In L.A. Noire, players take on the role of Cole Phelps, an up-and-coming detective who must make his way through the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1947.
Jeff BakalarEditor at Large
Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.
Following up what we thought was 2010's best game of the year is no small task, but if there's one developer/publisher powerhouse that can handle the pressure, it's certainly Rockstar Games. From a pairing with Sydney-based developer Team Bondi, L.A. Noire was born, with preproduction dates ranging as far back as 2004.
First, a little background: L.A. Noire is a crime drama-thriller set in 1940s Los Angeles. Players assume the role of Cole Phelps, a war-hero-turned-cop who is in the process of making his way up in the ranks of the L.A.P.D. In a notoriously violent time in L.A.'s past, Phelps finds himself confronted with an unsettling number of possibly connected murder cases.
Of course, the game borrows its name from the film noir genre, dating back to crime dramas of the '40s and '50s that used stylized cinematography and the high contrast of gritty black and white for dramatic effect. While L.A. Noire is presented in color, players have the option of choosing black and white in the display settings.
Every effort was made to recapture the Los Angeles of 1947, from the painstaking details of a residential kitchen to the historic landmarks on the outskirts of town. Aerial photographs, blueprints, public records--just about every resource available--was consulted in the game's reconstruction of the city and the result is absolutely astonishing.
An incredibly ambitious undertaking, L.A. Noire is mostly unlike anything we've played before. It's perhaps best to describe the game as a long-running season of a television crime drama. While there is a season-long overarching main storyline, some episodes (or here, cases) will not necessarily touch on the main arc. Instead, they offer relevant, entertaining subplots and interesting secondary characters that dwell within the same universe.
Playing these cases one session at a time serves as a satisfying way to progress through the game, though major checkpoints are logged and saved if a case must be interrupted before its completion.
L.A. Noire's gameplay is broken up into three basic pillars: crime scene investigation, interrogation of witnesses or persons of interest, and traditional action. These three mechanics are presented within individual cases, or chapters, throughout the course of the game. Phelps starts as a patrol officer, and as you solve cases he moves up to being a traffic detective, a homicide detective, and so on. As Phelps receives promotions, the cases become more difficult and complex.
We loved the ability to carefully comb through a gruesome crime scene, separating evidence from circumstantial objects. The game's powerful score is used to give the player audible tips as to where clues might be and when a specific area has been satisfactorily examined. There's no doubt your first inspection of a lifeless body will be unsettling, but like a hardened detective, after a while you've seen everything. There's certainly an initial shock at the amount of interactivity at the player's disposal.
As touched upon earlier, Team Bondi had technology developed specifically for the game called MotionScan. A process that involves 32 simultaneous HD cameras, the tech made possible what is arguably L.A. Noire's "killer app," the interrogation. Usually taking place after a crime scene investigation, a witness or person-of-interest interrogation must be conducted to move a case along. These delicate interactions can lead you to a killer's front door or send you spiraling into a void of dead ends.
In practice, MotionScan is truly amazing. It sets the bar for in-game performances so high that traditional motion-capture technologies already seem ancient. We'd be shocked not to see MotionScan show up in more games after its success in L.A. Noire, and we're ready to have it used in not just facial scanning, but full-body capture as well. The performance of the game's star, Aaron Staton ("Mad Men"), comes through as it would in a movie. After a while, it's tough not to imagine these characters as real people.
Using collected evidence and testimony, players are given a set of questions to ask. Players must react to a subject's response by labeling it as truth, a lie, or "doubt." A wrong suspicion can turn a conversation sour or require you to present collected evidence.
While these interactions are among the game's best, they are also some of the most difficult. At times we would have sworn a suspect was misleading, only to have our suspicions come crashing down. An intuition bonus-point system is put into place here, giving the player a chance to eliminate a wrong answer or some other clue to aid in making the correct decision.
Players will live and die by Phelps' trusty notebook, a complete index of each case's suspects, evidence, clues, and more. It's this notebook that Phelps consults for all questions and finger-pointing.
The final gameplay element that will be most familiar to gamers here is traditional action, which is on par with what we've seen in Grand Theft Auto IV or Mafia II. It's simple cover-based gunfighting with an occasion fistfight here and there. There are a handful of exciting car chases tossed in for good measure, too, but when it wasn't necessary we opted for our partner to drive to the next stop.
L.A. Noire at times can suffer from some slow pacing. As in real police work--especially 60 years ago--things take time. Players will need to make various phone calls throughout a case to relay messages or check in with police headquarters. That said, we never felt lost or stuck during our play time. After a while, though, these motions feel more and more redundant. Players will certainly find themselves in a groove after 10 or so cases.
The difficulty Team Bondi and Rockstar were faced with here wasn't necessarily the creation of a gripping story, but rather disguising the narrative as playable interactivity. Most of the time L.A. Noire is able to convincingly guide the player through a specific story arc, but occasionally things can fall out of sync. If questions aren't asked in a certain order, the context and delivery of them sometimes felt awkward.
Because there are so many story branches, potential witnesses, places of interest, and more pieces to each puzzle, no two players will see the game the same exact way. A case that takes one player 45 minutes to solve may take another an hour and a half, all because the second player didn't find the matchbook with an address written inside it.
So is L.A. Noire fun to play? We think so, but there's no definitive answer as it will ultimately depend on your patience and willingness to allow the story to captivate you. There can't be any ignoring of cut scenes in the game--they're just too pivotal. Gamers who might be expecting a sort of Grand Theft Auto 1940s experience will find they were sorely mistaken; "action game" is among the last of the descriptive labels we'd use for L.A. Noire. It's tough to pick up the game for just 20 minutes. To play it properly requires a solid investment of time.
We found we wanted to continue playing just to see what would happen next, a sort of modular experience that reminded us of the feeling Remedy's Alan Wake was able to instill. We're sure L.A. Noire will draw comparisons to experimental titles like Heavy Rain, but while both games allow us to "play a story," they accomplish this with a very different set of tools.
Simply put, there is an overwhelming amount of content in L.A. Noire. The game spans three Xbox 360 discs and nearly fills an entire PlayStation 3 Blu-ray disc. A play-through clocks in at roughly 15-20 hours, not taking into consideration the street crime missions and other optional undertakings at every player's disposal--so there's no lack of value here.
A title as ambitious as L.A. Noire is bound to catch its fair share of criticism for pacing, redundancy, and occasionally awkward story flow. However, we simply cannot ignore the sheer amount of production value, innovation, and forward-thinking the game radiates. Once again a Rockstar title has broken boundaries, but this time it's in a whole new direction. L.A. Noire is not only something totally new for the modern gamer, it's one of the first cerebral titles that will force people to rethink the potential of video games.