L.A. Noire’s New Recruit

It’s been 10 days since I picked up my very own copy of L.A. Noire for the PS3 and this post will serve to give you the rundown on how I went spending my time with it and my thoughts now that I’ve “finished” the game (well, the main story at least). Note that I won’t be posting any spoilers so you can rest easy if you haven’t yet completed it.

Get yourself a suit, get it pressed…

From the moment you put the disc into the PS3 and start up this title, it’s pretty clear that you’re going to be in for a fairly unique and special experience. If you’re a fan of post-war World War 2 film-noir and just the 1940s era in general, you’ll probably be wetting yourself with excitement (almost). It’s true that there really haven’t been many (if not any) games made like this in the past, and this is certainly a new experience.

The intro video to L.A. Noire does a great job of setting the scene for the game and providing a glimpse into how the storyline might play out via a steely narrative as well asĀ  some pretty nice views of the city itself. You’re introduced to Cole Phelps, the main character in the game which you’ll be playing as, and also get to see his wife (the only time you actually see her during the whole game as it turns out) and one or two of the game’s prominent character’s which you’ll get to see more of later in-game. Enough about the intro video though, let’s move onto how this game actually plays…

First day on the beat

The first few missions in L.A. Noire serve as a kind of “tutorial” to get you accustomed to the game play mechanics which you’ll be using throughout your time with this title. L.A. Noire’s “missions” and storyline are categorised into “desks”, each more dark and macabre than the last, and with each desk comprising a handful of “cases”. There are 5 desks in L.A. Noire (listed in order of which you’ll experience them): Patrol, Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson. All up, there are 21 cases across all the desks.

The Patrol desk serves as your first stint in police work and the type of cases you’ll undertake on this desk can be seen as something that a “rookie” L.A.P.D officer might do when they first start with the department.

For example, the first case on the Patrol desk sees you investigating a crime scene at which a shooting has occurred, only your not expected to be looking over any corpses or making any ‘cluey’ connections just yet (the victim’s body is swiftly carried away in the coroner’s car when you first arrive on-scene): you’re only there to find any evidence and report back to the department. So off you go! Flick on your torch-light and go hunting around the dark and dank back alleys while making small talk with your partner. It’s during these first few cases that you’re given a chance to get to grips with the game play and also with your handy in-game notebook which serves to note down all the clues and evidence you may find, as well as the colourful characters and locations that you’ll get to experience.

As a quick side-note: L.A Noire includes some handy hint mechanisms such as controller vibration when you near a clue, and musical cues which stop playing when you’ve found all the clues there are to find on a given case. Myself, being one for utter realism, turned these features OFF before starting this game. I think it definitely plays better without these aids but your mileage may vary (and there was admittedly one instance where I was racking my brain trying to find that all-important clue on a case).

The first few cases of L.A. Noire may lead you believe (as I might have done) that L.A. Noire is going to be a rather simplistic game but thinking that way is a mistake: the cases you’ll encounter later in the game are definitely going to get you using your brain and perhaps even pulling out a “real” notepad of your own to note down nuggets of information for later review (as I did). This is especially so as soon as you make the Homicide desk and the bodies (and lies) start piling up.

Honey, I’m home!

After perhaps half a dozen (or so) cases into the game, you’ll come to notice a pattern (routine?) in the game play. Cases generally start out with a brief cut scene showing the misdeed taking place which is then followed by a cut scene of you and your partner in the L.A.P.D briefing room being….briefed…by the police captain. It’s from here, that you’re given control as you navigate your way through the ‘cop shop’ with your partner, downstairs to your car waiting outside. One handy feature is that you can make your partner drive the vehicle once you’re kerb-side – all you need to do is tell him (via your note pad) which destination you’ll be heading to. This is just as well, as I’ve found that the vehicle physics in L.A. Noire do leave some room for improvement (I’ll detail this further down below).

