May 16, 2011
Ever since Columbo asked for “just one more thing”, we've been hooked on sleuthing. Sadly, nothing has ever given us the chance to put our years of watching the glass-eyed master at work on TV to the test, and games that have attempted to weave a murder mystery into their stories have almost always fallen short in terms of our expectations. The less said about the CSI games, the better, for instance. Enter Team Bondi and Rockstar's ambitious LA Noire, which gives you some real 1940s murder cases to sink your teeth into, with plenty of serpentine twists and turns along the way.
Los Angeles, 1947. You've just returned from service in World War II, joined the LAPD and before you know it, you're a seasoned detective, working cases that run the gamut, from patrol right up to homicide, all the time grappling with the questionable morals of your peers and the department. You're Cole Phelps, a seemingly good man who's unavoidably drawn into a game of cat and mouse with a prolific serial killer, but that's really only the tip of the iceberg in LA Noire. As far as Rockstar is concerned, LA Noire is a break from the norm as open-worlds go, more linear than what's gone before, but no less rich in detail and atmosphere. There's a great deal of human drama too, which is almost unheard of in the video game medium.
Leaping right into the game with your first case entitled 'Upon Reflection', you start out as a wet-behind-the-ears Phelps on patrol detail, called to investigate a murder down an alleyway. Before long however, Phelps is quickly rising through the ranks within the LAPD, making a name for himself as a rising star. From patrol, you segue into traffic cases and as you progress you'll become increasingly embroiled ever deeper into catching the culprits behind a series of murders. Be warned though; detective work is by no means glamorous, and you'll come across some truly disturbing sights on your travels. LA Noire doesn't pull its punches, so examining grisly dead bodies in intimate detail is all part and parcel of each investigation. If you're squeamish, LA Noire might not be for you.
If you're hoping for GTA: Los Angeles too, forget it. We've already said this in our previews, but it's worth reaffirming that LA Noire is a completely different beast. LA is an open-world environment, but its core story is linear. However, your investigations needn't be, as your decisions ultimately shape a case, and the game's interrogations – which make up a large proportion of the game along with examining clues – are far more challenging than you might think. Before playing LA Noire, we quite fancied ourselves as a have-a-go detective, but now, we're not so sure. Reading expressions starts out easy enough, but as your cases get more serious, so too do the suspects, and some can be incredibly cool customers offering very little in their expressions.
This is testament to the movie-standard performances and quality voice work from the entire cast, which is a veritable who's who of TV character actors, from leading man Aaron Staton of Mad Men fame as Phelps, to his fellow Mad Men cast members who crop up throughout the game. Fans of the show can expect some pleasant surprises. There's something for fans of other shows too, such as John Noble AKA Dr. Walter Bishop from Fringe and there's more “oh, look! It's him out of that thing” moments besides. And naturally, every actor's performance is perfectly captured using the game's staggering MotionScan tech to map facial movements to a surprisingly realistic level, reveals anomalies in expressions and could probably even detect when a character passes wind, which in turn provides some riveting drama that is played out like any great film noir worth its salt. The work of Hammett, Ellroy and Chandler is clearly evident here, as is echoes of old Bogart flicks and more contemporary noir like Chinatown or The Long Goodbye.
Having a suspect staring coldly straight at you could mean any number of things, so whether you think they're telling the truth or lying will be down to your own intuition, unless you use one of the game's intuition points, earned through ranking up. These eliminate an answer, or if you're signed up to the Rockstar Social Club, enable you to consult the most popular answers using 'Ask the Community'. Consulting intuition points feels like a bit of a cop out, but when you've no evidence to back up an allegation of lying and you're not sure whether to call a testimony into doubt or accept it at face value, then they can be helpful in helping you nail a tricky case. You can also use intuition points to highlight clues or help you in choosing evidence when questioning, although there's helpful hints in the audio and controller vibrations when investigating a crime scene. Incidentally, these can be turned off if you want to trust your own sleuthing instincts.
While there's hundreds of clues to sift through during LA Noire's 21 story cases, there's also an enormous city to explore between cases if you want to. Immersive, absorbing, atmospheric, rich, detailed... These are all words that get bandied around all too often when describing certain open-world sandboxes, but in LA Noire's case, there aren't enough flowery descriptions or superlatives to throw at its glorious rendition of 1947 Los Angeles. As far as authentic period settings go, it's utterly exemplary, from the billboard advertising and the banners for Richard Nixon's election campaign, to the Chinese Theatre and the iconic 'Hollywoodland' sign up in the hills. It's not without its niggles, like the occasional instance of pop-up or slow texture-loading, but overall, LA Noire looks stunning.
