“Grand Theft Auto in the 1940s” has been one of those things game studios have tried to copy for a while. 2K has the Mafia series, EA has the (inaccurate, but pretty fun) Godfather games. There’s just something about that atmosphere that drives people to try. L.A. Noire takes a twist on the idea that should’ve been done a long time ago: you’re playing as the detective, not as the criminal.
Your character is Detective Cole Phelps, a former World War II soldier who joins up with the LAPD, and quickly rises in the ranks from Patrolman to Traffic desk, and continuing on through Homicide, Vice, and Arson. The writing in the cases is fantastic, providing a great sense of complex stories at every turn. It’s really hard to judge the story of the game as a whole, though, in part because Cole needs more to his character. We get flashbacks to World War II and conversations as you drive from place to place, which is nice and adds to his personality. But we also don’t really understand Cole as Cole. We’re told he has a wife and kids, but we only see his wife once. A few scenes with them would’ve added a lot to the game. There’s also the fact that the 4 desks really just don’t connect well. Homicide is an interesting story arc that ends in one of the most unique cases in the game. It could’ve been a game all to itself, and then suddenly it just goes “OK, you’re moving on to Vice”. Apparently Rockstar had so many cases that it barely fits on 3 discs for the 360 version, yet the Traffic desk is pure filler and there’s a Vice case that really doesn’t add much to the game (while one that’s been left for DLC is a lot better and more important). It seems odd to complain that a game goes on too long, but this one does and just seems to end after a while.
All this talk about story and I haven’t even gotten to the gameplay, which is where the game shines best. For each case you’re given, you go from location to location, picking up clues, interrogating suspects, and occasionally getting in brawls, gunfights, and other action scenes. Picking up clues is fairly easy, thanks to several options which give you chimes when you’re near a clue, and play music if you haven’t found them all yet (which crescendos when you have). There’s a few too many “junk” items around, though. You hear a chime, you hit X to pick something up, and…it’s a spatula. Or an empty bottle. It’s rather pointless, honestly. The interrogations, though, never falter. As you ask suspects questions, you determine whether their answers are the truth, if you doubt it, or if they’re outright lying, in which case you have to use evidence. The game has an unprecedented level of facial motion capture for games, and it shows. If they’re not telling you the whole story, suspects eyes dart around, they’ll give huge gulps, even give little facial quirks. It gets you in the habit of taking a while to determine if they’re lying or not, if that little smile was just normal or if it was the hint you need to call their bluff. It’s the best feeling in gaming when you’re not sure, you finally hit something, and you hear the piano chord that tells you your guess was right. If you’re not sure, you can use intuition you’ve built up, a kind of lifeline that lets you either remove one of the choices or see what the community chose. It’s a great system all around, but it has one flaw: ultimately, it doesn’t matter. You’ll get more of the story if you answer right, or find out the lead you need in the case early, or get a better star rating in the end. But the game will move on. You simply cannot fail these interrogation segments. It would’ve been better to outright punish the player for getting questions wrong, rather than just a slap on the wrist. If I chose the wrong suspect at the end of the case, don’t just yell at me and go to the next case, let me back in there and give me another try to uncover the truth.
The non-investigating segments are fine. Not great, not bad, just fine. The shooting is saddled with wonky controls on the PS3, using L2 to aim and R2 to fire, where every other PS3 game uses L1 and R1. Muscle memory had several spots where I was trying to fire and it just wasn’t working. Ultimately, though, the shooting is good enough. It’s cover-based, regenerating health, infinite ammo. Mainly, it just provides a nice break from the casework. Driving around between locations, though, is one of those features that seems to have just been stuck in since Rockstar can’t make anything but open world games. It’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, the pure detail that has gone into the reconstruction of Los Angeles is phenomenal. You get that perfect sense of time and place, and no two areas feel the same. They looked at tons of photos of the time period to get the atmosphere down, and it shows. On the other hand, considering that you just do each case in order, there’s no reason for it to be open world. You can pick up random crime missions as you drive between locations, but these missions tend to be way off the beaten path, and not worth it, with generic segments of shooting or driving. It seems like they were just trying to give the 13-year-olds who thought they were buying the next GTA something to do when they found out it was all investigation. You can find landmarks and film reels in your travels, which at least encourages some free-roaming.
I’m not trying to be too hard on L.A. Noire. When it’s hitting all the right marks, it really is a superb, unique experience, the most mainstream a game like this has gotten in a long time. When it’s not hitting the marks quite right, it feels like it’s pandering too much to the crowd that wanted rampant shooting and open world stuff, or the people who just wanted to experience it and didn’t care about winning or failing. It’s a game everybody must play, but it’s still far from perfection.