Once at the crime scene, you’re given a chance to go clue-finding and then question any witnesses or suspects afterwards. You are given the freedom to actually question characters first and go hunting for clues later, but I’ve found that gathering up all the clues first actually helps your cause when it comes time to ask questions. Clue-finding can be an interesting (and somewhat macabre) process, especially for the cases on the Homicide desk, which will see you bending over dead female corpses and examining their various body parts in gruesome detail. Nudity is present in the game, but it is all executed in a very mature and “adult” way.

And this leads onto the process of questioning: this is pretty much the “meat” of L.A. Noire and the part which will ultimately tire out your brain the most (!). The MotionScan facial technology touted by Rockstar’s marketing department is really all that it’s made out to be: simply awesome. You’re able to see suspects and villains shift their eyes uneasily, crimp their facial muscles and much more. In other words, you’re given a great opportunity to actually “read” your subjects just by carefully observing them during the questioning process.

The actual process of questioning sees you selecting pre-defined questions from your note pad (the quantity and quality of which will vary depending on just how good you were at finding clues at the crime scene) and then judging the subject’s responses. After each of their responses, you’re given the chance to select either Truth, Doubt or Lie. These pretty much speak for themselves, but it sounds a lot easier than it actually is. Sometimes I found myself going too easy on a suspect (by selecting ‘Truth’) and going along with their lies and half-truths, only to find that I missed out on some really important information by not being more forceful in my questioning. At other times, the reverse was true. One thing is for certain, do not accuse a suspect of lying, unless you have the evidence to back it up, otherwise you will fail miserably.

There are certain aids to use while doing case work, and these are the “Intuition Points” which you can gain by “doing well” throughout the game. These intuition points can then be used to unlock clues on a given case, or remove incorrect Truth/Doubt/Responses when questioning a subject to help narrow down the correct answer. There are also ways to redeem these points too (which I won’t go into here).

In conclusion, the cases which play out in L.A. Noire all have a fairly “familiar” feel of routine to them, and this will definitely be felt as you progress through the game. Some of you may like it, some may grow tired of it, but I think Rockstar and Team Bondi did a great job of keeping the flow of the storyline “fresh” as you progress, given the somewhat routine job that police work can be.

One thing is for sure though: the cases you’ll encounter later on in the game are LONG…at least an hours-worth each, so don’t plunge yourself into them unless you have some free time on your hands. I’ve found that playing out each case in one full sitting to be the most effective and rewarding, otherwise reloading mid-way through at a later stage can be somewhat confusing as you try to remember just what happened at the start..

I think I know you from somewhere…

Character development in L.A Noire is quite solid, and there are “flashbacks” to Cole Phelp’s past which are shown virtually after each case you complete, which serve to build the main story as well. In addition to this, there are newspapers which you can find on crime scenes and other locales in each case that given even further depth to the storyline.

Perhaps one of the best features of this game is the in-game partners which accompany you on each case. Each desk sees you “buddy up” with a different partner and as funny as it may sound, I actually found myself missing some of my past partners as I progressed through the game to the different desks. More than just the small talk they provide, your partners functionally serve to provide hints and tips to you on cases (if you need it) and can also provide directions while out on the road (there is no GPS in 1947 L.A!) that is unless you actually command them to drive in the first place, which I found myself doing a lot of. Your partners will at-times help you pursue suspects who choose to flee on-foot (always fun) and will pull their weapons and become welcome wing-men during fire fights too.

One of the things lacking in the character development side of things however, was that of Cole’s wife (let alone children). Given the decisions that Cole makes as the storyline progresses, you can’t help but actually feel like you might even hate the guy. I won’t say too much more here, but there certainly some times when I thought, “I don’t think I like Cole as much as I used to!”.

Foot to the floor…

I went into this game not really knowing what to expect when it came to in-game car physics. Unfortunately, if you’re used to the car physics in games such as Mafia 2, you might become a little disappointed with L.A. Noire. I will say that the cars in L.A. Noire generally feel too light and even a little “life less” for want of a better term. Most of the vehicles you commandeer in the game feel too “arcadey” for my liking and you won’t find any realistic handling here let alone tyre sidewall-flex which was a pretty cool feature in Mafia 2.

