The year is 1947, and the City is Los Angeles. A city filled with hope and promise. A town filled with secrets. Not unlike the game L.A.Noire itself, in fact. Receiving a lot of pre-launch hype and a lot of early accolades, we undertake our own investigation to see what the truth is, the doubts and the lies.
Noir is French for “black” and this game is a homage to “film noir” which was largely an accidental film genre, driven by the austere times directly after the war and into the late 1960's. The standard formula is bleak cynical stories based around private detectives, policeman or the solitary but fractured hero in a seedy world of crime. Generally these were filmed in black and white and at the lower end of the budget scale.
L.A.Noire was developed by Team Bondi out of Australia, and produced by Rockstar Games - the same team that brought us Grand Theft Auto, Max Payne and Red Dead Redemption, to name a few. It is no surprise, then, that this game has sparked a lot of interest and hype. What is surprising is that the game has only been released on the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 - more so given that the gameplay itself feels more suitable for the PC.
The game is based on the police career of Cole Phelps, a man with a clouded military past and a drive to bring justice to the burgeoning city of Los Angeles. What struck us first was the game style. Shying away from the traditional black and white of film noir, the game is in full colour (by default - there is a greyscale option). The colour palette is styled in the pastel tones of the era, with what seems like a wash of orange, to provide the feel of the hot California sun.
The game design pulls together many different game concepts and attempts to weave them into one crime-filled package. First off, L.A.Noire is part driving game. You need to navigate across the faithfully reproduced city of L.A. of 1947. Potentially there are 90+ types of vehicles to drive - each styled in the sleek, curved, and chrome-accentuated lines of the 50's and 60's.
Of all the aspects of the game, this has to be the most poorly designed. The vehicle controls are all pretty much what you expect, with joystick steering, brakes and accelerator and a control for the siren. Unfortunately, the controls are very, very touchy. The slightest twitch will have you careening across the road. In the style of Jeremy Clarkson: “It’s like riding in a Spanish tugboat, captained by a blind drunkard”. Given its pedigree, you would expect this to be one of the high points of the game; however it eventually becomes more of a chore. This is a real shame, as the city itself is vast and filled with the hustle and bustle of traffic and pedestrians (the later having a charmed life, being able to dodge your erratic ship of the road).
Luckily, this aspect of the game can be largely avoided with the option of getting your partner to drive to the destination of your next investigation. Some investigations, though, require you to tail a perp, which can be an exercise in frustration as the slightest fender bender or erratic move will likely get you fingered (and we don’t mean the single digit salute).
This erratic control system also carries over to when you are on foot, chasing down a potential criminal along streets or over rooftops. It takes a deft hand to run around street corners or hit a particular ramp. These events are tightly timed, and the poor control seems to fight against you. You will often find yourself smacking into walls and objects. Luckily, aspects such as jumping and climbing over walls are largely automated, only requiring you to run into them to start the sequence.
At the heart of the game are the crimes and subsequent investigations. These are well thought-out and offer good variety to hold your interest. Once you get a new case, a book is opened where you can record the information you have gathered as you progress the investigation. As you uncover more clues and locations to investigate, these are also automatically noted in your book.
Despite L.A. City being an open world - with the ability to go anywhere, the core investigations are very much linear and at specific locations. The extensive city map is not wasted though, because, as you proceed to each location, you have the option to respond to radio calls to one of 40 side investigations. All of these events are scripted affairs, but are interesting diversions from the main investigation.
Once at a crime scene you have to search for clues, and interview suspects and witnesses to solve the case, or to discover the next location to further the investigation. Clues are found by carefully listening to the theme music. Get close to one and you hear a chime that indicates you are near a potential clue. This is very much in the style of film noir, where the music becomes more strident when something important is found. You can pick up each item and turn and twist it to view any important information, such as serial numbers on guns, or maker’s marks etc. Once you have found all the clues the theme music stops. There are a lot of bogus clues that you have to pick up, and although realistic, after a while you are left feeling that their inclusion - other than for a bit of colour, was a rather pointless.
People interaction is where the game really shines. Using motion capture from multiple angles, the faces of game characters have detailed animations. Just as well, since facial expressions and speech help you to determine whether they are telling the truth, or if there is some doubt in what they are saying… or even if they are telling porkies. By choosing one of these options, you either unlock another lead or receive an adverse reaction. Worst case scenario is they can clam up altogether. Thankfully, you don't need all the clues to solve a crime. What it does mean though, is that you have to listen very carefully and concentrate on facial expressions. In your average crowded Kiwi family lounge, the slightest distraction can mean the loss of a critical piece of information. Consequently, we are surprised that this game has not made it to the PC, where a solo experience is more conducive to the style of play.
The crimes themselves are many and varied, and do require a bit of thought around some of the motives and possible suspects. There is an intuition points system that awards points for successfully solving a crime, and these can be spent on showing the location of evidence should you become stuck.
The action aspects of the game involve punch-ups and shoot-outs in the best tradition of film noir. Button mashing, punching and grappling (the head butt sequence is superb) are a lot of fun, while the shoot-outs are also well designed. Nothing like taking down a bunch of bank robbers with the shotty. They are usually short and sweet, and too few for our liking, though.
L.A.Noire has a lot of potential - particularly as there’s a fair amount of innovation surrounding the crime solving aspects and the use of facial expressions. The concept is good and the combination of play styles almost works; however the driving and chase aspects of the game really let it down. When you strip away this and the action elements of the game, it is basically a puzzle solver. It is a good game, but we believe it is not great as the hype would have you believe.