These Streets Need a New Hero
Rockstar is certainly no stranger to taking its tried and tested open-world formula and applying it to memorable, out-of-the-ordinary videogame vistas. Last year, the Western epic Red Dead Redemption was delivered unto gamers, taking a step back from the exhaust-choked inner-city and suburban streets of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, and transporting audiences instead to the dust-choked prairies and canyons of the Wild Wild West. Almost a year later to the day, and Rockstar and Team Bondi mix up the winning equation once more, as they put gamers into the role of Cole Phelps, World War II hero and aspiring police detective in 1940s-era Los Angeles in the gritty crime drama, L.A. Noire.
Comparisons between L.A. Noire and Rockstar’s other open-world games are, quite literally, unavoidable. After all, L.A. Noire focuses heavy on driving segments, gunplay, a smart and gutsy story that is broken up into individual story missions, a wide selection of vehicles, and realistic characters. However, it would be a mistake in this case to draw the lines of correlation too tight; L.A. Noire may look quite similar to Grand Theft Auto in many respects, but is its own game through and through.
The story in L.A. Noire is told primarily through the eyes of Cole Phelps, the main protagonist of the title, born straight shooter. You follow Cole during his career with the LAPD, as he works through cases in the various departments of the police force. The cases that come your way range from robbery, bank heists, murder, drug trafficking, to even attempted suicide. During the course of the story, Cole will work his way up from a beat cop through the traffic, homicide, vice, and arson squads.
In a significant departure for Rockstar games, the bulk of the gameplay in L.A. Noire consists of the investigations that need to be conducted to solve the various cases (as one would expect from a police-themed game). The detective work can come in the form of violent shootouts and high-speed car chases, but will more often take the form of searching crime scenes for clues and evidence, and engaging witnesses and potential suspects in verbal interrogations. This translates into the game being somewhat less action-oriented, and more akin to classic adventure gaming of the point-and-click variety.
Justice Isn’t Blind Anymore
The game’s vaunted MotionScan technology – a pioneering facial-animation technology, whereby real-life actors are photographed by thirty-two surrounding cameras while giving their performances, which is then recreated in-game more authentic and faithful than ever before – is used effectively to add an extra layer of depth to the interrogation sequences. Players are given the task to identify the validity of a statement based on facial tics and non-verbal cues, such as a suspect nervously glancing down after telling a lie, or his eyes darting around quickly when he’s purposely withholding a vital piece of information. In all cases, you must correctly identify whether a suspect is telling the truth, holding back, or downright lying, in which case you can prove him a liar through a piece of solid evidence that you have (hopefully) uncovered.
Completed cases are ranked from one to five stars, based on how many clues you uncovered and how well you led your interrogations, among others. I found interrogations to be somewhat difficult, and would often blunder my way through them, choosing incorrect responses more than half of the time. Luckily, the game is pretty forgiving of junior detectives like me, and offers alternate ways to solve a case (sometimes with a wrong conclusion!). For those not willing to take the risk, you are able to use certain “intuitive talents” to your advantage: Intuition points can be earned and used to find clues at crime scenes, eliminate wrong interrogation responses, and poll the community of players for their responses.
I found the MotionScan technology much more admirable in the way it elevated the quality of the character models altogether, particularly the facial details. Even outside of official interrogation scenes, I found myself sincerely marvelling at the lifelike fluidity and nuanced expressions each and every character displayed. For example, characters blink during conversation, sometimes even as a way of emphasizing a point, and I witnessed a suspect smirk in self-satisfaction as one corner of his mouth lifted slightly. Cole himself showed his bedside manner during a scene with a hospitalized victim, and as he gave his condolences, his eyebrows furrowed in sympathy. It is truly astonishing how the subtle movements of the face add to the realism; the difference is difficult to explain, and needs to be seen for oneself. One of the most stunning examples I can give of this is when I was able to call a suspect out on a lie he’d told based on nothing more than a slight tensing of his jaw as he waited for my reply – it was barely perceivable, but led to his downfall!
Aside from the beauty of MotionScan, graphics in the game is easy on the eyes. There are satisfying levels of detail: cars looks great, especially in the ‘Vehicle Showroom’ from the ‘Extras’ menu, and even the hands and fingernails of Detective Phelps look realistic during close-up shots. At certain point in the game, when the weather shifts to rain, pedestrians on the street will react realistically, running to get under cover or taking out their own umbrellas to keep dry.
The Sweet Sound of a Police Siren
Sound, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. The soundtrack consists of smooth, relaxing jazz music, including many legendary recording artists such as Dizzie Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong. The somber, moody music fits the tone of the game well, and really helps the immersion in that time era. However, some of the pieces, such as the investigation music and a few of the driving tracks, get repetitive and a little jarring. Worse still is the in-vehicle radio programming – the developers went to great lengths to include actual 1940s commercials, audio dramas, and other authentic pieces of radio. However, whereas in the Grand Theft Auto series the radio programs were entertaining and there were many stations to choose from, the broadcast in L.A. Noire is uninteresting and unremarkable; there is only one station on, and it’s just easier to tune the chatter out completely.
The ambient sound effects of Los Angeles are also disappointing: the loud Ding! every time a traffic light changes is annoying, and I’ve never experienced so much honking and blaring of horns! It’s as if the drivers in L.A. either suffer from some of the shortest tempers known to man, or car horns have just been invented and everyone’s itchy to try out their new acquisition. Prepare to be honked at. A lot. Step one foot off the sidewalk, and a whole row of drivers is ready to honk at you. Drive through an intersection – honking. Swerve around a car – more honking.
