L.A. Noire is something new, that’s for sure. Technology has come to a point where intricate facial expressions can be shown in real-time and not just in cutscenes, and for the first time we have a detective game where not everything is about driving around at high speed while your partner fires a gun out of the passenger side window (no offence to World’s Greatest Police Chases on PSone). But when all is said and done, does the gamble pay off?
So first of all, let’s talk about what exactly it is that’s new. L.A. Noire sees you rising through the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department, through vice, homicide, arson and more. To do so, you’ll find yourself picking up cases in a linear fashion (no GTA-eque free-roaming for missions here), chasing suspects, interrogating them – making full use of the game’s impressive facial animation sequence, which we’ve talked about plenty before – searching for evidence, and putting bad guys in jail. There’s gunplay and vehicle chases of course, but much less than in something like Rockstar’s GTA or Red Dead series, with the emphasis more on taking your time, scouring locations for every little bit of evidence, and considering everything you find before interrogating a suspect.
For the large part, it works very well. Rockstar has always been good at pulling you into a well-crafted world, and that’s much the same with L.A. Noire; it won’t be long before you’re splashing out on some smooth jazz, wearing a snazzy hat, and smoking in public places. The cars, the brands, the music – it all makes you feel like you are very much a part of 1940’s L.A. The characters, bar one crucial person, are all very believable and consistent, and the dialogue is well-written.[advert]On top of that, you get a lot of game for your money; whilst L.A. Noire is reasonably linear in nature (there are a set number of cases in the game, even if you maybe miss some clues, a location, or a suspect in those individual cases), I still racked up a gametime to story completion of sixteen hours, and that’s only responding to around ten of the calls that come over the radio throughout the game, of which there are forty. Once each desk is completed, you can go back and replay any case in that desk to improve your score or find missing collectibles (newspapers, golden film reels). There are plenty of landmarks to ‘unlock’ and hidden vehicles to find too.
So far, so good: the story’s solid, the characters are strong, and the atmosphere is authentic. It’s a shame then that where the game actually falls down is in the gameplay itself. That’s not to say it’s not good, just that in a game that long, you only get to around halfway through before you start to seriously notice the repetition. Arriving at a location, you’ll have to do one of the following: search it for evidence, interview someone, fight someone, or chase someone. There’s a little bit of variation in that sometimes the person will pull a gun instead of just smacking you one, or they’ll escape in a car rather than on foot, but after the middle desk, the game takes its foot off the gas a little and you suddenly realise just how repetitive it is. There are a couple of extra mechanics that appear later on, and one or two simple puzzles to solve, but the only real difference is that the later in the game you get the more likely you are to just find a room with a whole bunch of armed gangsters and some convenient cover – but more on that in a bit.
Probably the biggest disappointment in L.A. Noire, and something that really drags it down as the game progresses, is the pacing. Of the five desks in the game, the first is really a tutorial, but the ‘cases’ are so short that you spend more time watching cutscenes in the first hour than actually playing, and that’s pretty grating. The second desk is much better, and sees you tackling a number of quite interesting different cases. The third is made up of six cases, but they really all tie together into a longer story arc, and it’s really the strongest of all of the desks with a great and unique finale that requires some real detective work.[drop]The fourth is also made up of largely independent cases, but is rather short, and the fifth and final desk is just a mess. I’m trying to remain as spoiler-free here as possible, but that final desk features a pretty dramatic shift, and it’s not really one that pays off. It’s completely unprecedented, features a character only really mentioned about one cutscene prior, and just completely breaks the flow of the game. I’d almost go as far to say that the game could have finished around the beginning of the final desk, and would probably be better and more rounded off as a result.
