It’s a thundering, rainy evening. I pull up to a crime scene with my partner, the tyres of the car squelching to a stop in the wet mud. I take a step out of the car and make my way past the reporters and flash photography, up to the cordoned off area to speak with the officer on duty about the situation. I’m given the details, and find myself right in the middle of a murder investigation. There’s a body, some footprints, and a variety of possible clues scattered around the area. A shocked witness sits nearby beneath an umbrella, ready for questioning. It’s time to get my hands dirty and solve another gruesome case. This is LA Noire.
LA Noire is not Grand Theft Auto, plain and simple. While the free-roaming, car driving, gun-toting action is certainly all very derivative of the classic GTA style open-world fun we’re all used to, it’s all been severely restricted to make for less of a balls-out, kill-anyone-you-want-and-blow-everything-up sort of experience. You can’t run anybody over (you can hit them, but they certainly won’t bounce off your bonnet or rag-doll under your wheels, or even fall over for that matter), you can’t use any weapons at all unless the situation calls for your character to automatically whip out your pistol, and things very rarely explode, if ever.
You are Detective Cole Phelps, a goody-two-shoes war veteran turned police detective, rising through the ranks of the Los Angeles police force as you solve a sequence of murder cases strewn across the glitzy cityscape of downtown L.A. and the false paradise of Hollywood suburbs. Beginning life in the game as a run-of-the-mill beat cop patrolling the streets, Phelps finds himself taking the initiative in a standard murder case, leading to a successful apprehension of the prime suspect, which leads to his first promotion and then – as the game progresses – a shuffling of roles and priorities which alter the story in fairly necessary but entirely unspectacular ways.
The focus of LA Noire, as emphasized throughout their marketing campaign, is the incredible new technology that allows real, live faces of actors to be recorded via multiple cameras and integrated into the 3D space that is the game. Actors have clearly devoted days of their time to simply sitting in a chair and acting with nothing more than their heads and voices -something I imagine to be quite frustrating as an actor, where your profession involves a lot of hand gestures and general movement. The end product is something absolutely fascinating that you see an unbelievable amount of throughout the 10-12 or so hours of gameplay, as it’s not only a particularly intriguing technological feature, but also absolutely imperative to the gameplay itself.
The core gameplay is based, as you may have guessed already, on being a detective, however it’s not all just about finding clues and shooting baddies – it’s almost all about interrogating criminals and witnesses alike throughout the 20+ murder cases you’re required to solve for the duration of the game. Interrogation involves precisely what you would expect in the real world, sitting down with an individual, deciding what to ask them, and then judging their real-life facial expressions and claims of innocence as one of three possibilities: Truth, Doubt, or Lie. Does that sound a bit too vague? Well I’m really sad to say that it’s actually the case throughout the game, too.
The point of the three judgements you can make for each individual question you ask a P.O.I (person of interest), is that you take into account any evidence you may or may not have collected from specific crime scenes or locations relevant to the case, and then make a call on whether that person is lying to you or not. Now, with the amazing facial animation technology and the absolutely top-notch acting from the actors involved, this is truly a unique and never-before-seen experience for me, and I found myself totally enthralled by the illusion of realism and consequence for the judgement calls you make and the events that play out as a result of it.
Sadly, there are right or wrong answers for every question, and claiming that somebody is telling the truth when they are in fact lying will count as an incorrect answer, which is all well and good, but when you find yourself absolutely certain someone is lying, only to somehow use the wrong piece of collected evidence to prove it is absolutely the most frustrating thing in the game. There were more than a few instances when someone would claim not to have been anywhere near the victim, yet you have some hard evidence that says they were; problem is, you have TWO pieces of evidence that prove the same thing, and yet for some reason, only ONE of them will actually count. So you know the guy is lying, you have more than one clue to nail them to the wall for it, and yet you still end up with that infuriatingly sombre ‘plinky plinky plonk’ noise that basically means ‘You got that wrong. Idiot’ (at least that’s what I imagined every time, causing me to shout angrily in a fit of rage). When you’ve spent 30-45 minutes investigating a crime scene for all the evidence, and you are 100% certain of an individual’s involvement in a case, and yet you still get it wrong in the most black and white of ways, it’s almost enough to make you want to switch the game off outright. Thankfully, I forced myself to continue on more than one occasion, and finally made my way to the very end. While the sometimes incredibly anger inducing difficulty of the interrogations is quite disappointing, it is certainly still a very fun side to the game, and when you go with your gut only to find you got every answer right, it is one of the most rewarding feelings to be able to walk away thinking ‘That’s right, I know my shit.’.
While the interrogations may feel a little bit flawed and unfair at times, the clue finding portion of each case is usually quite entertaining. This typically involves walking around a variety of locations per case and investigating certain items and usually a dead body for clues or evidence that might (should, but possibly won’t) help to prove somebody is lying later in the investigation. Sometimes this involves a fun little mini-game where you might need to unlock a secret compartment in a violin case or open a globe-shaped ash tray which is also a puzzle. Searching an area for clues has quite an interesting musical aspect to it, where when an area has a number of helpful items you can study, certain elements of a string band, like the bass or violin, will play different notes and tempo depending on how close you are to a clue or even how many there are left in the area. This was quite helpful in most instances when I wasn’t really sure where to look, but it did start to become something you could all to easily use to rest on your laurels, knowing that once the music stops, you’ve found everything and there’s no need to search any further.