The actual driving segments fill up a major part of the gameplay. This is the area I was perhaps the most disappointed in. The city of L.A., in all its asphalted and sun-scorched glitz and glam, is vast and sprawling. True to its roots, Rockstar has provided a large playground to maneuver around in. There are three police stations scattered within the city, all of which serve as central hubs at some point during the story. Thus, you’ll have an opportunity to make your way to every corner of this urban jungle. Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot to do in it. Apart from main storyline cases, really the only other diversion are street crimes, unrelated to the plot or the major case you’re currently on, that pop up during pre-set times of the day. An officer might call for back-up with a bank robbery, for example, or an armed individual that needs to be subdued. Make a detour to the spot indicated on your map, deal with the disturbance, and resume your case. Repeat ad nauseam.
There are a total of forty street crimes, and they do offer a small boost to experience. You can even return to a previously completed section of the game and play a ‘Free Roam’ version of the map, which exclusively offers the chance to solve street crimes. The trouble is that, when they do pop up on your radar, you’re usually on your way to a plot-related location, and taking care of the street crime would require an oftentimes lengthy detour and completely take you out of the flow of your case. There is little appeal to complete these cases, other than the experience bonus.
With the exception of the street crimes and case-related chase sequences that have you trying to veer a suspect vehicle off the road or into an obstacle, there seems little reason for the wide and sprawling urban cityscape the game presents. There are golden film reels hidden away in some places for you to find, but that’s just a cheap collection quest disguised as a treasure hunt. I got bored very quickly of getting in my car and driving from point A to point B to get to the next location, with nothing of note to do on the way (by the way, the critical path clocked in right around 20 hours, without any street crime side quests). The driving segments just seemed too superfluous, and, more importantly, they took a huge bite out of the significance of the impressive environment created by the developers. With very little reason to explore and “live” in my surroundings, the digitized city of L.A. just become somewhat of a cheapened experience for me.
Going Through the Motions
Let me say that I understand the need for police procedure, but the game’s (or Cole Phelps’) strict adherence to “do it by the book” became repetitive as well. The pattern of “inspect body, comb crime scene for clues, interview witnesses, conduct interrogation, (maybe) chase a fleeing suspect and/or participate in a shootout, solve case” can only be repeated so many times before it becomes a bit stale. There were times when the game’s pace picked up a bit, namely the Werewolf serial killer cases and the cases near the end of the game.
A Special Commendation
Overall, the game’s greatest achievement is its robust and mature story, which hits multiple satisfying notes throughout. This game is certainly designed with adults in mind, and in his investigations, Cole will come across some of the vilest individuals L.A. can offer. Topics befitting the time and circumstances of this world that Cole will come across include statutory rape, racism, abuse, and support of Communism.
The story follows Good Cop Cole Phelps, Jack Kelso, a squadmate of Cole’s from Okinawa, and Elsa Lichtmann, the Blue Room’s sultry singing attraction and German refugee. As Cole’s career with the LAPD takes off, flashbacks show scenes of his time with the Marines during World War II, and introduce Jack Kelso, a bit of an unfriendly rival to Cole. Scattered at several crime scenes, Cole can also find current-edition L.A. newspapers, which will, when inspected, reveal some inside information on other L.A.-area persons who become more prominent to the story as the game moves on.
Cole Phelps shows himself to be a by-the-book kind of cop, with no wiggle room for interpretation of the law and no gray area in his life whatsoever. By stark contrast, he is the ultimate antithesis to the “heroes” from previous Rockstar titles. He is so much the straight arrow that he quickly becomes annoying and unlikable. Fairly early on in the game, Cole is teamed up with grizzled LAPD vet Rusty Galloway; the banter between the two of them (during which Rusty embodies all the jaded no-nonsense sensibilities of a 1940s L.A. cop) tends to get quite hilarious.
Cole is often referred to as the police department’s new “golden child” and “a new face for the department”, and it isn’t until the final act of the game that the player sees that Cole was purposely set up as a lily-white poster boy for morality. Eventually, he suffers a tremendous fall from grace, not entirely without his own doing, and the player begins to see his repressed human side; the fact that Cole is fallible and capable of doing wrong plays powerfully into making him relatable, as the rug is pulled out from under him and his world comes apart at the seams.
Something surprising happened to me as the game came to a close: despite the fact that I failed to see all the connections until the end, I found myself not wanting the story of Cole, Kelso, and Elsa to end. I was utterly caught up in the fictional world portrayed by this game, and sucked right into the story. It speaks to the ability of the story’s writers that they knew exactly how to lay the trail of breadcrumbs without me even knowing it, thus ensnaring me in the end.
The Final Verdict
L.A. Noire is a game that is designed from the ground up as an adventure title with a modicum of action thrown in. However, being set in Rockstar’s typical action-oriented, open-world setting leaves it wanting for purpose at times. I was also a little disappointed that there didn’t seem to be a way to end a gunfight in any non-lethal way; warning shots or disabling shots didn’t work for me, and a bullet to the heart was always my only way out. Even though it can seem a little aimless at certain points, it excels in the area all adventure games ultimately hold most dear: its story. It tells a finely crafted and intricate tale that richly rewards those who follow it along to its conclusion. Along the way, it uses MotionScan technology to revolutionize and set a new standard for the way characters are digitally represented in games. If you enjoy adventure games, mysteries, or just a well-conceived story, then this game is definitely recommended!