Was anyone else apprehensive when Rockstar Games announced they were publishing a game where you play as a police officer? Rockstar Games, the company behind Grand Theft Auto, Bully & Red Dead Redemption, made a game where you’re supposed to be the good guy. The company behind games where the bulk of the entertainment was in seeing how much crazy antics you can inflict on unsuspecting civilians. Could a company behind some of the most “controversial” games pull off something like LA Noire?
LA Noire primarily follows the story of Cole Phelps, a WWII vet who begins work as an officer in 1940s Los Angeles. The game follows Phelps from the lowly ranks of a beat cop to a detective, working cases ranging from traffic accidents, drug-running, murder & arson. All the while he has to deal with corrupt officials, Hollywood, the mafia & his own personal demons, all trying to make it impossible for Phelps to be the upstanding protector of justice he desperately works to be.
Despite being set in a large open-world, LA Noire is an adventure game at heart. There are plenty of action sequences, shoot-outs, & driving, as to be expected during the line of duty. But ultimately, it’s a detective story. Therefore, most of your time is spent examining clues from crime scenes, tracing leads & interviewing people. The bulk of the action is divided into two parts: evidence-gathering & interviewing. At crime scenes, you search the area for clues, interacting with random objects to see if they reveal more about the crimes committed. This evidence is used to pinpoint possible suspects of persons of interest to question. But not everyone will be forthcoming with the truth, & it’s up to Phelps to determine if the evidence he has contradicts their statements to weasel the truth from them.
Narrative: Ultimately, I found the story in LA Noire to be both lacking & fulfilling at the same time. The narrative structure is very layered, & I’m not sure that’s to the benefit of the overarching story. Each case has its own story, which is part of the bigger story that unfolds at each department Phelps works in, which in turn is part of the story of LA told by the game, which ultimately is part of the overarching story of Cole Phelps. Bite-sized chunks that overlap with each other to form a larger narrative. This technique is both interesting & yet ultimately left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied. I liked how pieces brought up early in the story come back later, but because at the moment it doesn’t seem important you might not pay attention. It took me forever to piece together that Courtney Sheldon, a naive fool who starts peddling morphine that leads to the plot of the second-to-last arc, was the same man in the flashbacks with Phelps during the war. It’s not a bad story, by any means. It just comes across as disjointed at times. That ending… I won’t say it came out of left-field, because it was related to information given earlier in the game. But the game sets you up for this climactic confrontation with this collaboration of corrupt officials that could topple the infrastructure of the entire city… & instead that’s taken care off off-screen with only the barest nod to it in a cutscene while I chase a firebug through the sewers for my kidnapped girlfriend. I felt cheated, both from the perspective of me as the gamer & for the characters who basically got shanked by the whole ordeal. I was also confused by the decision to have players take the role of a different character for most of the last act. Phelps is still involved indirectly, & we’ve been introduced to this new guy, Jack Kelso, before, so he’s not a stranger. It just felt strange playing as someone else, especially when the ending is still about Phelps. I would’ve liked to see Kelso directly involved more. He was a good character, & I kind of liked him more than Phelps. Speaking of characters, one of the strongest points of the game is the distinctive personalities of the various characters you deal with. I particularly enjoyed watching how Phelps interacted with his partner in each department. Phelps himself is a bit of a wet blanket, but that’s just his personality so I can’t dock for that. Though I didn’t like that towards the end of the game he’s supposed to have this epiphany that makes him see he’s only human. But because this is in the last act when we switch to Kelso, we don’t really see this development. So ultimately, LA Noire tells an interesting story that makes you want to see how it all ends, even if it can be a bit hard to follow at times & may leave you feeling dissatisfied. Score: 4
Mechanics: I’ll be honest; I have no idea why they decided to make this game open-world. There’s no reason for it. Open-world games only work if the world is full of interesting diversions & you’re allowed to sow a little chaos. LA Noire does neither. Aside from your cases & the occasional “street crime” incident, there’s nothing to do in the world except get collectibles that don’t really do anything. And even the street crimes aren’t random crimes you find by driving around, like an officer would, but staged events that occur at specific times during specific cases. Also, because you’re an officer, you’re penalized for creating havoc. You can’t damage property or people. Well, by “penalized” the only thing I witnessed was having a certain amount of fines at the end of the case, but it didn’t seem to affect anything tangible in the game. So really, I just drove from one case scene to the next, with the random detour when a street crime was available. Just a waste of time & resources if you ask me. Aside from that, most of the rest of the game works as it should. Looking for clues is simple & intuitive. There’s just enough at each scene so not everything is a clue, but not cluttered enough to make examining items tedious. I liked that there’s a setting in the game where specific music plays while there are still clues to examine. It made it easy to know when I’ve found everything. The game really does shine during these puzzles. My favorite was at the end of third act when I had to link poem excerpts to locations. The controls work as they should in the areas of driving, shooting & fighting. My only other complaint from a mechanical standpoint is the interview system. The system itself works fine, but I got a bit annoyed by the fact that nearly every response initially given is a lie. Almost nobody in this game tells the truth straight out, even when they have no reason to lie. I’m looking for your friend’s murderer; why would you lie to me? Ultimately it comes down to whether you think you have specific evidence to dispute their statement (Lie) or not (Doubt). This just seemed unrealistic & took some of the challenge from the interviews. So overall, most of the mechanics worked as it was supposed to even if they weren’t executed as well as they should have been. Score: 3
Aesthetics: First of all, the facial animations in this game are some of the best I’ve ever seen from a realistic, motion-captured standpoint. Because you have to read people’s expressions, the facial animations are spot on. People look around nervously, swallow or bite their lips. However, there is this uncanny valley effect at times because the rest of the character isn’t as detailed. I think for me, its was due either to the in-game lighting casting strange shadows in places they didn’t need to be or the exaggerated mouth movements. Because the upper half of the face is so detailed and animated, everyone’s mouths seem out of place. It looked like everyone was yelling at me. Aside from that, the city is very nicely detailed with visibly different sections. The voiceacting is really good, again playing into being able to read people. I have to give special credit to Andrew Connolly (Capt. Donnelly), Keith Szarabajka (Herschel Biggs) & Claudia Brucken (Elsa Lichtmann’s singing voice). The music is… interesting. I assume it’s authentic to that time. It’s sets the mood, at least. And I’ve always thought I could like jazz if I ever actually listened to it. Score: 5
On an unrelated but hilarious note, I had a problem with one of the game discs that resulted in Kelso being completely missing from the cutscene with the local mob boss Mickey Cohen– except for his hat. So during these entire scene talking about very serious things like hocking morphine & rubbing people out, I couldn’t stop laughing because the Cohen was getting sass from a floating fedora.
Replay Value: Low. I think the story does change somewhat based on how well you do in each case, particularly for the few where you have a choice of suspects to charge with the crime. But unless you want to see what clues you missed or try to do better at the interviews, there isn’t much reason to play more than once. Score: 3
Final Word: While I can’t help but feel that some of Rockstar’s previous games bled into LA Noire, it’s still a fun detective game. Although it may be a bit heavy on the action for strict adventure game enthusiasts, it might have the right mix for your average gamer who prefers a break from hunting clues every now & then.
Title: L.A. Noire
Console: PC, PS3, 360
Developer: Team Bondi
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: May 17, 2011