Inspect, investigate, interrogate, shoot and punch your way through Team Bondi's ambitious, well-crafted and atmospheric L.A. Noire, a dark and stylish 1940's-themed thriller in video game format.
Title: L.A. Noire
Platforms: PlayStation 3 (reviewed), Xbox 360, PC
Developer: Team Bondi
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Age limit: 18
One of the reasons I love video games is that they let you escape into a world you think is interesting. They let you explore that world, and put you in the shoes of someone every teenager wants to be at one point. Whether it is a masked superhero in Batman: Arkham Asylum, a gun-slinging cowboy in Red Dead Redemption or Dragonborn himself in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, games provide an excellent opportunity to just let yourself loose for hours. But the one profession, the one profession I was most eager to become at an early point in my life, was to be a detective. I mean, who doesn't? Investigating a murder scene, checking every spot for clues, and following through by interrogating suspects and maybe even throw yourself into an intense shootout as well. It is a dream for many, including me. So when Rockstar Games, the prestigious creators of among other titles Grand Theft Auto, announced L.A. Noire, I was hooked right away.
It was such an intriguing premise: A very challenging and hardcore detective experience set in Los Angeles in the years after the Second World War, fueled with the strong plotlines and character development which has come to be associated with Rockstar. This was a very anticipated game, also because of the fact that it was something new. The focus on investigation and interrogation, with special attention to detail, had rarely been done before. In a business dominated by mindless first person-shooter games, L.A. Noire looked like it was a breath of fresh air. And yes, indeed it was. The game is one of the most memorable games I have ever played.
The game takes you back to 1947, in Los Angeles. It's the city of glamour and wealth: People are driving around in fabulous cars, walking around in nice suits and dresses and generally living the good life, and at night, huge neon-sings shows how atmospheric and beautiful it is. We are set in the shoes of rookie cop Cole Phelps, fresh of the boat returning from Vietnam. He never fully copes from the traumatic experiences there, and returns home with one goal: to clean up the city, to continue the fight against crime. One might think he dresses up like a bat or something after reading that sentence, but no. He becomes a cop. And his keen detective sense, good condition, brutal punches and impressive shooting skill quickly makes him rise in the ranks, and he becomes a detective. This is where the game really takes of. Los Angeles might be the city of wealth and elegance, but it is equally full of murder, drug addicts, bank robberies, car thefts and so on. It is up to Cole to solve various cases on several desks, such as homicide (direct murders) and arson (suspicious burnings), all while facing of his personal problems, and uncovering the biggest secret of them all in a city where no one really can trust each other.
Like I've said, Rockstar is associated with good storytelling, and so I personally had big expectations for Cole Phelps' story. And yes, the plot is very strong in this game. Although it takes a while before you get really into it, it quickly becomes one hell of an experience that's sure to please. The plot is spread out through several types of investigations Cole takes on. We have traffic, homicide, vice and arson. It's structured mostly with one bigger plotline in each of these desks, all leading up to a masterfully executed final act. This way, the missions, or cases, feels exciting and wonderfully built up. The structure is suitably paced, starting slow, before escalating more and more. As to what exactly these stories revolve around, I won't reveal. It's something you have to experience and find out for yourself, not knowing anything beforehand. L.A. Noire is a game you have to give time. It isn't shoot-outs 24/7 here. It isn't possible to shoot down innocent bystanders, like you usually can in open-world games. It feels more personal, more realistic, and more importantly, it feels real. And that's the biggest compliment I can give this game.
But the biggest reason as to why L.A. Noire feels so very real is because of the main character, Cole Phelps. This character is the single greatest video game character I've experienced yet, easily. Cole is not a superman, an unstoppable crime solver or one with a flawless conscience. He is a flawed character, with several bad characteristics, such as a very big ego and greed for acknowledgment. He faced several difficult decisions in Vietnam, and didn't necessarily solve them very well. And these personality traits are what shine through when controlling him. You feel like a very skilled detective, but as Cole makes personal comments when breaking through in a case, or showing of his aggressive sides when interrogating a witness or suspect, you see his professionalism, but also how important it is to not fail the case. He never bothers to befriend his partners, and he isn't the perfect husband. He is three-dimensional in every way. He is human.
The cases in L.A. Noire always start out the same. You and your partner, an NPC always following you around, receive a briefing from your superior about the case. You then take your finest vehicle and drive out to the crime scene for further information and investigation. After this, you follow your leads, concluding with a solution that might not be the correct one. If you don't succeed in catching the real perpetrator, you won't start over. There is no "game over" in L.A. Noire, but just moving on, doing the next case. There is also an element of progression here. Each case is built around the same elements: Inspection, investigation, and interrogating, knitted together by driving in cars, solving some random street crimes and shooting down bad guys. As you start out, you truly feel like a rookie: You might have a hard time interrogating, finding every clue there is and so forth, but gradually, you feel more and more confident and have a better understanding of the system. It feels like routine. You truly are a detective, solving the case like the best there is. The progression of Cole reflects you as well: It's your progression as well. You feel like you progress the ranks together with him, and this is a feeling I rarely get.