Earlier I mentioned that there’s one character that isn’t quite as believable as the rest. Unfortunately, that’s Cole Phelps – the main playable character. Much like with the game mechanics, it’s not really a problem for the first half of the game, and Cole plays the role of the straight-up copper who wants to clean up the streets pretty well. However, during both the forth and fifth desks, Cole does things which are completely out of character that whilst furthering the plot are seemingly random with no real build up or explanation. That’s on top of that character which just appears randomly halfway through the final chapter and becomes crucially important, despite never really appearing before. It’s a shame for two reasons: firstly because so much of the rest of the plot is really engrossing, and the cases themselves are really well-written, and secondly because there’s one plot strand that is woven through the game via hidden newspapers which works really well, but these other elements just pop up out of nowhere with no mentions earlier in the game.
As much as L.A. Noire has been lauded for its new gameplay elements – the interrogations especially – it perhaps inevitably falls into the same trap most games trying to do something new fall into, and that’s that the last part of the game ends up feeling like grinding. Despite all the emphasis put on searching locations and interviewing suspects, in the final desk – and a little bit before that – you’ll find yourself driving to one place, shooting some guys, driving to another place, shooting some guys, and so on. It’s particularly disappointing given that L.A. Noire had tried so hard up to that point to keep the gunplay to a minimum, swapping what would likely be gunfights in something like GTA or Red Dead for a good old fashioned fistfight, and only using weapons when it felt most necessary. Also of note, the very last ‘case’ sees you pick up a flame-thrower for all of a couple of minutes, for no good reason, and it does nothing that your other weapons wouldn’t do apart from completely slow you down. It’s a strange choice, and there’s no real reason for it.
Finally, the difficulty balance is, well, not really existent. In locations where you have to search for evidence, the pad will rumble and you’ll hear a little ‘ding’ when you’re near something important, which makes things pretty simple, and once you’ve found everything the music in the background will die out. These hints can be turned off, but then it becomes almost impossible to determine what in a location can be interacted with and what can’t besides running round the walls of a room repeatedly pressing X in hope.[drop2]Better is the Intuition ability, which allows you to temporarily show all clues in a location, or remove an incorrect option in an interrogation. Warning though, whilst you won’t really run out of Intuition points if you use them sparingly – you usually get one for ranking up by completing actions in cases – you’ll probably get annoyed by the seemingly random placement of evidence when you can see where it all is.
In one particular arson case featuring a burnt-down house, the piece of evidence I was missing was not only not in the house, but in fact under a tree in the garden of the house next door. It’s not just evidence searches though; every so often the game throws up a unique ‘action sequence’ – chasing a suspect through a collapsing film set, making your way carefully through a tar pit – which mix up the gameplay a little bit. However, these sections are packed with cheap deaths; I didn’t die once from fights or shoot-outs in the whole game, but constantly died from dodgy scenery or bizarre death clauses in these action sequences. Don’t worry though: incredibly, you can just skip these sequences entirely should they be troubling you. As if there was just too much varied gameplay elsewhere.
I’m very aware that this is coming across as a particularly negative review. Let’s put it this way: it’s an action game that feels like GTA, just with a linear mission path. It’s technically sound, and really up until halfway it’s a fantastic game. Unfortunately, the game peaks at that halfway point, and never really picks that momentum back up, and loses it completely as a result of the bizarre change in the final desk. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable past that halfway point; the partners and other characters are just as good, and the cases themselves are good, but you’ll really start to notice the repetitive nature of the gameplay and the sudden appearance of important characters in the plot as the game slows down a bit.
- Well-realised 1940’s Los Angeles.
- You get a lot of game for your money.
- Something fresh and new.
- Solid and enjoyable first half.
- Unrealised potential.
- Gets very repetitive.
- Strange pacing puts the game’s high point halfway through.
- Complete mess of a last chapter.
The best way to sum up L.A. Noire is that it suffers from Assassin’s Creed syndrome. You’ll certainly get a lot of enjoyment out of it. There’s something new and refreshing about a witty, intelligent game that requires a little bit more thinking than the norm. However, it’s a bit repetitive and kind of loses its way after the halfway point. Pull an AC2 and give me an L.A. Noire sequel after a couple more years in the oven, with more variation and a more thought-through plot, and it could be something really special.