City of Angels With Dirty Faces
There’s no shortage of means to describe L.A. Noire’s slick exterior. It evokes the unsavory elements of a time in American history filled with hope and promise for some and desperation for others. It conjures a feeling of both fascination and disdain; we’ve come of age with crime novels and films like LA Confidential, and even the game’s title immediately prepares us for what we can expect from this post-World War II City of Angels. Coupled with Rockstar Games’ pedigree for launching stylish and narratively strong titles, the game appears to be a can’t-miss formula for Australia’s Team Bondi. And yet, it’s a game that like its time period, conceals some problems underneath its glitzy exterior.
L.A. Noire puts you in the shoes of Cole Phelps in his rise from blue-suited wunderkind to hardened detective. Phelps is a decorated veteran of the Pacific Theatre who led his men in Okinawa, yet he’s gunshy about discussing his time in the war. As you guide Cole through his career, you’ll be forced to ride around LA’s streets–which for the sake of size and scale are largely confined to Downtown, Mid-City, and Hollywood; sorry, beach bums–with different partners of varying levels of experience, crookedness, and world weariness. They’ll all provide you with great insight into the depths of crime-fighting during one of the rougher periods of the city’s history.
And while some of Team Bondi’s design choices are baffling (without clear map indicators of what street you’re on, the navigation teeters between “retro” and “archaic” depending on your urgency to get across town), the presentation is sound. The city has landmarks, long-gone and still-standing, that drive home the sense of detail that the developers have constructed. Although Rockstar’s in-house teams have built time periods that many adult gamers might remember from childhood, Bondi has concocted a world that evokes a sense of history that’s as strong as any faux-LA that you rioted in during San Andreas.
And it’s not just the city’s facades that look great. The game’s facial animations are lively, emotive, and highly expressive, so much, in fact, that they’re a linchpin of the gameplay experience. Facial ticks, ascending brows, and wandering eyes can tell you the difference between an honest person and a sneaky suspect. It’s both a blessing and a curse. L.A. Noire’s core gameplay juggles open-world exploration, clue-sniffing field investigations, and interrogations that force you to read poker faces.
At times, the rules of the game aren’t doled out clearly. As you press a murder suspect, it’s seldom clear as to whether you should simply doubt them to press for more information, or whether you should lower the hammer and accuse them of lying. There isn’t much difference between nervously glancing off into the distance to indicate a fib or a cover-up. That’s one of the elements that proves frustrating in the experience, though patient players will likely reset the game to ensure the best outcome. That’s also a damning indictment of such a crucial mechanic.
Indeed, L.A. Noire’s biggest failure is an inconsistency when it comes to the rules of its world. It wants you to read faces like a hardened cop. It wants you to take on high-speed chases to take down petty thieves and getaway drivers. And yet, it sets certain expectations of you, the player, while letting your expectations down.
Aside from doling out uneven rules about reading facial tics, it also breaks certain rules regarding open-world games. After years of playing through genuinely destructive areas, it’s frustrating to lose a police chase because of a crash into something that any other game in the genre would allow you to plow through–that includes chain-link fences and occasional streetlights. The gameplay isn’t always responsive, either. At times, you want Cole to sprint toward something, but he can only do it in context-sensitive settings. While nearly open-world games has moments of wonkiness, L.A. Noire’s problems are compounded by the fact that a swath of its gameplay problems have already been solved by older sandbox games that trawl the bargain bin. You’ll also reach a point in the later stages where you’ll face down multiple suspects and ask yourself “which one will I have to shoot, which one will I have to chase, and which one will simply talk to me?”
And yet, alongside its archaic problems and the ease of gaming its biggest hook, there’s still enough content to keep you engaged. Despite some eye-rolling moments in the World War II flashback sequences, there’s a riveting yarn involving Cole and the future of several GIs who’ve returned home from combat to a bumpy adjustment to society. As cases progress, you’ll see the familiar tropes and character types dropped on their heads and if you collect the newspapers strewn around several cases, you’ll get backstory that drives home the layers of corruption pervading LA.
Also, for the archaic moments that bog down the experience, Team Bondi has some fun ideas and clever approaches. L.A. Noire uses its leveling system to unlock “Intuition Points,” which give you some aid during tougher moments, such as clue-hunting or putting the squeeze on suspects (that is, if you decide to play fair and square). It also boasts a “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”-style crowd sourcing option that lets you ask the Rockstar Social Club community for a clue. Although it’s had some rocky moments with synching stats, the amount of integration with Social Club is impressive and should be very helpful for completists looking to get to 100%.
Make no mistake, L.A. Noire is an uneven game. It doles out its rules inconsistently, and there are elements of its open-world gameplay that feel stuck in 2006. Yet its charm, its presentation, and other elements of its gameplay redeem it through other conventions. Granted, you’ll be irritated as you wreck your police car against a telephone pole mid-chase, but the rush you feel as you find yourself on the cusp of solving a major case alleviates many of those frustrations.
SUMMARY: L.A. Noire’s not a game that fans of Grand Theft Auto’s potential anarchy will enjoy, but gamers looking for a more tense and cerebral action game should investigate it.
- THE GOOD: Fantastic production values and a plot that keeps you engaged
- THE BAD: Bogged down with inconsistent rules and mechanics
- THE UGLY: Homicide. Definitely Homicide.