When I was younger, I often tried to imagine what the ultimate game would be: combining together everything from a flight sim to a fighting game, with RPG elements and puzzles too. The problem, once I started thinking about it, was that if you weren’t good at any one part of the game, then it’d ruin it for you. Hence people who like driving buy driving games, people who like fighting buy fighting games, and people who like inappropriate contact with women on public transport buy anime. Previously, the closest any game had come to my naïve and greedy idea of the perfect game was probably the sandbox games like GTA or Saint’s Row. Clearly, someone there had similar dreams in mind when they set about creating LA Noire, the latest sandbox crime puzzle action RPG story pixel-hunt thriller game movie from Rockstar Sydney.
Combining elements from Mafia 2, GTA IV, Mass Effect 2 but owing most to old-school adventure games like Beneath a Steel Sky or Under a Killing Moon, LA Noire follows the story of Cole Phelps, newly inducted into the LAPD upon his heroic return from combat in WW2 (the World War, not the game). You control Cole as you make your way through a series of investigations, moving through the ranks on the back of successful cases. There are 20 in total (21 if you got the pre-order bonus case) and they play out in linear fashion, though you can always respond to street crime alerts that come in over the radio for a bit of short-format variety. Some people have complained that this more straight-line approach is detrimental to the game, and, though it would have been good to have the ability to pick and choose the order in which I took on the cases, ultimately this is a story-led game rather than a free-roaming sandbox. Just like last year’s Mafia 2, it is important that this game isn’t judeged as a straight GTA clone; the overarching and case-specific stories are far more important to driving a consistent narrative than the total freedom of a true sandbox game.
There are three key elements that go together to make up LA Noire: Action, Investigation, and Interrogation. Of the three, Action is by far the least used. As I mentioned at the start of this review, the problem with a game that has everything is that being crap at one part of it can ruin, or at least limit, your whole experience. LA Noire gets round this by concentrating so much on the investigation and interrogation aspects of the game that everything else has been reduced to an incredibly simplified level, to make sure you get through. The ridiculously easy auto-aim from GTA IV is back, meaning shootouts can be done blindfolded, and they have finally found the appropriate historical era to use GTA’s land yacht/shopping trolley driving physics: but don’t worry if you fail at these bits; after a couple of times, you’re given the option to just skip them with no penalty. To their credit, even the couple of sections I found frustratingly hard, I was determined to finish rather than skip, so either they have the balance just right, or I was insistent that it was the game’s fault I failed in the first place. Though they are mostly a walk in the park, they are usually interesting and entertaining enough to involve rather than irritate; the main exception to this being the fact that almost everyone runs when confronted, leading to a few too many needless foot chases.
Investigation involves walking around the crime scene, looking for clues that will help either build your case or take you to somewhere new. There is a great mix here between useless things cluttering up the scene, important items you can find, and things that require further investigation, even puzzle manipulation, to reveal their secrets. In general, people seem to leave an awful lot of incriminating evidence lying around in the open (which is good, since you don’t have the option to open cupboards or drawers), but this aside the feeling of discovery and investigation is something that never fails to entertain, assuming you ever liked waving your mouse around the screen in Monkey Island, looking for something to click on: the principle is the same.
These first two parts are just the warm-up for the Interrogation sections though. Taking full advantage of the revolutionary facial scan motion capture technology that Rockstar have used, you are required to question either a witness or a suspect and judge from their facial reactions and the evidence you have gathered in Investigation mode whether they are telling the truth or not. Apart from some very obvious clues designed to hammer home the subtleties that can be conveyed with the new Facetech (nervous eye movements, fidgeting or wincing), these can be a subtle test of your abilities to distinguish between whether someone is lying or just nervous, and the whole game works best when you know someone is lying, but without a piece of evidence to back up your accusation, your only option is swallow the bullshit they feed you. Unlike the skippable Action sequences, the Interrogations cannot be redone, skipped or sailed through, and as the game continues they can become very difficult to do well at, especially if you have failed to gather enough evidence beforehand. This is an essential choice by Rockstar to give the game tension, and the player the feeling that their actions count: you can always go back and replay a case later if you want to try again.
It’s fair to say without the new Facetech, the Interrogation sections would be a lot less interesting, but it’s also fair to say that without the Interrogation sections, the technology would just be a neat gimmick. The marriage between the new technology and the vehicle chosen to showcase it is perfect, and, even though the overall effect still lands them squarely in the uncanny valley, it is a major leap forward for gaming technology.
In order to live up to the Film Noir name, they have tried very hard to include touchstones of the genre, with varying degrees of success. From the very start, you will be treated to seemingly unimportant flashbacks from Phelps’s time in the war, in an attempt to connect the whole thing with an overarching story, which almost works, but feels a little shoehorned in at times, and completely unnecessary at others. Similarly femme fatale Elsa Lichtmann is underdeveloped as a character and a story arc. Though it doesn’t really hinder the game, and does give you a bit more involvement with the characters, it is irrelevant for the vast majority of the game, before accelerating rapidly in the last couple of hours of play into a climax that just makes you wonder why they couldn’t have done the same thing on a smaller scale for each section, rather than setting the scene so slowly before winding everything together in the last third. What does work about the setting is the world that they have built, in everything from the cars, the clothes and the buildings, down to the language, the attitudes and mannerisms of the characters, even if Phelps himself is probably one of the least interesting or charismatic in the game.
Overall, all of the different elements come together in LA Noire in an accessible but still challenging game, with a real sense of involvement in the outcome of the cases and a feeling that your actions actually have consequences in the game world. It’s a truly exciting, first of its kind experience that brings the best of the point and click adventure world bang up to date.Yes, it’s not perfect, but this flawed masterpiece is still the first must-buy game of the year.
Progress: Story complete: 19 hours, 71% of total game content completed
It’s never the hairbrush