L.A. Noire review
Forget it, Cole - it's Los Angeles


Los Angeles, 1947. The ‘golden age’ of Hollywood is in full swing, the movie industry selling false dreams to a public still reeling from the Second World War. Corruption and vice runs rife. Patrons of a seedy, local jazz club, clad in fedora hats and pinstripe suits, chat quietly among themselves while the band plays mournfully in the background. A troubled detective sits at the bar, lost in his drink and his thoughts. Welcome to L.A. Noire.

Released in May 2011, L.A. Noire was developed by (now redundant) Sydney-based Team Bondi and published by Rockstar Games of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption fame. You play as Cole Phelps, newly returned from the Pacific Theatre as a decorated war hero, whose passion for justice leads him to join the L.A.P.D.. While on the beat he exhibits a prodigious talent for sleuthing, drawing the attention of his superiors who see him as a potential pin-up boy for the department. You play through his rise to the rank of Detective, initially on the traffic desk but later as one of L.A.’s finest homicide, vice and arson investigators. In the process, in true noir fashion, you’ll uncover mixed morals, corruption and conspiracies that threaten to bring the entire city to its knees.

Every case begins with you sitting in your department’s briefing room, obtaining general leads from your boss before making your way out onto the street to drive to the scene of the crime. There you’ll need to find clues, interview witnesses, and then follow the evidence – wherever it may lead – in order to crack the case, bust the culprit, and receive the accolades (or admonishments) your conduct has deserved. While on the road you’ll get requests to assist beat cops and even get the opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing at dozens of real-world landmarks which all add to the iconic flavour of ‘40s Los Angeles.

Welcome to Los Angeles. Population: You, and plenty of Mad Men

What you get out of L.A. Noire will really depend on what you’re expecting. As an action or a shooter, it falls over badly. In fact, much of it can be avoided altogether – you can elect for your partner to drive to your destination and skip 90% of the game’s driving entirely (although story fans should note that this will likewise skip otherwise unobtainable dialogue that becomes very important for characterisation), and the physical apprehension of street thugs is mostly limited to incidents reported to you via police radio, which are likewise entirely optional. But if you do succumb, you’ll find the same basic formula being repeated time and time again, usually involving a car chase, pursuing criminals on foot, and/or picking them off as they leer at you from behind their human shield. Action elements worked into the main story itself don’t turn out a whole lot better. The occasional bout of fisticuffs can be easily won by button mashing and most chase sequences just require you to keep up with your suspect until they inevitably corner themselves. Players expecting the Grand Theft Auto-esque liberty of being able to rampage throughout 1940s L.A. are also going to be sorely disappointed when they realise that the game keeps a tally of the death and destruction you cause on your joyrides, and factors it in to your overall score on your current case (and besides, it’s Los Angeles – it ain’t the most fascinating city to explore). Regrettably, even the promising ‘incognito’ sequences – full of clichés like hiding behind your newspaper as your quarry walks past – are done very poorly, much to the disappointment of noir fans.

By no stretch of the imagination, however, does any of the above make L.A. Noire a bad game. In fact, it’s an excellent game, and it excels in the very elements that separate it from just about every other currently on the market. In terms of criminal investigation it is almost completely unique, and its depth makes it easily the best game of its type when compared with others in the same genre (I’m looking at you, C.S.I.). Forensic purists may be put off by the somewhat lack of intricacy involved in your investigations; while not every item at a crime scene is case-related, you’ll get a ‘chime’ whenever you pass by an examinable object, and the scenes themselves are typically small. ‘Investigation music’ even plays to let you know when you should be looking for clues, and ceases in order to let you know when you’ve found everything. Even if you’re really struggling, the intuition system – which awards you useable ‘points’ as you progress in skill and success – can be used to reveal anything you might have missed.

Don’t be fooled – this isn’t what the game’s all about

While this element is the most quintessential of the criminal investigation genre, the true skill of the player as an investigator comes in the way he or she is able to use the evidence to connect the dots, form theories and follow up on them. Never is this more the case than during interrogations, when Cole asks questions to witnesses or suspects, and the player is forced to choose between whether they believe the interviewee is telling the truth or skirting around it. You can even accuse them of telling a bold-faced lie, although if you choose to do so, you’d better have the evidence to back you up. After all, it’s not what you know, but what you can prove. Once again, the intuition system can lend you a hand if you’re stuck, but in this instance it’s far less helpful and will only rule out one of your three options (truth, doubt, lie). You’ll still have to use your judgement to make the correct decision, and you shouldn’t let this get your guard down. Despite common perception, it is – while exceedingly difficult – indeed possible to fail a case. I’m sure I haven’t yet discovered all the different ways to do so, but currently my list of Dudley Do-Wrongs include driving over the crime scene and charging the wrong suspect during interrogation. I’d love to be able to say I did it on purpose.

