If there's any game publisher who seems to be closely following in the footsteps of movies, it's Rockstar. The Grand Theft Auto series stands as its take on mafia films, while Red Dead Redemption serves as the company's tribute to Westerns. Now the mega-publisher is tackling the hard-boiled detective story with L.A. Noire. Though the writers have done a great job capturing the tone and drama of the genre, the final product takes a few wrong turns and stumbles over itself the more the title drags on. There is some truly amazing content in L.A. Noire, but it shares the stage with repetitive gameplay mechanics and a confusing, rushed final act.
Players don the suit and fedora of Cole Phelps, a returning GI who takes it upon himself to clean up the streets of 1947 Los Angeles. Phelps initially comes across as quite the Eagle Scout, a war hero and straight-laced cop intent on cleaning up a corrupt and dirty city. Of course, this being a Rockstar game, things don't stay that straightforward for long, and as the story unfolds, we learn more about our protagonist's colorful history.
Like almost all Rockstar characters, Phelps is looking to atone for past sins, a trope that's growing about as clichéd as the morally upright heroes it was created to replace. Though a series of flashbacks to Phelps' combat tour in Okinawa are meant to demonstrate what made him the man he is today, they do little to convince players that the game's main character is a likeable guy. Thus, as players see Phelps engaging in untoward acts, it's hard to work up any sympathy for the guy. He comes across as a self-righteous jerk who tries to push the world away rather than deal with his issues. He works for his own redemption, but you can't help wondering if it's even worth it.
In between heavy-handed story moments lie the actual cases, and it's these unsolved mysteries that comprise the core of gameplay in L.A. Noire. At the start of each case, players are whisked away to a crime scene and tasked with hunting for clues, talking to witnesses and putting together a list of suspects. Evidence-gathering plays out much like adventure games, with players guiding Phelps around the crime scene and picking up bits of detritus that may or may not be relevant to the current investigation. Many clues must be rotated just so in order to read an inscription or investigated in more detail to divine their relevance, so there's more to it than simply clicking on everything that isn't nailed down. Furthermore, the game is stuffed with red herrings, so even though a certain bit of evidence may seem like the key to unraveling a mystery, it could turn out to be nothing more than a false lead.
Hunting for clues in L.A. Noire can be a rather entertaining distraction, but it's merely fodder for the title's crowning achievement, interviews and interrogations. Speaking with witnesses or suspects entails much more than simply listening to idle chatter or skipping through text boxes because sometimes people lie. As players listen to the stories of a particular person of interest, they have to keep an eye on the individual's idiosyncrasies and body language to determine whether the person is telling the truth or withholding information. After each bit of important chatter, the game will pop up three options — Doubt, Lie or Truth — and players must choose the correct response. Trusting a person's word means just that, but if you suspect they're not telling the whole truth but can't prove it, you can put some extra pressure on with the doubtful response. When accusing someone of lying, you have to back it up with proof, but catching someone in the act of fibbing is often the best way to pry out the most relevant information.
While the interview mechanic would be enjoyable enough in a standard game, it's made even more notable in L.A. Noire thanks to new facial animation tech pioneered by Team Bondi. The developers carefully recorded and digitized the faces of real actors, so the people you see in the game are accurate representations of real human beings. Thus, a flick of the eyes or scratch of the nose could be an indication that someone is lying, or it might just be that they tend to glance around a lot while talking or have an itchy nose. Successfully sussing out the truth is a matter of being able to accurately read people's faces and know when they're lying and when they're telling the truth. The realism in the characters' faces makes this task exceptionally engrossing, and there are numerous times when you can just feel that a character is lying based on nothing more than your gut instinct and a lifetime of interacting with other people. Very few games can connect with their audiences on this base a level.
While the method of tracking down lies is exceptionally impressive, the game's logic leaves much to be desired. Often it's far too easy to misconstrue some bits of dialogue, and knowing when to present certain pieces of evidence feels more like a guessing game than building a coherent case. There were times when I had what should've been definitive proof only to be told I was wrong because the game wanted me to use character A's testimony instead of character B's, even though they both essentially said the same thing. Luckily, blowing interview questions doesn't lead to failure, but it may eliminate key pieces of evidence down the line or at least make it harder to put the puzzle pieces together. You can eventually get to each case's pre-determined ending, but depending on your detective skills, it may take you a while.
Thankfully, you're not on your own as you investigate; the game has a built-in hint system by way of "intuition points," which players earn through careful investigation and can spend to eliminate wrong answers during interrogations or call out clues at crime scenes. While never a foolproof method of investigation, intuition points provide a helping hand in times of need as well as giving you a boost in confidence when you think you know the right answer but just aren't quite sure. On top of that, the game cleverly uses musical cues to let you know when crime scene clues have been tapped out, and you can always tap a button and ask your partner what he thinks you should do next. Unlike old adventure titles, L.A. Noire almost never tries to stump you, but gives you all the information and then asks if you can connect the dots.
Gameplay doesn't consist solely of investigation, though, as there are also plenty of gunfights and car chases sprinkled throughout each case. Unfortunately, these are by far the weakest links in the chain, and they feel out of place given the rest of the game's tone and pacing. Nearly all the optional "street crimes" that pop up over the course of L.A. Noire consist of either clearing out a building full of bad guys or pursuing a fleeing suspect through the streets of L.A. or across its rooftops in a highly scripted chase. Moments like these also pop up throughout the story cases, and L.A. Noire all but ruins itself in the final act when it suddenly tries to do its impression of GTA. While there's certainly room for some gunplay and high-speed action in the game, the amount present is sheer overkill.
Making matters worse is the fact that Rockstar is sticking with the terrible cover and aiming system it's been using for its other third-person action games, with practically no improvements. Moving to and from cover is still extremely awkward, and the lack of diversity in firearms means that nearly all shootouts feel like carbon copies of one another. It's sad that there is so much emphasis on the driving and shooting because they seem to come at the expense of some genuinely fun and unique moments, like tailing a suspect on foot and solving simple puzzles. While I agree that something needs to break up a constant stream of investigation, Rockstar and Bondi focused on the wrong distractions.
In spite of its flaws, L.A. Noire is still easy to recommend based on its incredible presentation and new take on the old adventure genre. The blemishes likely won't be enough to dissuade many from trying the experience. Rockstar also gets points for making a game where "mature" means more than a rating on the box, as it delivers a deeper experience than we may have come to expect from most games. L.A. Noire isn't the company's best offering, but it's still definitely worthy of your time.
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