It seems like every game that uses the 1940’s setting is always a World War II shooter. Even more disconcerting, the rarity of seeing new graphics technology boast a gameplay innovation is just as hard to find. Team Bondi, development studio started by ‘The Getaway’ creative director Brendan McNamara, set out to change these lax behaviors with their first game: L.A. Noire. Even after such a long development time by this freshman studio, this graphic title’s uncompromising style is another instance of the wait feeling worth it.
The setting is 1947 Los Angeles. Cole Phelps has recently returned from the war and is now a beat cop for the LAPD. After working a few patrol cases (which also act as the player’s hand holder for Noire’s gameplay features), Phelps shoots up the department’s ladder to become an investigator for various desks. Within each of these investigations, which act similarly to self-contained episodes, the player soon becomes aware that The City of Angels also has its fair share of demons, both inside and outside the department.
Whether you’re looking at earlier investigation cases that last for about an hour or ones later on that act as a paper trail for the big (yet slightly rushed) finale, the branching storylines are entrancing. Phelps (brilliantly acted by Aaron Staton), an affable erudite with a decent sense of humor, contains such resonating qualities because of his willingness to remain firm to noble ideals when moral ambiguity surrounds him throughout the entire journey. Even the side characters themselves sometimes pose questions that textually and sub-textually present doubt of certain political choices that are still maintained in today’s age. The deep over-reaching plot tied into different case desks makes excellent use of certain hardboiled questions that help the player become rapt in every situation.
Despite how engrossing the different layers of the plotline may be, there are faults to be found. Even when you find yourself getting slammed by the department for charging the wrong suspect, the next episode is presented as if everything went according to plan. Where it also makes bold, new steps in cinematic direction it also fumbles through two storytelling methods that rob the player of suspense: a voiceover narration in the patrol cases and some collectable newspapers. The idea of someone preemptively presaging “the case that would change Phelps” is a cheap technique to inform players of what they would find out eventually; given how briskly this method is removed, it seems like the writing/directing team weren’t sure what to do with this option either. Most of the collectable newspapers properly incorporated in certain cases present the parallel storyline gimmick quite well; however, some of these unnecessarily forecast entire situations that would happen later. The repercussions of these mistakes cause some later interviews to hand you the correct choice on a silver platter.
To compare one of the movies it was inspired by, L.A. Noire could’ve used a “less is more” last-minute approach like Polanski did with removing Jake Gittes’ voiceover narration in ‘Chinatown,’ in order to allow simultaneous player/character discovery to happen more frequently. Overall though, the amount of different themes from excellent noir films subsumed into this narrative help makes it one of the best videogame stories of 2011.
An advantage in having such an underused setting is the disparity in both the artistic design and classic sounds of that age from other open world titles. Rather than the sundry amount of rap, rock, and other current genres in present-day GTA titles, players can expect jazz and-funnily enough-inspirational oldies for the rock-and-roll genre, like Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over." The quality voice acting also supports the proper vernacular written in the script. Gang members and lower-educated citizens colloquially state their explanations while the rest read their part in a way that’s proper for the backdrop. The dedication to producing 1947 Los Angeles to such jaw-dropping detail, in both sights and sounds, makes it nearly impossible to praise one specific facet. Even subtleties like the option to play in black and white or visit historically accurate building models breathe a sense of life into the timeline. While a few technical anomalies poke their head out a bit too often, it doesn't drastically overwhelm the meticulous care that was taken in making (or should I say crafting?) the locale to look as if it has deep history around every corner.
For a generation so stretched as this one it’s quite refreshing to still see games take technological steps that can invent, or reinvent, gameplay expectancies. On the surface, the idea of walking around crime scenes in search for clues and then interrogating persons of interest sounds like something done eons ago; but when technology capable of thoroughly tracking the physiognomy of every witness or suspect is incorporated into the gameplay the role of old-school detective feels more pronounced. Wavering tones in speech, darting eyes, and a plethora of different reactions are displayed in order for you to make one of three choices: Truth, Doubt, or Lie. While the ‘Truth’ and ‘Doubt’ options are passive, claiming someone is lying requires you to pick the correct clue(s) in your notebook (think of it as your database for each case) in order for the question to be considered a success. If the choice was successful, that person may provide more clues that could help you later on. What’s ingenious of this questioning system is how initial inquires will sometimes trail off to different subjects that you have to refute. The necessity to keep an incisive observation on both the question and general attitude of each person is what makes this meaty portion of the gameplay feel so involving, and-most importantly-it felt like this attention to detail couldn’t be done without this new technology.
Beyond investigating macabre scenes of dead bodies and interrogating P.O.I.'s, L.A. Noire also covers other duties of a police officer on television: chase scenes (by car or on foot), shooting, fistfights, and tailing suspects. All of the combat-based secondary features are decent and evenly paced, but lack that same amount of polish as the satisfying core. Shooting maintains a decent formula throughout, but maneuvering from cover to cover feels sluggish. Chase scenes on foot can feel artificial because of what the game allows during certain chases. The option to fire a warning shot in the air after aiming your weapon at a fleeing suspect for a few seconds is locked out of some pursuits to force you to tackle an absconder, sometimes without giving an indication as to which is allowed. While these additions do help portray the “just another day in the life as a cop” action-oriented mentality seen in police dramas (which is further reinforced by the episodic format), it won’t take long to notice they pale in comparison to the sleuthing facets of the game.
The open-world design is one of the biggest blessings and curses for L.A. Noire. Where the-previously mentioned-scale and vibrant nature of late 40’s Los Angeles is a boon, the sense of player autonomy (or lack thereof) is a drawback. Despite having such an interesting backdrop, everything you interact with outside of the story cases feels hollow, especially in comparison to other open-world heavy-hitters that have “Rockstar Games Presents…” on their cover. Beyond the forty street crimes that usually utilize the lesser gameplay elements, everything else to do simply feels like a bland collect-a-thon. There’s also the technical graphics when considering how smoothly this city is rendered. Install or no, I oftentimes ran into screen tearing issues or AI oddities involving my partner. While there’s expectancy for some small problems to arise, many more occur whenever you simply want to drive around the city and ignore the story. This imbalanced focus specifically on story locations compared to everywhere else become jarring after a while.
In the end, L.A. Noire is one of those cases of biting off more than it could chew. For having such a long checklist of gameplay features and bygone places to explore, it’s a shame to see it stumble to deliver them in an equally-polished way. Nevertheless, the dedication in faithfully recreating such a varied city, rethinking what gamers can expect from noir titles and constructing a first-rate story makes this an easy recommendation. It’s rather ironic to see such a pulsating backdrop as this noir setting be used so often in early film, yet rarely depicted in the videogame medium-even as it strides closer and closer towards cinema. After playing L.A. Noire, you’ll wonder why that’s the case.
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