If there’s one thing Rockstar Games is known for it’s their sandbox crime games. It seems that every year or so they come out with either a new Grand Theft Auto title or something with a similar premise (like Bully or Red Dead Redemption) This year, however, Rockstar seems to be taking a larger risk by producing a new adventure game where story takes precedence over game play. The result is L.A. Noire.
The story is set in Los Angeles in the late 1940s and follows an up and coming police officer named Cole Phelps as he rises through the ranks of the LAPD. As the game progresses you’ll go through five different chapters represented by your position in the LAPD, Officer, Traffic Detective, Homicide, Vice and Arson.
The “meat” of L.A. Noire bears many similarities to the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney series; much of the game is spent searching crime scenes for clues followed by an investigation in which you press suspects and witnesses on certain issues and can choose to either take their word for it, cast doubt on their statements, or present evidence to expose a lie. In every situation only one option is correct so you have to really judge your actions carefully. This is helped by new motion capture technology, which accurately captures the voice actor’s facial expressions to make it easier to find the correct response. Questioning witnesses correctly will gain you experience points which will unlock cars, new outfits and intuition points which can be used to help find clues and question witnesses. The mechanics involved in the investigations make them the best part of the game.
Like with most Rockstar titles the game is set within a massive sandbox, which, in this case, seems incredibly shallow. The sandbox only exists for the purpose of collecting cars, discovering LA landmarks and taking part in short side quests, which only come along every now and then. The latter two will give you experience points, aside from that there’s little point to the sandbox elements. A sandbox game works best when you use it to it’s full potential. L.A Noire simply doesn’t do that.
The graphics are pretty good. The facial animations are incredible and the streets of L.A. look all right but the characters’ outfits look quite fake when compared to the detail in the facial features.
While most Rockstar games have you playing either as a criminal or a character of loose morality everything in L.A. Noire has to be done by the book. You still have the ability to drive straight into an oncoming car or kill innocent civilians but doing so will affect your overall score; you can find every clue and get all the information in each case and still get the lowest rating if you drive like a maniac.
The action sequences are something of a mixed bag. Chasing a suspect on foot works well enough as does hand-to-hand combat but the shoot-outs are surprisingly dull. The shoot-outs base themselves around cover based shooting, which is passable but not very exciting. The car chases are more exciting but somewhat problematic due to the risk of seriously damaging property or killing civilians and thus seriously damaging your score.
The AI is also somewhat problematic and occasionally buggy. During car chases civilians will occasionally try to outrun your car instead of diving out of the way leading to a dilemma between running them over and risking crashing your car and sometimes your partner will just stand on the spot, refusing to even get in the police car. Speaking of bugging out, at one point there was a serious glitch in a cutscene when an important character completely disappeared including his voice.
The games soundtrack is fantastic. Not only is it incredibly haunting and tense but it captures the spirit of Film Noir perfectly with a mix of new compositions and classic songs from the 1940s.
The story is actually quite interesting and really draws you in. The best two chapters of the game are the Homicide and Vice desks, the Homicide desk for its brutal and chilling tone (particularly its final case) and the Vice desk for its look into the seedy side of late 40s Los Angeles. The final cases in particular keep you hooked until the very end making you really curious to see how it all turns out.
Most of the characters aren’t bad but could do with being fleshed out some more. Your partners show flashes of interesting personalities but the game never really expands upon them. The best example is the main character, Cole Phelps. Apart from his back-story he doesn’t have much of a personality aside from being somewhat full of himself. He has a family, who are referenced at several points throughout the story but his children are never shown and his wife only appears in one brief scene.
As good as the story is one of the biggest problems with this game is the ending. The motivation of the final suspect is a little confusing and it doesn’t feel like you’ve really accomplished much. It just leaves you feeling really empty. Also, the final action sequence takes place in a sewer, which has to be one of the most overused levels in gaming (seriously do game developers get a bonus every time they make a game with a sewer level?)
In spite of its problems and the fact that it doesn’t really do a great deal to move the medium forward, the investigations are a lot of fun and the game does tell a good engaging story up until the end. L.A. Noire is an engaging and enjoyable little game but its simply not the titan of gaming it was built up to be.
Final Score: 4/5
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L.A. Noire (Xbox 360)