There are two things you need to know going into L.A. Noire, and the first is that this isn't just a 1940s-set Grand Theft Auto. Yes, it features a lot of driving and shooting in an open world, but its real focus is on investigation. And while you're probably already aware of its detective-sim aspects, you might be surprised to learn that you’ll actually spend a lot more time scouring crime scenes and questioning suspects than you will chasing them down and/or shooting them dead.
Second, Noire pulls very few punches. The story of Cole Phelps, an ambitious young detective and war hero working his way up the ranks of the LAPD, it delves into the seedy, frequently disturbing underbelly of 1940s Hollywood. As in seemingly every work of LA-set noir fiction, there's a cesspit of violence and corruption lurking just beneath the sunny glamour, and Cole's job is to wade into it daily, coming into frequent contact with creepy rapists, wife-beating drunks, grieving families and at least a few battered, naked and/or burnt corpses.
The content isn’t much more graphic than your average TV cop drama (apart from the occasional nudity), but it's heavy subject matter for a game, and Noire plays it surprisingly straight, with very little of the wry humor that characterizes most Rockstar releases.
Assuming those first two paragraphs didn’t scare you off – or, better yet, that they piqued your interest – odds are you’re going to love L.A. Noire. Bringing together aspects from GTA, the Ace Attorney games and the combined works of James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler and every film noir director ever, Noire feels like the first truly complete detective sim we’ve ever played.
It’s also the most compelling. As it unfolds across 21 separate cases, Noire weaves fascinating narratives about gangsters, serial killers, corrupt doctors and a stolen shipment of army-grade morphine – and while they all seem separate, they gradually come together to create a larger, overarching story that isn’t completely apparent until the very end. All of this is carried out with some fantastic acting, which – thanks to the revolutionary facial-capture technology used in Noire – is at once deeply convincing and faintly eerie.
At the center of it all is Cole: strait-laced, educated and seemingly humorless, he’s out to earn citations and make a name for himself – and at first, he comes off as kind of a robotic douche. That changes over time, however, and – thanks in part to the World War II-flashback cutscenes that unfold between cases – you’ll gradually learn that he’s much more complicated than he appears. While you wait for him to grow on you, you’ll get plenty of personality from his five partners, who change with each “desk” Cole works on over the course of the game.
Some are friendly, some are cranky and some are complete bastards, but one of them will follow Cole at all times to provide hints, running commentary, fire support and (if you don’t feel like driving) the ability to fast-travel to any point on the huge map. (They can also get in the way, though, so try not to wander into any cramped dead ends or you might get stuck.)
So how’s it play?
Regardless of which desk you’re on, most cases involve six basic types of gameplay: investigation, interrogation, running, fighting, driving and shooting. During investigation sequences, you’re set loose in a crime scene (or other place of interest), and wander around looking for clues, which can range from seemingly insignificant documents to gruesome wounds on a corpse. It’s often not enough to just find them, either, and you’ll often have to open an object or move it around a bit for its significance to become clear.
To make this less daunting, there’s an assist feature that vibrates the controller and plays a piano tone whenever you’re near a clue. While the assist is fun, it also tends to turn investigations into bouts of wandering aimlessly in search of the next buzz, so those who’d rather use their actual powers of observation can turn the feature off. (Either way, “investigation” music will play until all clues are found, although you can turn that off as well.)
The clues you find are then instrumental in the interrogation phase, during which you’ll use Cole’s notebook (which functions suspiciously like a PDA) to ask questions of witnesses and suspects. This is also where Noire’s impressive face-capture technology comes into play, as you’ll then need to watch their expressions to see if they’re hiding something.
Above: One of those options is the right answer to his statement – the other two will make you “fail” the question
While the facial capture allows for a full range of human expression, you don’t need to worry about the actors being too subtle; if they’re telling the truth, they’ll usually stare unwaveringly into Cole’s eyes, while most liars look shifty and nervous. At that point, the question isn’t whether they’re lying, it’s whether you have a clue that proves they’re lying – and if you’re not sure, whether picking “doubt” is maybe a better option.