I am of-course nitpicking here and you’d be forgiven for wandering what I’m on about, but the fact of the matter is that I felt that having my partner drive to locales while on cases was the best way to overcome to seemingly arcade-like feel that the cars had. That said, it was interesting to note that the heavier and more unruly vehicles in the game (such as the trucks) handled a lot more realistically. I would have also liked to have seen a speedometer displayed on-screen, if not an in-car “dashboard” view.

I should say that AI traffic (both in the cases and in free roam) behaves in a mostly believable manner, and the run-of-the-mill traffic lights and intersections all seem to work as expected.

Free roam

Yes I chose to give this section of my review a seperate heading as there’s quite a bit I can say on this subject…

I was excited to find there was an actual option to “free roam” in L.A. Noire (yes I’m looking at you Mafia 2), but checking it out, I found there really wasn’t much to do while roaming about the city. Sure, there are the 40 scripted side-missions which you can respond to whilst driving about town, but I would have liked a little more detail.

It’s also not possible to pull your weapon at any time you wish. What I would have liked to see was more freedom in this regard. For example, it would have been nice to be able to apprehend speeding motorists, or go on car-chases, or (dare I say it), issue parking infringements (perhaps while playing free roam from the ‘Traffic’ desk?), and perhaps catch prowlers and burglars and have these events randomly “spawn” similar to the way that Red Dead Redemption did with its randomised events which occurred as you rode your horsey around. As it is now, you are given 40 scripted side-missions to play out, and perhaps some film reels and badges to collect across the city.

Perhaps Rockstar are saving it all for the DLCs (one can only hope) as I’d hate to see the large and detailed city portrayed in L.A. Noire go to waste. But so far, you won’t find many things you can interact with, aside from the few diners which you can enter and walk around in (and not do much else) and the huge city which you can, well, drive around in.

Conclusion

As you can probably imagine, there’s a lot more I could say about this game (mostly excellent stuff, very little negative), but I’m going to close here with a bit of a conclusion and let you make up your mind…

L.A. Noire is easily a “AAA” title, and you can’t go past the quality and polish that has gone into this game. If you enjoyed Heavy Rain, 2010’s premier PS3 crime/detective game, you will definitely enjoy this game. If you’re expecting Grand Theft Auto 5, then look elsewhere.

L.A. Noire offers up a very mature and cerebral experience from start to finish, and there are times when you’ll find the constant onslaught of cases even draining on your mind. This is a great feeling to get from a game as it shows that you actually need to think, if you want to finish up with better than a one-star rating for each case you complete.

The free roam feature is there in L.A. Noire, but it’s a little bit bare (so far). A few DLCs might fix this, or maybe not. There is no going past the fact though, that the city, it’s people and the localities are all portrayed beautifully. You’ll see period-era sign posts and bill-boards and the overall environmental immersion is there in bucket loads.

Character development, storyline and plot, it’s all here with L.A. Noire as well and you won’t find a better portrayal of the societal issues that post World War 2 L.A. encountered, mostly caused by the war itself, and certainly not helped by the rich (and corrupt). I won’t say too much here to spoil it, but given all the undertones and undercurrents that the city and its people endured, there is definitely some time for reflection as you watch the ending credits roll up and you can’t help but feel more than a little sorry for Cole Phelps either…

There is some replayability here, but I’m not sure how much. Games like Red Dead Redemption held (and still hold) reason to go back and enjoy a good time riding around and shooting things up, and helping out people in the western frontier…whether L.A. Noire will still hold the same amount of magnetic appeal in 12 months time, remains to be seen.

Still, I found myself lapping this up with a grin of my face, not knowing what I could expect as I delved deeper into 1940s L.A…and in the end, I wasn’t disappointed. If nothing else, this game should be enjoyed for the experience.

Screenshots courtesy of Rockstar Games (www.rockstargames.com)