Release Date: May 17, 2011
Publisher: Rockstar Games
ESRB Rating: Mature
At this point in Rockstar’s history as a video game company, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume that their next title would be along the same lines as Grand Theft Auto, Bully, or Red Dead Redemption—all of which carry most of the same core concepts. It is this fact that makes L.A. Noire, their latest game, such a welcomed surprise. While it doesn’t reinvent the game world the way GTA 3 did or manage to cleanse itself completely of the mechanics of their previous titles, L.A. Noire is an achievement as an industry-advancing game that treats the player as an intelligent adult instead of a babbling teenaged boy who is only compelled by headshots and half-naked ladies.
L.A. Noire, which is set in Los Angeles in 1947, puts players in the shoes of Cole Phelps, a “by-the-books” detective who struggles with the corruption of the LAPD, as well as with internal conflicts resulting from his actions as a soldier during World War II. The game begins with Cole as a simple patrolman and continues as he gets promoted to the assigned desks of traffic, homicide, vice, and finally arson. Each desk comes with its own set of cases as well as a new suit, car and partner.
What sets L.A. Noire apart from previous Rockstar releases is how little the game focuses on action sequences and the open world mechanic. For anyone whose interest in this game is based solely on experience with Rockstar’s other games, know right now that this is not Grand Theft Auto in 1947. If you want to be able to run around a city, stealing cars and popping pedestrians in the face, this is not the game for you. If, however, you want to be absorbed into the lives and motives of dynamic characters in a fully realized city and time period, L.A. Noire will reinvigorate your excitement in video games.
Cole’s main tool for bringing crooks to justice is not a weapon, but a notebook. With the ability to open it at any time, the notebook is the player’s main tool for reviewing evidence in investigations and the high points of each case. There are several locations the player must travel to for every case, each containing clues to discover and people to investigate. Clues are found by simply walking around a location until the controller vibrates, notifying the player of object that can be explored. When a sufficient amount of evidence has been discovered, investigations can begin.
There are preset questions to ask each person of interest, which are determined by the evidence found at the crime scene or person’s house. To successfully advance the investigation, the player must figure out whether or not the person is lying by interpreting their facial expressions. Rockstar put an incredible amount of effort into their facial animation system, choosing to record actual actors and morphing the footage with the character models. The result is the most realistic example of facial animation in video games, and it is both convincing and captivating. The investigations quickly become the real meat of the game, to the point where you will almost want to skip everything in between to get to the next interesting character.
The problem is that those in-between segments do exist and somewhat tear up the continuity of the game. The majority of these segments turn out to include elements taken from Rockstar’s previous games that they can’t seem to completely shake off. For instance, driving or riding to and from locations in GTA or Red Dead Redemption was very necessary in order to grasp the complexity and intricacies of each of their game worlds. While L.A. Noire contains a fully realized city in which the player can drive around, it doesn’t present any reason to do so.
There are other small hiccups in the gameplay- such as the rather annoying cutscenes of Cole’s backstory haphazardly spliced between each case- but fortunately none of them are enough to detract from the innovation or fun that is to be had with the core of the game. While it might have been to Rockstar’s detriment that they were too afraid to ditch every gameplay mechanic that made them so much money in previous games, L.A. Noire is still an impressive accomplishment that creates an exciting hope for future games.