L.A. Noire Review: Sauntering Deliciously Towards Perdition

You’re a soldier, told by your motherland that you’re defending it from the forces of evil. Despite the horrors of what you must do, you persevere in your belief that you’re fighting for Right; that belief is reinforced at every turn by the society you fight for. You emerge victorious and you come home. You’re still the flawed man you were when you left, haunted by what you were forced to do. Upon your return, your holy charge is extended – you fight against chaos as a keeper of order. Except…the society you’ve been dreaming about, your shining beacon? It’s rotting from within. This is life, and this is LA Noire.

The most important thing about noire is the sense of doom surrounding the story. Noire, whether film or literature, is my favorite genre. Even though I consume a lot of scifi and fantasy, my favorites blend the two genres together. Even though it’s never an easy decision, when I’m asked who my favorite member of the Justice League is, the Batman always wins out: even though he never came out and said it, Bob Kane was a noire writer. Like the Batman, a noire protagonist is always approximately 35. He works alone, he’s a tough guy and beats criminals or takes a beating if it helps him solve a case. Cases that, on their surfaces, seem straightforward, invariably turn out to be complex and force the detective to undertake a journey through the guts of society while keeping a gimlet eye on the rest of the crime-fighting world.

L.A Noire Hero

Someone's got to clean up this town

LA Noire takes you on the twisted path along the murky waters from which a hardboiled detective is born in a game that stands alone as a titanic achievement for Team Bondi and Rockstar. Set in post-war Los Angeles in 1947, LA Noire puts you in the shoes of patrolman Cole Phelps, a decorated Marine Lieutenant with a strong sense of duty, minimal sense of humor and fair amount of ambition. Cole rises and falls in the ranks as the game progresses and he investigates the Black Dahlia murders, movie stars, a massive heroin ring, and an arsonist who seems to have ties to powerful politicians and industrialists…and it wouldn’t be pulp detective story without a complicated love interest and a city full of intrigue, shady characters and back alleys. Fortunately, LA Noire‘s got all of that and more.

Uncanny valley – crossed

Not coming right out of the gates talking about how the characters populating LA Noire transcend the normal suspension of disbelief needed to get into a story would be to ignore LA Noire‘s crowning achievement. It’s difficult to put into words how incredible the facial motion capture technology that Team Bondi developed really is…and I’m not someone who is normally at a loss for words. From the very start, Cole Phelps and the massive supporting cast (full of talented character actors you’ll be scouring IMDB for) bridge the gap between “well animated” and “Oh, my God!” When you’re interviewing characters or watching a cut scene, the combination of great acting, scripting and the motion capture make the inhabitants of 1947 Los Angeles seem like real people rather than digital creations. No matter how talented the animator, generated faces never quite match up – the technology Team Bondi used, however, allows you to watch facial tics, body motion and tells like you were watching a real person.

Running through the entire roster of character actors would take pages, so let’s focus on the most important NPC of the game: the City of Los Angeles. Someone over at Team Bondi must have untreated OCD, because the recreation of 1947 Los Angeles is breathtaking. Drawing from architectural plans, city maps, aerial photographs and historic records, even the storefronts match up to the stores that were actually there, 64 years ago. In making the largest open world environment that Rockstar’s been involved with, Team Bondi rendered Los Angeles as a living, breathing city that is an achievement on its own – beyond the buildings and street layout, the game’s LA is filled with nearly a hundred unique, period-accurate cars (some provided by Jay Leno) and something like 40 different character/face models to keep the citizenry from looking like clones.

L.A. Noire Los Angeles

We love L.A.

The city modeling is without peer and the facial mapping works extremely well, which is a good thing since without it, one of LA Noire‘s central mechanisms – interviews – wouldn’t work. Fortunately, it does…although it does have some minor quirks.

It’s in the details

As Patrolman and later Detective Phelps, LA Noire is set up in episodes – each case falls under one of the four desks (traffic, homicide, vice and arson) making up the “levels” and “worlds;” it’s a convenient way to break the game up into manageable bites perfect for the adult players it’s designed for. Actually playing the game is divided into driving around (or having your partner drive around) LA in period-accurate cars and investigating crimes using two major gameplay mechanics – searching for clues and interrogating persons of interest. Detecting clues at crime scenes involves wandering around crime scenes and examining bodies, picture frames and discarded glass bottle after discarded glass bottle as you try to assemble enough evidence to track down suspects, grill them and toss them in irons (actual guilt optional).

