May 24, 2011

Review: L.A. Noire

 This review is written for the installed Xbox 360 version of L.A. Noire.

I’m usually not the go-to guy for details on historical fiction of any kind. I typically eschew the past in my entertainment in favor of either modern or futuristic settings. That’s what I thought when Red Dead Redemption came around, and that game shocked me with how engrossed in the story I became as it continued on. By the time I had finished, it had already ranked among my top game stories of all time. So when Rockstar and Team Bondi started talking up L.A. Noire, I was similarly skeptical but was willing to give it a shot despite the seemingly less interesting post-WWII time period and my complete lack of knowledge for the film genre off which it is based.

You'll follow even the smallest clues throughout the game
            The game itself basically amounts to an incredibly high-budget adventure game, which is in no way a slight against it. As war veteran-turned-detective Cole Phelps, you’ll get involved in foot chases, car chases and large scale shootouts, but all this is ancillary to the actual meat of the game: You travel to crime scenes, collect evidence and interview suspects to narrow down your search until you have what you need to convict the criminal. Collecting the evidence is a simple yet satisfying process; musical cues and controller vibration lead you to clues around the environment, and the game informs you when you have located all there is to find in an area. If this sounds a bit like the game is holding your hand, you’d be right, but it’s still fun and rewarding to locate and examine an item to extract whatever information it has to offer. This evidence all comes into play in the interrogation sequences, in which you need to decide whether an individual is telling the truth, withholding information or flat out lying about a subject. If the subject is accused of lying, direct evidence is needed to be shown to contradict the statement. The “Doubt” vs. “Lie” options are pretty finicky early on in the game, where I was using evidence in a way the game didn’t understand, but once you get the hang of what the game is expecting of you it becomes a much more satisfying ride through to the end.

            But how can you tell if someone is lying or not without proper evidence? You read their face, of course. That’s right, L.A. Noire’s much flaunted facial capture system is in full effect on just about every character in the game world, and it, quite frankly, looks incredible. It’s easy to write it off as a gimmick or a tech demo, but it adds so much life to the characters that you really need to see to believe it. As a matter of a fact, go take a look for yourself. There is, however, a noticeable disconnect between the facial movements and the rest of the body; if you’ve seen Tron Legacy, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Like Jeff Bridge’s Clu character, the heads in L.A. Noire occasionally appear jittery or out of sync with the body, but this is honestly a small price to pay for such otherwise incredible fidelity.

When Cole gets angry, people listen
            What this face tech provides is characterization quite unlike anything that I’ve seen in other games. All of the faces and voices are those of usually recognizable real-life actors, but that is easily looked past due to their stellar performances. The main character, Cole, is played pretty straight, but at times you’ll see him angry, upset, depressed and elated, and all these emotions play perfectly on screen. The NPCs all bring it as well; the criminals tend to look and act like the maniacs, ice-cold killers or rich and aloof assholes that they are, and the fellow cops (particularly Cole’s various partners) all make you actually like working for the police. All of the partners start out relatively unhappy with their assignment to Cole, but as the cases roll by I came to really enjoy and eventually miss the company of each, with one significant but deliberate exception.

            Of course, the game isn’t just a series of disconnected case files. Early on when Cole is learning the ropes, the game doles them out slightly a la carte, where the only constant between them is the player’s increasing popularity as a star detective, but as you advance to different police divisions the cases themselves start to become linked in some pretty significant ways. The game also has between-case flashbacks to the war, as well as scattered yet easy to find newspapers that both show well-acted scenes designed to flesh out the characters and backstory. In the back half of the game all of these disparate threads start to all become relevant in the cases themselves, which kept building up my interest to see where the crazy story would end up. In the last few hours a number of memorable twists and set pieces kept me white knuckling my way through until the wee hours of the morning, and make up for the slightly lackluster ending scenes.

The chases range from good to thrilling
            So what’s not to like about L.A. Noire? For one, the game seems to be split in two. The first half culminates in the homicide division, which has an excellent conclusion in and of itself, but it is followed up by a completely unrelated series of cases that all works towards to another larger story arc. Furthermore, this second arc starts to drag a bit in the middle. In terms of the story, it makes sense, but there’s about an hour and a half’s worth of investigation that isn’t nearly as compelling as what comes before or after. Finally, there’s a large conflict between the individual cases and the overarching stories between them. Without divulging too much, the ends of each arc partially void the smaller decisions you make earlier. It doesn’t make the cases themselves any less engaging to complete, but the end result is that I felt slightly gipped on some of my detective work.

            Despite my gripes, L.A. Noire managed to keep me interested in a setting and characters that are completely outside of my usual comfort zone, and it only took a few hours of game time before I was digging through Wikipedia to learn more about the real-life characters and events that much of the story revolves around. The main issue I have with recommending the game is whether or not a roughly 15 hour experience with a limited amount of replay value is worth full price. That said, L.A. Noire is completely unlike any other game I have ever played, and the story presentation and incredible tech on display give it a huge leg up on that value proposition. It’s not a recommendation without caveats, but I think you should buy this game.

Images courtesy of GiantBomb.com

18 comments:

  1. It was the game I most recently played through, so I thought I'd put in my 2 cents. You know, seeing as I have this shiny new blog and all.

    Hope it was helpful!

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  2. I liked the game, was kinda boring at times but enjoyable overall.

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  3. I really love this game. Pheonix Wright + GTA = Awesome.

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  4. I enjoyed what i've gotten from this game so far. Good review.

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  5. After reading your review. I will actually check the game out now. Thanks.

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  6. That means a lot, Hunter. Hopefully I can be helpful in the future as well.

    Thanks for the support from the rest of you, as well. I'll definitely try to update on a regular basis.

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  7. Sometimes is pretty repetitive

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  8. The way they captured the actors faces and imported it to the game is amazing. Anyway, I will check this game soon.

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  9. These graphics are gorgeous, I can't wait till the price drops a bit to buy L.A. Noire.

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  10. L Noire reviewed like over 9000, but in all the sites is the same amazing gameplay!

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  11. Nice review man, too bad my laptop cant run this game :(

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  12. Wow. What an extensive and well written review. Seems like this is the biggest game out right now

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  13. Have to get a new flash on the xbox just for this game, can't wait to play it

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  14. I LOVE THIS GAME :) ,,,, 64 007 THE BEST

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  15. I tried this game and i gotta say that it didn't really cut it for me
    How to Hack Life.

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  16. Why aren't you a reviewer for a magazine? This is what I want to reading, you don't seem to bias your reviews.

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