I think that a lot of people didn’t really know what L.A. Noire was before the reviews started rolling out on Tuesday. We weren’t given too much to go on and the commercials really just presented it as another Rockstar-made open world game. If you’re considering buying L.A. Noire and Grand Theft Auto 1947 is what you’re expecting, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. That’s not exactly a bad thing, though. Let me explain.
L.A. Noire follows WW2 veteran Cole Phelps as he rises through the detective ranks of the 1947 LAPD. There’s an overall plot, and bits of Cole’s past are revealed sporadically, but the game seems to be much more interested in each somewhat-enclosed case that Cole must solve. These cases are almost like mini-stories in themselves and they give the game an almost Alan Wakeish episodic format. It works really well and I found each individual case to be very engaging.
The investigations are the slower parts of the game but they’re also the strongest parts. They typically involve searching a crime scene for clues and then interviewing witnesses and possible suspects. In effect, the game feels like an old-school adventure game (something Heavy Rain attempted but failed at to some degree). Searching for clues is very intuitive. The game makes use of little audio cues that are very subtle to let you know if you’re near a bit of evidence and each piece must be thoroughly investigated.
Once you’ve got the evidence you need, it’s time to start questioning people. The process pretty much consists of asking questions from a list, observing individuals’ answers and then substantiating or disproving what they say. You’re given three ways to respond to an answer: take it as truth, doubt it, or prove it’s a lie using some evidence you’ve already found. There’s something inherently satisfying about calling someone out on a lie and then breaking out some evidence to back yourself up. If you’ve played Phoenix Wright, it’s similar to mechanics found there.
Another important aspect of the questioning sessions is facial animation. You’ve no doubt heard about the amazing animation that L.A. Noire totes for every face in the game. People’s expressions are extremely lifelike and reading their face to tell if they’re lying or not feels very natural and immersive. The only problem is that the rest of the character models are not the best looking we’ve seen to date, so it’s a little weird to see the amazing realistic faces on otherwise somewhat awkward GTA4 models.
Also peppered into the cases is an occasional bit of action. There might be a gunfight and you’ll have to hold off a bunch of goons or save a hostage or what-not. The mechanics here are the same as in GTA4; the shooting is cover-based and somewhat clunky. Turning the aim sensitivity up helps a bit, but it’s still just not a great game for shooting. Thankfully these sections are brief and rather easy. Not only that, you can choose to flat out skip them if you so wish. The driving is skipable as well, but at least the cars feel a lot better than they do in GTA4.
You may not want to skip driving entirely, though. Team Bondi and Rockstar have jam-packed this recreation of 1947 Los Angeles with things to see. The city has been recreated down to the street-level and I’m sure anyone who is in the downtown L.A./Hollywood area often will recognize a lot of intersections. Everything in the game feels very authentic and period-appropriate. Clothing, cars, architecture, dialog; it’s all very good at drawing you into the world. You can even opt to play the game in black and white, which actually looks great and doesn’t hinder gameplay at all (though it did make me feel like I was missing out on some of the art design when I tried it).
Since this is an open world, you can take time off from your cases to explore and discover the numerous collectables. There are film reels around to find, each named after a different real-world noir movie. There are also authentic L.A. landmarks to find and various street crimes to resolve. These are all minor things in the grand scheme of L.A. Noire, but the designers do a good job of giving you something to mess around with when you’re not nose-deep in a case.
L.A. Noire may not be the open world shoot-em-up that some people would have expected from Rockstar, but that’s actually a really good thing. The episodic format of the game is great boon to its pace and style. This is one instance where a game could really benefit from DLC. The replay value of cases isn’t all that great because once you solve the case, you know what happens. You can see the other ways to get to that end, but you still know what the end will be. With DLC, the developers could easily continue to add cases to the game every month or two over the coming year and players could be challenged continually with new crimes to solve. It’s just an idea, but I hope we see something like that.
I hope that this has been helpful for you in understanding what type of game L.A. Noire is. Between this and Bulletstorm, this year has been surprisingly great when it comes to new IPs that provide somewhat unique twists on gameplay experiences. Here’s hoping there’s much more to come.