Although care was taken to reward patient examination of crime scenes for evidence, detecting can get a little weary at times; if you’re really hardcore or after more realism, options are present to turn the default you-still-have-clues-to-find music and you’re-standing-on-a-clue vibration “on” or “off.” Although it’s almost impossible to “fail” a case, finding all of the evidence gives you the best chance to successfully counter lies told by your suspects and helps crank up your end-of-case ranking, so it serves you well to take your time and pick through all of the evidence. (Which makes ignoring things like empty glass bottles and cigarette butts nerve-wracking since they might be clues or they might be trash.)

The Set Up

I knew it.

After assembling clues and chatting with the medical examiner or witnesses, you’re sent out to track down your suspect for questioning. Along the way, you’ll trigger optional street crime side-quests, which provide nice action-filled interludes in the otherwise sedate pacing. For the times where I found myself missing the car chases and gun battles, there’s nothing like driving down Hollywood Boulevard with my partner hanging out the window, firing at a fleeing suspect’s tires and getting into a firefight in an abandoned warehouse to sate my bloodlust for a while. However, it’s these street crimes that give rise to the most confusing aspect of LA Noire: something that disrupted the immersiveness of the game and has befuddled both me and Justin Lacey. When pursuing a fleeing suspect, sometimes you can draw your gun and fire, sometimes you can draw your gun and fire a warning shot (to halt the suspect) and sometimes you have to track the suspect down and tackle them. You can’t  “wing” a suspect, either – once guns are drawn, it’s a fight to the death. Although it’s not a major detraction from the overall game, the arbitrariness of what suspect-pursuit option is going to be available is a jarring experience in an otherwise engrossing game.

Lie and I’ll pistol whip you

When you interrogate, you you get to experience the core gameplay mechanic. As in other adventure/RPG games like Mass Effect, Deus Ex and Knights of the Old Republic, you’re given several options to respond to statements made by suspects: Truth, Doubt or Lie. In addition to being the core gameplay mechanic, it’s also occasionally the most difficult and frustrating. Even with the “intuition points” you earn that can be used to eliminate irrelevant evidence or one of the three options or poll the LA Noire community, some of the links between the evidence and countering a lie by a suspect are frustratingly opaque without replaying the interview later, particularly if you haven’t been diligent in picking up all of the evidence. Each piece of evidence has its place, but it may not be used where you think it should be. At the end of the day you have to ask, “Does this add to the realism of being a cop investigating a crime or not?” I’m inclined to think that it does, it was done consciously and with great care.

L.A. Noire Face

If you think your face is messed up now...

Coupled with the limited information given by Truth/Doubt/Lie, the interrogations can occasionally be irksome to a perfectionist-completionist gamer (do we know any of those?). In general, though, Cole’s responses follow along the lines that you expect, but there are occasions where your selection triggers something completely different than what you intended. When it comes down to it, though, I’m splitting hairs. LA Noire has plenty of alternative avenues of pursuit that made one blown question a speed bump rather than a significant obstacle to completing a case. Although I did charge the wrong guy once (which lead to a pretty brutal dressing down by my terrifyingly ascetic, devout, Irish captain, something I recommend trying it at least once just for the entertainment value) I never ended up with a “Mission Failed” screen or stuck with no leads. While the no-fail approach may be a little more hand-holding than some like, it did keep my blood pressure at a reasonable level when an interview didn’t go quite right and worked well to create a world where even if you get some of the facts wrong, the end result is the same.

In the mood

L.A. Noire Celebrate

Have a drink Team Bondi and Rockstar, you deserve it.

Great music and ambient noise have been hallmarks of Rockstar since GTA 3, but LA Noire goes a step beyond, culling news and music from the golden age of radio and jazz. Jack Benny, Louis Armstrong and Hank Williams fill the airwaves and are supplemented by what seems to be a new Rockstar hallmark – awesome end-game music.

There are perennial candidates for “Best Movie Ever,” and one of them is always Casablanca. It’s interesting to note that Casablanca is firmly a noire film and, perhaps more importantly, that the ending is only “happy” if you are delusional; the modern literary realism of which it is a part denies perfection and yet it manages to leave you with hope in the end and a deep and lingering appreciation for the work as a whole. Team Bondi has done the same – there is no perfection to be found in LA Noire, but there’s not supposed to be… and that’s why if you don’t have this game in your collection, you’re under suspicion for Impersonating a Gamer.

Sources:

Giant Bomb (images)