L.A. Noire Xbox 360 Review

L.A. Noire is Rockstar and Team Bondi’s take on the film noir detective genre, complete with Fedora donning cops, jazz, blues and period news reports on the radio. As always, Rockstar bring their unmatched ability to accurately capture the atmosphere of an era/emphasise all known genre clich├ęs – depending on how cynical you’re feeling. The mood, ambience and atmosphere of a post World War 2 Los Angeles, complete with Hollywood sleaze and racial tension is a perfect backdrop.

The story follows Cole Phelps, previously a Lieutenant during the war, who is now with the LAPD. Starting off as a beat cop, which acts as the game’s tutorial, you get used to the various individual aspects of gameplay that make up L.A. Noire. Eventually Phelps is made detective and begins to work his way through the various departments – traffic, homicide, arson and so on.

There are over 21 individual cases, each lasting for about an hour, which gives the game a detective TV drama feel. This near episodic approach is one I’d like to see in a few more games; short snappy chunks that leave you satisfied with what you’ve accomplished, but keep you wanting the next one. It works for HBO, right?

Phelps is a good egg, albeit a bit bland. A family man that has a morale barometer that is permanently set to “DO THE RIGHT THING”. He always plays by the book and is never impressed by those that don’t. He’s somewhat one-dimensional, especially when compared to recent Rockstar protagonists John Marsden or Niko Bellic. Most of his characterisation comes from the fact that he has a past that he doesn’t like to talk about, which is slowly revealed to you through flashbacks of his WW2 days at various intervals throughout.

The meat of L.A. Noire is the investigation and interrogation sequences. You must look around crime scenes for pieces of evidence, which in turn can be used to verify whether a possible suspect or witness is lying to you.

During these scenes, little audio snippets tell you if you’ve stumbled across an item worth taking a look at. A relief, as some of the clues are well hidden among the backgrounds, and even with this as a guide I found myself rubbing Phelps up against every single surface in the room like a lunatic, waiting for the game to prompt me to search for something. As you find new clues, they’re added to your notebook, which you can refer to during the interrogation sequences.

As I’m sure you already know, a lot has been made of the facial animation present in L.A. Noire, and with good reason – it is absolutely incredible. During the interrogations you can see the subtle tells and emotions of a character in a frighteningly realistic manner. As you quiz your suspect on the specifics of case, they’ll deliver their answer and it is up to you to decide whether they’re telling the truth, being a bit liberal with the truth or flat out telling you porkies. A subtle bite of the lip, unable to look at you in the eye? Probably hiding something from you, and you can press them for the facts. Of course, you can’t be expected to accuse someone of lying without having some evidence to back it up, and you have to pick the appropriate piece from your notebook to shoot down their lies with a bullet made of cold hard facts. It’s a similar mechanic to that found in Ace Attorney on the DS.

If you make too many wrong accusations during an interrogation the suspect is likely to get the hump with you, leading to a loss of new evidence, or them storming out. On the other hand, sometimes you’ll have worked out whodunnit well before Phelps has even the foggiest idea, and there is no way of presenting evidence to show what you know until you have got to the point where the game allows it.

The action side of L.A. Noire fares less well. Driving around the city adds little more than artificial length to the missions, while gun fights, fist fights and the occasional tailing of a suspect are functional at best. But these aren’t really what the game is about, and these instead act as little distractions between the far more interesting investigation and interrogation.

Chasing a suspect down, however, is brilliant. Sometimes Phelps will be able to draw a bead on his target with his pistol and bring them in, while in some chases you simply have to follow them to their inevitable gunfight conclusion. It is a shame that not all of them have multiple ways of bringing them to an end, but these sections are a lot of fun, barring a couple of poor balancing instances. There is also the occasional side-mission that pops up as you drive between areas during the main cases, which are five minute shoot-outs or chase sequences that can either be tackled there and then, or returned to later during free-roam mode.

In GTA IV, your environment was undeniably the star of the show. Liberty City was like someone had shrunk modern day New York and stuck it inside your Xbox. Perhaps Forties Los Angeles was simply a less interesting place to be, but the city does seem strangely lifeless in comparison. It doesn’t really need to be free roaming game, either. The option to get your partner to drive you to each location partly confirms this. As is the case for all Rockstar games, there’s plenty to find around the city for the completionists out there. Landmarks, hidden vehicles and some super-secret film reels are dotted around Los Angeles and all contribute towards achieving that 100% total.

Above all, the main thing deserving utmost praise is that L.A. Noire is a genuinely mature experience. Many said Heavy Rain was a step forward in regards to gaming “growing up”, but the second a lady slipped out of her clothes it was pretty much soft focus channel five erotica. L.A. Noire deals with everything from child abuse to murder, and a naked woman lying dead in an alley is delivered to you in a completely matter of fact and grim way. This to me seems like it could have a far more important impact than any kind of jump in facial animation technology.

L.A. Noire is another huge success for Rockstar in regards of atmosphere, storytelling and scope. You can’t fault how accurately they’ve captured the film noir genre. Much like in the brilliant Ace Attorney games, finding that one thread of bullshit in a suspect’s story and picking out the one piece of evidence you dug up to cause him to completely unravel in front of you is super satisfying, even without screaming OBJECTION into a DS.

The episodic nature of the cases, genuinely mature tone and a focus on puzzle solving and logic over twitch-based action and shooting is a refreshing change of pace, bringing back memories of classic point and click games like Grim Fandango or Police Quest, as well as the more recent Heavy Rain.

A few ill-judged action sequences, occasional leaps of logic during the interrogations and some gunplay that just about scrapes through on the positive side of functional prevent this from being a stone cold classic in the same way Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption are. But if they’re A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, this is surely Rockstar’s Return of the Jedi – not the best of the bunch, but still loads better than most of the other stuff out there. Highly recommended.

…I think by that logic Manhunt 2 is The Phantom Menace.

9 out of 10
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