In order to make these scenes more frustrating to those who might simply walk around a room spamming the ‘A’ button to find any and all clues without even looking, the locations are often littered with pointless crap, like empty beer bottles or boxes of washing detergent. At first I thought it was quite clever, that it wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought to gather evidence, and that I was really going to have to think about the items I was looking at and take into account whether they may or may not be relevant, but no, the moment you pick something useless up, you are immediately told out loud by your character that the item you have in your hand is ‘incidental’ or ‘no use to the investigation’, taking out any need for it to even be there and/or the excitement of thinking you might have found something. There’s no further investigation needed on anything unless it is 100% relevant to the case, and eventually you learn what all of the 10 or so items are that you never need to pick up, and learn to just ignore 75% of what you find in crime scenes.
The interrogation and investigations are basically half of the game’s content, while the other half is where the real action-meat of the game is at. Shootouts, chasing down criminals on foot, and driving make up the rest of it, and are where a lot of the fun is to be found, but it’s a different kind of fun to the investigations themselves, and almost simply more of a distraction or breather from the hard work than anything else. Shootouts are never challenging, and the driving is one of the easiest I’ve played before (that didn’t stop me from hurriedly driving into the back of passing cars when trying to do a completely unreasonable 3-point-turn in the middle of a busy road, constantly) and flying through the middle of pedestrians, parked cars, garden fences and passing trams never ceases to be fun. It’s certainly nice to know that the developers didn’t take away all of the fun of a typical action game in favor of the far more mature and slow-paced investigatory work involved in the rest of it, because if it wasn’t for the frequent chase scenes or whack-the-weasel shooting gallery moments, I think my mind might have frazzled out and perhaps even got bored.
Unfortunately, some of the parts of the action parts are even ruined a little with the inconsistencies in what can or can’t happen at times. For instance, in some foot-chase scenes you are able to fire your weapon into the air to stop the assailant in his tracks without having to kill them, and yet most of the other times you aren’t allowed that option and you will likely be forced to kill them, either in a hostage situation or in a bog-standard shootout (with precisely zero challenge). Other times, and possibly what angered me most, involved the car chases. While some of them were great fun and led to some amazing moments involving randomly superb driving skills, I couldn’t help but notice 90% of the time that the car I was chasing was on rails, and was performing the most unrealistic and impossible maneuvers possible. Sometimes I would be hot on the trail of a fleeing suspect’s vehicle, and then right before my eyes they would make a 90 degree turn and drive down a narrow alleyway, with absolutely no time for me to follow suit, meaning I would do a long and arduous skid to a stop, try and turn around, finally make it to the alleyway entrance and then be told I had lost the fleeing vehicle; not in the least bit fair or realistic, but part of the game all the same. Thankfully, if you find this sort of thing too frustrating and could be put off continuing the game should you get stuck, the game offers you the opportunity to skip any action sequences that involve the possibility of repetitive failure and frustration, and while I never had to use it, I appreciated that the option was there if I ever felt the need.
While the game as a whole was a lot of fun to play, both with its flaws and its innovative and fun new features, it certainly wasn’t a 10/10 game for me (a lot of review sites shockingly gave it 100, essentially ignoring any of the obvious flaws and pretending they simply don’t exist), and I would probably rate it around 8 instead. The graphics were good, but not amazing, and the game was entertaining. The biggest things I’ve taken away from my experience with it were the brilliant acting and facial animation, and the interesting use of it along with interrogation. Sadly, the lack of any real consequences for your actions and a linear story that sometimes doesn’t make sense and even feels a little frustrating at times make the plot something that didn’t strike me at all, and even left me feeling indifferent about the game’s protagonist and his general attitude.
The overlying story wasn’t particularly enthralling, and by the final scene I was left a little confused about the actions of certain characters and even slightly bewildered by the actions of others. On top of this, it was a real shame to find that despite being called ‘L.A Noire’, the game and story itself sadly failed to bring any real grit or elements of the genre it implies from it’s title to the game. Almost constant sunny skies and bright colours make this much less of a Noire experience than was initially expected, and the lack of any kind of classic narration over any part of it means the whole thing has a rather disappointing atmosphere, one which I would have loved to see rammed full of rainy black and white moments and overcoat-clad sleuth moments. However, it is possible to play the game in total black and white, with a handy setting the options menu; I tried it myself for a little while, but because I’d already done about three cases in colour, it felt like too much of a change not to have had from the beginning. It definitely seemed cool, however, and perhaps playing the whole game with it on might have completetly changed my opinion on that matter.
LA Noire is definitely a must-play game, certainly not for the story or style, but at the very least for the fascinating character animation, acting, and the entertaining blend of action and detective work.