Think of it like the press/accuse system from Phoenix Wright, except that you only get one chance to correctly judge each answer (unless you’re replaying the case, of course). Get too many wrong, and you’ll still end up completing the case successfully – thanks to branching outcomes, the game always finds a way, whether it’s by introducing a last-minute witness or redirecting you back to some clue you missed – but you’ll likely get yelled at by your captain for incompetence.
It’s a good thing, then, that you can draw on a pool of up to five “intuition” points, awarded for solving smaller cases and/or leveling up Cole’s rank (which also awards new outfits and access to unique vehicles). Spend an intuition point, and you can eliminate a wrong answer during questioning (as well as most of the wrong evidence for backing up a lie accusation), or go online to see how other players have answered the question. It’s also possible to reveal all the clues at a crime scene, if you’re stumped during an investigation.
While investigations and interrogations make up the bulk of the game, they’re far from all you’ll do. For whatever reason, almost nobody in LA ever wants to surrender to the police, whether they’re actually guilty or not – and so, most of your accusations will either send the perps running, or make them decide a fistfight with cops is just a fantastic idea.
Above: Stupid stupid stupid
If they run – which seems to happen at least once in almost every case – you’ll have to take off after them while your partner stays behind. As you follow the perp through the nearby neighborhood (and/or across nearby roofs), your goal is to get close enough to sprint in and tackle him to the ground. Provided, that is, that the chase isn’t meant to end up at a certain spot on the map (like a waiting getaway car, say), in which case your perp will frequently surge away with sudden bursts of superhuman speed whenever you get close.
Even at their worst, though, chases are still more fun than Noire’s handful of “follow that car, but maintain a consistent distance” tailing missions. They may be thematically appropriate, given that you’re playing as a cop, but that doesn’t make them much fun.
Fighting is considerably more enjoyable than either chasing or tailing, even if it seems strange at first that everyone assumes stiff boxing stances when things get violent (just tell yourself they all learned to box in the Marines). It’s simple, but being able to block or dodge, unleash flurries of punches, grapple with opponents and pull off simple finishers means there’s just enough variety to make it satisfying.
Of course, most criminals are smart enough to know that putting up their dukes is a dumb idea, and so more often than not you’ll have to contend with armed resistance. This is, incidentally, about the only time the game lets Cole (automatically) draw his gun. Combat in L.A. Noire works like a slightly simplified version of GTA/Red Dead Redemption’s gunfights, with Cole able to easily flatten himself against sticky-cover points and either blind-fire around the corner, or pop out for an aimed shot.
Aimed shots work a lot like Red Dead’s, in that you’ll automatically draw down on the nearest enemy (which you can turn off if you’d rather free-aim). This doesn’t always work so well when they’re behind cover (the reticule tends to land on their covered body mass, rather than their exposed heads), but it does make rapidly putting down groups of enemies a breeze, particularly if you’ve picked up a shotgun, a Thompson or a BAR. As fun as the shootouts are, however, there’s one problem: for some reason, the only real feedback when you’re being shot is that blood appears on Cole’s clothes and the screen starts going gray. It’s usually easy to spot before it’s too late, but a little force-feedback warning would have been better.
Interestingly, you don’t always have to kill armed suspects; if they’re running from you, you might have the option of firing off a warning shot by holding the reticule over their backs until a little meter fills up. These opportunities are rare, hard to pull off and don’t seem to make any difference to the overall plot, but they’re a nice alternative for more pacifistic players.
Story-related shootouts tend to be short and relatively few, but they’re not the only action you’ll find. As you drive through town, you’ll periodically get dispatch calls about street-crime incidents, which you’re free to break off and pursue. These range from muggings and suicide attempts to bank robberies and hostage situations, and they tend to involve a lot of driving and/or shooting, making them feel like a consolation prize for those upset that Noire isn’t more like GTA.
There are 40 of the incidents in all, and each desk has its own set to respond to. The best part, however, is that you never have to worry about missing an opportunity. Incidents come up again later if you ignore them, and if you’d rather put them off indefinitely, they can also be pursued during the free-roaming modes unlocked after completing each desk.