Playing the game is an absolute pleasure too, with vehicle handling feeling solid and believable, as cars handle with wide turning circles, how you imagine a 1940s car might handle. Having never actually driven a real one we can't actually back that up though, but it just feels right. Which is fortunate because in all probability you'll be doing a lot of driving, unless you hold Y when entering a car to let your partner drive, cutting the journey short without missing any salient information or dialogue. Driving is also your only real chance to cause havoc, if you must. Hitting pedestrians and ploughing through scenery will have a severe impact upon the results for your case, so abiding by the law is encouraged as the way to go. And Phelps is a golden boy after all, as we get to see in numerous non-playable monochrome flashback scenes between cases, which build upon his murky past with the US Marine Corps in Japan and his tempestuous relationship with a man named Jack Kelso.
That's all you'll get out of us as far as the story goes. Suffice to say that the narrative, spread across the patrol, traffic, homicide, vice and arson desks, is genuinely compelling, with each new piece of evidence you uncover adding further interest and intrigue to proceedings. Some cases play real mind games with you too, with one particularly notable instance involving locating clues hidden at various LA landmarks, by deciphering typed stanzas of poetry left by the killer. It's quite possibly one of the most cerebral pursuits you'll embark upon in a video game and it'll keep you second guessing, on your toes and on the edge of your seat throughout. That goes for the entirety of the game, which is remarkably well-paced and brilliantly written.
Like any open-world however, LA Noire still has side-missions and these are issued by dispatch via your in-car radio. They're completely optional, but offer a bitesize chunk of comparatively straightforward, guaranteed action that either involves a car chase, on-foot pursuit or a shootout. Thankfully, the gunplay is as solid as you'd hope, with robust aiming and shooting mechanics and a reliable cover system, which is admirable for a game that's really centred around your ongoing investigations and detective work. During story cases, you can even skip the action sequences entirely after repeated failure, but why you'd want to is beyond us. They're excellent.
There's 40 street crimes to complete in all, as well as 30 LA landmarks to locate and 50 golden film reels to track down in ‘Free-Roam.’ Upon completing a desk, you'll get the 'Streets of LA' option, allowing you to freely roam around the city, doing as you please. Or you can attempt any case again from scratch to try and achieve that elusive 5-star rating. Once you finish Noire's story, LA is your oyster.
Free-roam also offers the perfect opportunity to mop up all of those left over achievements once you've completed the game's fantastic yarn, and if you missed anything during the story cases, you can try them again in any order you like. There's achievements for getting 5-stars for every case, maxing Phelps' rank to level 20, successfully branching your questions with a 100% success rate and more. It's a fine list, we must say, with the standard progression-based achievements joined by secret ones earned by looking outside of the box in a certain case or by outwitting an important suspect, as well as the usual 'drive every car', 'find every item' and of course, the obligatory Rockstar 'complete the game 100%' achievement.
LA Noire is a remarkable achievement. Not only is it a great game, with stellar MotionScan performances from its cast, but it might just be a real glimpse of the future of drama in video games. For that reason alone, LA Noire is an important game and a huge stride forward for the medium. In fact, it not only puts most games in the shade, but it also makes most movies look inferior. That's not hyperbole, that's just the truth. LA Noire is an unmitigated triumph.
From the score, to the voice work, every facet of LA Noire's soundtrack is pitch-perfect. The only downer is that the limited storage of a DVD – even spread across three discs - means that the audio sounds compressed, but it's not really that much of an issue.
LA Noire's MotionScan tech is as revolutionary as the hype suggests, which is no secret. Everyone's seen the trailers. What's truly astonishing is the scale and authentic period detail of the titular city, from the landmark buildings to the 95 models of real-world cars on offer; everything is spot on.
LA Noire is one of the most gratifying experiences you'll ever have on your console. It's intelligent, well thought out and hugely rewarding. Nothing beats calling a suspect into question and then backing up your objections with hard evidence. Happily, the driving and action sequences also measure up to the crime scenes and interrogations, which make up the majority of the game. It's so much more than just reading expressions and guessing the correct response though.
With side missions, LA Noire easily clocks in at around 20-25 hours. If however, you want to simply race through the story, you're still looking at a solid 15+ hours of utterly compelling entertainment. The unlockable 'Streets of LA' free-roam mode and ability to redo cases also increases longevity enormously, as do the collectibles, if that's your bag. LA Noire will pull you in and refuse to let go.
A nicely balanced list with a good amount of exploration-based, story-based and proficiency-based achievements, LA Noire's achievements are just the icing on a hugely delectable cake. If the game has you hooked – which it undoubtedly will - you'll want to grab the full 1000G, that's for sure.
On paper, LA Noire sounds like an open-world sandbox fused with an interactive movie, but in truth, it's so much more. It's groundbreaking, effortlessly engaging and utterly sublime. To miss playing LA Noire would be a heinous crime. Simply put, it's a work of unbridled genius.