A crime scene is full of clues. It is up to you to search them up. When you walk over a possible clue, the controller rumbles, and you can easily pick it up and inspect it. Sometimes the item is not of value to you, but other times, it will give you new leads for a breakthrough. For example, a case of cigarettes handed out by a bar the victim frequently attended. A photo which, after closer inspection, reveals a hidden message from someone, not meant for everyone's eyes. The comments Cole makes about each object picked up, makes it clear what's worth following through and what's not. Each usable clue is conserved in Cole's personal notebook, which contains information about the case itself, as well as every specific part of it, like the people involved, the places you'll need to visit, the clues you might need to back up an argument in an interrogation and so forth. People say the notebook is a detective's best friend, and that is absolutely correct here. You would be lost without this little book, and you use it seemingly all the time. It's truly a godsend. It is automatically updated when you find a usable clue, so it's not like you have to manually write down what you feel are important. L.A. Noire is not that brutally realistic.
If it's one part of L.A. Noire that is sure to frustrate the most, it's the interrogations. You'll need to ask questions to several people in each case, to find out more information about the victim or object, or maybe even get a man to confess the crime. Interrogations are an integral part of L.A. Noire, and that is why it's so sad that they are the most under-developed part of it. Not because of the way they are presented or something - they look great, with fantastic dialogue and such - but because of the way you control it. You get a list of questions you'll want to ask, and after the man or woman has answered, you have to decide if the person is telling the truth, hiding something, or downright lying. If you accuse the person of lying, you have to back up the accusation with a piece of evidence, something that proves otherwise. But the problem is, it's always a pain to know what to take. You'll have to study the face, since this might get you something to go on. If the man doesn't want to look you directly in the eye, he is probably lying, and such. But so many times, you have no idea. You can't get any reasonable clue from looking at the faces, so many times, you'll end up doing a wild guess. The interrogation-part of the cases has too often destroyed my case record (a summary of your work on each case, with a grade of 1 through 5 stars), which is sure to cause frustration. With that said, you feel a great sense of satisfaction if you really nail every question in a interview, but it isn't enough to hide the fact that it should be easier to decide if the suspect is lying or telling the truth.
If you need some more action to appreciate the original gameplay in this video game, don't worry: There are several shoot-outs here, which to feel a little stiff in the long run. The physics-engine doesn't impress, with enemies dropping to the floor without any conviction. So it never feels a hundred percent perfect, but the game has excellent intensity in the action sequences, which helps it be more believable. You only have a pistol, and if you want to use heavier weaponry, you'll have to pick it up from a dead bad guy. Picked up guns are more unreliable; they might only have half a magazine intact, and Cole naturally does not have any other. So it's possible that Cole might throw away the gun in the middle of shooting when you're out of ammunition. The bullets also create chaos. Due to excellent design, graphics and audio, the usable cover may be shot apart. If you're hiding behind a counter in a bar, the gunman might blow away bottles and glasses over your head, which only further strengthens the action. It's amazing. You'll sometimes be caught off guard, and thrown directly in a fistfight. This is the only aspect of L.A. Noire I don't like at all. It's stiff as hell, it's hard to get a good combo going, and it's never intense or exciting. It's just a filler element to get more variation.
The graphics engine is definitely one of the game's strong suits. The game looks unbelievably good. Absolutely every square mile of Los Angeles is created with fantastic attention to detail. All of the cars, the signs, the shops, the commercials, everything looks incredibly authentic and creates a unique atmosphere. You truly feel like living in the 40's, and I couldn't imagine a better setting for this game. The character models are also stunning, quite possibly the best ever made. The way each character looks, reacts to questions, and so forth, are just so incredibly well done. The gorgeous facial animation, plus the unique atmosphere and authentic design, make L.A. Noire one of the best looking games I've ever played.
Even better than the graphics are the splendid audio-design. While you are cruising around in your vehicle, on your way to investigate a murder scene, nothing beats turning on the radio to listen to some good, old, jazzy tunes. It sets the mood on a perfect note, with fantastic song selection that truly stands out from other open world games. The music made especially for the game also impress, with a clear focus on jazzy music, but also more sinister and deep music when the situation needs it. You're covered either way in L.A. Noire; the music is very well done and sounds fantastic. Again, as with the technical level, I just can't think of any video game with as good or better music, both licensed and made especially for the game. The voice acting is also fantastic, with a huge number of actors. Most impressive is the voice of Cole Phelps. Aaron Staton gives the character more humanity, and fits the part perfectly. It's in a class of it's own.
In conclusion, L.A. Noire is an astonishing achievement in video gaming. It's a unique experience from start to finish, giving you an emotional story with deep characters and a flawed, but interesting protagonist, a believable world, made perfect due to Team Bondi's keen attention to detail. The main gameplay elements are smartly solved, offering a detective-playing style that is original and new. It's something we've never seen before, and something that's incredibly ambitious, and yet as good as it should be. Fantastic design, incredible atmosphere, impressive on both a technical and audio-visual level, blended together with some shooting and nice driving mechanisms. It's near perfect, but elements such as the interrogations should, and could, be improved on. Due to the fact that Team Bondi is no more, a new studio could get a chance to improve everything, for a perfect sequel. But as it is now, L.A. Noire is like it's main character: Flawed, but one of the best of its kind.
The open world, Cole Phelps, intense shoot-outs, fantastic gameplay, incredible design, technically superior, the audio is perfect, great driving mechanism, emotional story, well-paced
Interrogations can be very frustrating, the shoot-outs can be a little stiff, the fistfights are not impressive
9.5/10 - Both emotionally engaging and a blast to play, L.A. Noire delivers on nearly every level.