Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Review: L.A. Noire (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)

When L.A. Noire was first announced, my reaction was lukewarm to say the least, me having been one of the seemingly small number of people who disliked Rockstar’s previous efforts such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption. I don’t necessarily consider these to be bad games, however I do feel that they are highly overrated and I was unable to find a connection with these titles despite multiple attempts at getting into them. Fearing the same of L.A. Noire, I dismissed it until the early reviews came out and I was intrigued by both the unique facial recognition software and the focus shifting from an open world, “go anywhere and do anything” sandbox game to a more focused and linear crime drama. While this shift in game structure might spurn those hoping for a more immersive sandbox game, I found it to be an engrossing, stylish and highly rewarding experience that exceeded my expectations on almost every level.
L.A. Noire has two characters at its core, the first being the faithfully recreated post-war 1940’s era Los Angeles and the second being the protagonist, incorruptible police officer Cole Phelps.  The city and time period is faithful not only in its construction but also in reflecting the political climate at the time. This was an era where crime was rampant, the mob was in power and police corruption was tied into it all, and this is what you get immersed into when playing L.A. Noire. The first difference you will notice from earlier Rockstar games is that you are playing on the side of good, as opposed to a rogue criminal who can pull out a gun and kill people in the street. As an office of the law, you are asked with solving a series of murders that gradually get more interesting and you rise through the ranks of the LAPD as you progress. The main story follows a series a gruesome murders that all link up in the end, while the story of Cole Phelps is mainly revealed through in-game dialogue and expository flashback scenes to his time in the war. While Cole is able to throw punches with the best of them, he embodies the good cop cliché to a point where feels wooden and underdeveloped as a protagonist. His partners seem to have more personality and they get more colorful as you progress through the game.
As a detective, you occasionally see action in the form of car chases and shootouts, however the bulk of your time will be spent finding and collecting clues, and interrogating suspects and witnesses. The clues you find lead you to persons and places of interest, and interrogations yield more clues that push you closer towards finding the truth. This is where L.A. Noire finds its stride and the gamer really begins to feel like a detective. The aforementioned facial recognition software is not only used to make the game look good, but it’s integral to successful interrogations. When asking questions, you have to review your notes based on the clues found and deduce if the person is telling the truth or lying. You have the choice to believe what they say, call it into doubt or outright accuse them of lying. If you accuse someone of lying, you will need to present evidence from your notebook which backs up your conclusion. Paying close attention to their facial expressions and body language is key to making the right decision, as getting it right will yield more valuable information while doing it incorrectly can bring the interrogation to a halt. This requires a level of attention paid that is uncommon for games and it will take a few cases before you are comfortable with your detective prowess. To aid you in solving the harder cases, you are awarded “Intuition Points” as your rank rises, and you can cash these to reveal clues or ask the online community (via the “Social Club”) what the answer is to a particular question. However, you will usually solve the case even if you bungle the investigation, so the game is very forgiving.
Gameplay in L.A. Noire is a mixed bag that will no doubt polarize gamers. The core of the game is finding clues and interrogating suspects and the controls are intuitive enough to complete these tasks without frustration, however gamers know early on that finding clues is vital and this often leads to exhaustively searching areas to ensure nothing is missed. Handling interrogations and accessing notes and clues are relegated to simple button presses and you have ample time to make your choices, so the game is very forgiving in that respect. The driving and gunplay controls have a classic Rockstar feel to them, which is both a good and bad thing. On one hand, the generous auto-lock aim on your guns ensures a quick resolution to gunfights, however the controls can be glitchy and hyper-sensitive at times. The driving controls are also good for the most part, however these 40’s era cars handle like shopping carts and you are bound to crash during high speed chases. Additionally, the cars don’t corner or reverse well, so hitting a tree or another car during a suspect pursuit can cause you to halt and you’ll be unable to catch back up.
Rockstar Games and Team Bondi have done a fantastic job in bringing the post-war city of Los Angeles to life and driving around is in itself a treat for the eyes. Careful attention has also been paid to making the characters look and act appropriate for their time period, so the fashion, music and dialogue is all extremely well done.  Unlike GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption, which offered a massive world in which there is an inexhaustible supply of missions, the game guides you down a very linear path with little room for deviation outside of some ad hoc street crime missions and some scattered collectibles. In many ways, L.A. Noire is the cousin of 2010’s Mafia II and the two games share many similarities, especially in the fact that they offer a sandbox-style world with a linear story-driven campaign. I actually view this as a strength, since plentiful side-missions on top of the many hours already spent doing detective work would be overkill.
At the end of the day, L.A. Noire proves to be gaming experience unlike any I have played before and it hit the right spot between being challenging and rewarding. Getting answers wrong and missing clues can lead to some frustration, but it rarely impacts the overall story progression and you quickly learn how to use your deductive reasoning skills when working on a case. Not every element in the game works, but what it succeeds in doing is putting you in a time and place and making you feel like a part of it. As the title would suggest, this is straight out of the Film Noir era and fans of games like Mafia II and films like L.A. Confidential will feel right at home here. For those hoping for another Rockstar sandbox title with plentiful side missions and countless story threads, rents this one first and see if you like it.
Note: None of the reported glitches, crashes or game freezes occurred during my time with the game. Also, note that the Xbox 360 version is spread over three discs while the PS3 version is only one.
Rating: 8/10

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