That brings us to driving. Noire’s cars are mostly period-appropriate land-yachts, although it’s worth pointing out that few of them feel as sluggish as they look. Your average police cruiser does pretty well taking sharp turns at top speed (although you might take out a streetlamp or two in the process), and if it isn’t enough, you can “commandeer” nearly any other vehicle you see on the road. (Buses are sadly off-limits.) Driving is also one of the few parts of the game that let you act like a complete psychopath, and it’s kind of hard to resist the temptation of driving on the sidewalk when it’s lined with so many smashable benches and parking meters (never mind that the damage you cause is counted against you on your end-of-case report card).
Above: Ha ha, whoops
With so many different kinds of gameplay (and a few unique minigames thrown in for good measure), Noire is anything but small or short – all told, it took us around 20 hours to finish the story, and that was ignoring most of the side stuff. For those who want to take the time to complete every street-crime case, find every car and unearth every landmark, newspaper and collectible film reel in the game, it’ll probably take closer to 30 hours. And even then, it’s worth replaying the story at least once. Certain events take on new significance when viewed with knowledge of Noire’s endgame twists, and it’s interesting to see how differently the cases can turn out – and what new chunks of plot they might yield – if you do a more thorough job of finding clues and getting questions right.
Also, a second playthrough is a great opportunity to try out one of Noire’s most interesting semi-secrets: a black-and-white mode hidden in the options menu. It’s a little weird, maybe, but it’s cool to see Noire looking like an actual 1947 film.
While it’s marred by occasional choppy visuals and a late-in-the-story twist that seems like a sudden betrayal of Cole’s identity (and could therefore have used more buildup), L.A. Noire is nonetheless an incredible achievement. Its hyper-realistic faces, while strange at first, are easy to get used to, and the world that it’s created – from its licensed radio shows to its re-creations of long-demolished old-Hollywood landmarks – is a blast to explore. More importantly, this isn’t just well-written, pretty and genuinely mature – it’s immensely fun, and after the years of hype and waiting, it does not disappoint.
That just leaves one question…
360 or PS3?
One of the biggest (or, at least, most frequently asked) questions leading up to Noire’s launch is which platform has the best version. The PS3 has a clear edge here, as the entire game is packed onto a single disc (as opposed to three discs on the 360, which to be fair aren’t much of a hassle to swap out), and it comes with a download voucher for an extra traffic-desk case. Otherwise, there aren’t a lot of noticeable differences between the two versions, although we’ve put together a video of both (captured at 720p) running side-by-side in case you’d like to see for yourself:
Is it better than...
Heavy Rain? Yes. Not only is there more "game" here, but L.A. Noire tells a more coherent story, with better acting and fewer creepy feigned accents. Also, even though cops in L.A. Noire never seem to get in trouble for working without warrants and roughing up prisoners, its creators seem to have at least a basic grasp of how police investigations work, which in Heavy Rain amounted to "hearsay about a suspect carrying an 'origarmi figger' is airtight evidence that he's a child murderer."
Mafia II? Yes. While the games are fundamentally different – Mafia II's emphasis is almost entirely on linear driving and shooting, while Noire's is on open-ended investigation – they both try to build an open-world re-creation of postwar America. Noire's attempt is more compelling and interesting, with more variety and things to do, and its clockwork city feels much less soulless than Mafia II’s Empire Bay, and more alive.
Red Dead Redemption
? No, although it’s damn close. Again, these are two games that offer different experiences, and we commend L.A. Noire for doing something completely new. However, if you’re looking at the whole packages, Red Dead’s bear-filled vision of the Old West in decline is just a little more fascinating to explore than Noire’s pre-sprawl LA, its revenge story is more personally affecting than Noire’s tale of corruption and redemption, and its outlaw conceit is a little freer than Noire’s take on two-fisted crimefighting. Again, though: it’s awfully close.
Just for you, Metacritic!
L.A. Noire is a staggering technological achievement, offering up a fantastically detailed open world, a hugely engrossing story, varied gameplay and some of the best acting performances ever to appear in a game. More impressively, all of its parts work together beautifully, creating an immensely fun adventure that’s worth replaying at least once.
May 16, 2011