Much ado was made on release about the brand-spanking-new facial animation produced through Depth Analysis’ MotionScan technology, and while it didn’t disappoint, it isn’t really used to full effect in L.A. Noire. Don’t get me wrong, the level of realism in the characters’ expression is amazing, and at times it really becomes difficult to believe that they aren’t real people. The problem is that it was supposed to capture the subtleties of facial movements in order to make it possible to tell whether your suspects are lying or telling the truth in interrogations. But usually their reactions are so exaggerated that you’d have to be fairly thick to mistake deception for honesty (except Elsa, who in typical femme fatale fashion is an absolute *bleep*ing pro at lying).

Even the most hardened cynic would find it tough to criticise the excellence of MotionScan

Bizarrely, one of the most frequent criticism of L.A. Noire is its storyline. All I can assume is that critics are completely unfamiliar with film noir, or otherwise that the writers made the mistake of assuming that players have half a brain. In true noir fashion, most of the back-story is provided through a series of disjointed flashbacks. After completing a case the player will be rewarded with a scene from Cole’s past, usually taking place during his service in the war, through which we gradually get a better picture of characters’ histories and motivations. In addition, newspapers are scattered throughout the world (but always in game-relevant and easy-to-find locations) which segue into more recent scenes, giving snippets of information pertaining to contemporary events and other characters. Initially this is fairly confusing, because the relevance isn’t always clear. All I can say is this: stick with it. You’re not supposed to get everything straight away. As the game progresses things will begin to make sense, and eventually you’ll have epiphany after startling realisation which actually culminates in a brilliant and believable narrative that stays true to all the tenets which made film noir so popular. Cole’s characterisation is the case in point. If you quit the game halfway through, you’d be forgiven for thinking him a one-dimensional boy scout hardly befitting the traditionally flawed noir protagonist. But thereafter, it becomes progressively clear that this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, it’s the very way that later revelations turn initial assumptions on their heads that makes the storyline so compelling.

In this respect, I really think Rockstar has seized upon a gaming technique which really sets their games apart from the stock standard. In truth, I’m unsure whether to credit L.A. Noire’s narrative success to them or to Team Bondi, but the way the story pans out is remarkably reminiscent of games like San Andreas and Red Dead. It’s not so much what they tell you, but rather what they don’t tell you, that drives the game. You’re not given a lengthy orientation to set the scene; you get thrown straight in at the deep end and left to find things out for yourself. This can make the game harder to get into, but more than makes up for it by rewarding those faithful enough to persist with it. You don’t even need a particularly well-written plot or characters the gamer can relate with. The need to know how deep the rabbit hole goes in itself creates an incredibly powerful drive to play. The downside is that, in the absence of excellent gameplay to supplement it, you pay for it in replay value. Once you’ve solved the mysteries, doing it again doesn’t hold nearly the same interest. L.A. Noire attempts to rectify this by offering multiple pathways to solve a case (e.g. arriving in time to stop a crime vs. dealing with its aftermath), it’s always the same conclusion. Once you’ve finished the game, a completionist might try to ace every case (you get a rating out of five stars), unlock every car and find every movie reel and landmark, but for the rest of us the game’s over until we forget how the story went.


In terms of sales and critical appeal, it’s impossible to deny that L.A. Noire has been anything other than a great success. Its exploration of a genre hitherto largely untouched in the video game medium is a breath of fresh air for a market saturated with mediocre takes on overdone principles. There are plenty of things that could have been done better, but it delivers on what it promises so long as you know what to expect. In many ways it’s sad that we’ll never see another Team Bondi collaboration, since they went into administration towards the end of 2011. Still, both Rockstar and Take-Two have hinted that we might not have seen the last of the Noire franchise (at this point it seems likely that any future instalment would be set in a different city). Revision of L.A. Noire’s flaws will surely lead to practice making perfect. I, for one, will be waiting with bated breath.

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