistol has infinite ammo, so there's really little influence you have over the game's proceedings outside of the interviewing segments. Again, this is something different for the genre, and it's not something that all will be on-board with.

What I found to be more of an issue is the repetition. Though it's not a particularly long game, (clocking in at a little under 20 hours for me, including doing 14 out of the 40 available Dispatch Missions) it does drag a little towards the end, as you find yourself doing yet another investigation, yet another interview, yet another foot chase or easy shootout...Unquestionably, L.A. Noire's biggest weakness is that its gameplay variety is sorely lacking. Thankfully the experience is fun throughout, but I think even the game's biggest fans may find themselves getting a bit antsy at around the 15 hour mark.

Storyline: Rather than focusing on one mystery, L.A. Noire carries you across many different cases, with the plot focusing more on Cole and less on an over-arching scenario. Though a big part of me wishes that the game focused on a strong central narrative instead of a few smaller ones, it does build to a pretty cool finale and the WWII flashbacks keep things interesting, as does a plot line running throughout about a therapist/drug dealer. With the exception of the cast of annoyingly cliche partner characters writer Brendan McNamara saddles Cole with, the writing throughout is strong and the cases, for the most part, are all compelling. A stronger (and more Noire-like) central narrative would have been nice, but there's so much else going on here that I don't think many will miss it.


Verdict: L.A. Noire is an experience that dares to be something different. It's an open world detective story set in a convincing world and featuring investigative gameplay that I really haven't seen before. It may not be perfect, especially with regard to repetition, and at times it holds your hand a bit too much, but it's a great first attempt and a breath of fresh air. I recommend it to gamers with open minds, and who are okay with having their patience tested on occasion.

Presentation: The open world may lack things to do but it provides an excellent sense of place and really makes you feel like you're there. A well-delivered story that may lack a strong central plot arc but that presents some compelling cases all the same. Load times aren't too long, and the game has great atmosphere.

Graphics: Not the most technically impressive game out there but still has strong visuals. A thoroughly convincing re-creation of 1940s L.A. and great-looking characters, not to mention those facial expressions, leave a lasting impression.

Gameplay: Guided and rather linear for an open world game, but the investigations and interviews are all something fresh, and the action, when it does arrive, is realistically handled and fun. Maybe not a game for everybody, but worth trying all the same.

Sound: Great voice acting, incredible sound effects that make you feel like you're there, and an appropriate musical score.

Replay Value: Not much here to come back to, though several DLC cases are available. Game for me clocked in at around 19 hours with around 14 Dispatch missions taken on. There's 40 of them if you want to get the most out of the game.

Overall: 8.0/10

(Note: My reviews go on a .5 scale. This was a review of the 360 version.)

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