I Think it's Spelled "Noir"
HIGH Sprinting after crooks through the uncannily-rendered alleys and culverts of L.A.
LOW Trying to figure out which piece of evidence the game wants me to present.
WTF The distracting yet funny Mad Men cameos.
L.A. Noire is a Grand Theft Auto clone that replaces random violence with languidly-paced investigation as the main thrust of the gameplay, while maintaining the shooting, car chases, and huge open maps to explore that make the genre so popular. Set in a surprisingly rose-coloured version of 1947 Los Angeles where the police never beat confessions out of anyone or send random black guys to death row when they can't find the real killer, the game makes a valiant attempt to raise the bar in video game storytelling and cinematic presentation. Sadly, a host of poor choices and flat-out failures in design and plotting keep it from achieving anything beyond technical brilliance.
...It is technically brilliant, though.
In addition to the picture-perfect recreation of post-war Los Angeles, Rockstar's driving and shooting have been tuned and polished since Grand Theft Auto IV. Cars handle like a dream, and the now fully-integrated cover system ensures that shooting sequences are never a chore. Fistfighting has also been massively retooled into a simple dodge/counter affair, and is better for it. The big new addition are foot chase sequences, which might have felt like chores if it weren't for the incredible sense of place created by the ultra-realistic backyards, rooftops, and alleyways the player will find themselves sprinting through.
The only problems that remain when it comes to the third-person action sequences are the car chases and general character movement. In the former, the game's AI so thoroughly cheats physics to keep the quarry vehicle on its predetermined course that at times it feels like trying to run a slot car off the road. In the latter, characters have a lumbering slowness to their movements. Dodging into cover and popping out work great, but simply starting to walk in a direction is oddly creaky, and turning around seems to take forever. One would think cops should be a little more spry.
The action I've just described is only a small part of the L.A. Noire experience, though—the crime-solving detective sequences which are the game's big hook make up 90 percent of the content.
These segments are a simple two-part affair. First, the player is presented with an area to scour for evidence. Audio and vibratory cues are offered to let them know when they're close to a clue. This may sound like excessive handholding, but the environments are so richly detailed that without the assists there are almost no visual cues letting the player know what is or isn't important. Once the player feels they've found enough clues, they can question people involved in the case, which invariably leads to new locations and persons of interest.
Those interrogation scenes are where the game essentially falls apart.
The idea (as outlined in the manual and training mission) is that the player will be able to tell via physical cues how truthful their subject is being when responding to one of the questions the player can ask from a list. This sounds more complicated than it actually is—all of the actors were obviously asked to play "reluctant to answer" as broadly as possible, so every time limbs start flailing and eyes dart about (which is most of the time) they're hiding something.
At that point, the only thing the player has to do is figure out whether they're actually lying, or simply not telling the whole story—whether to select X to "press for more info" or Y to "accuse them of lying". This becomes problematic when vague dialogue meets redundant evidence. Nearly every time a character is lying there are at least two pieces of evidence in the player's notebook that could be seen as revealing the lie, but the game can only ever see one solution to every problem. Choosing wrong means closing off an area of inquiry forever, and possibly making the correct solution to a case unreachable.
This sticking point brings me to the real problem with this mechanic—every question is pass-fail. Unlike actual detective work—or even video game detective work—the player can only ask each question once, and present a single theory of the crime. Couple this with the fact that the game doesn't offer manual saving, and a slipped finger during an interrogation can sabotage an entire case and require up to 45 minutes of game be replayed if the player wants to get the "correct" ending. The one upside is that making these mistakes doesn't actually affect the game very much. Yes, if I screw up a case, the dialogue in subsequent cases will mention it, but those dialogue changes are the only real impact. The master plot will march right along, and since the last case in each grouping (homicide, traffic, vice, and arson) is always a combat-heavy affair, the main character will invariably nab his promotion to the next tier by shooting an acceptably large number of people.
Simply giving players more than one chance to ask a failed question would have both solved the bizarre difficulty spike in interviews, as well as made the whole thing a little more realistic. This kind of gigantic design mistake would be understandable if Team Bondi were blazing a trail with this a new investigative mechanic, but that's simply not the case. The core dynamic—asking questions, then choosing to either A) accept the story, B) press for more information, or C) present evidence to catch in a lie—is exactly the same as the one that Phoenix Wright games have been using for half a decade now. If Team Bondi had simply looked at another game that was already succeeding at what they were trying to do, they could have avoided this huge problem at L.A. Noire's core.
Now that the investigation mechanics have been discussed, the only aspect left to cover is the game's story, and it's about as much of a mixed bag as one can get.
While the dialogue and characterizations are largely well-done, the plotting ranges from lazy to outright baffling. The overarching conspiracy storyline works, but the individual smaller cases are almost without exception misfires. I can't go into what makes the game's plot so questionable without delving deep into spoiler territory, so I've written three additional articles for anyone who's already played the game or doesn't mind having it completely ruined for them. However, I can say that a bizarre dramatic choice has both rendered most of the mysteries considerably less than mysterious and ensured that a full six of the game's missions—all of the whodunits—feel almost offensively repetitive. Add to that the dullest main character outside of an FPS, and Team Bondi has created an alternately stupid and forgettable tale to hang their game on. For a story-based title like L.A. Noire, this is an unforgivable sin.
In closing, L.A. Noire's ambitions far outstrip its abilities, and it's a frustrating failure most of the running time. That being said, the shooting is exceptional, the occasional fistfighting is functional, and the foot chases are endearingly dynamic. The tragedy at L.A. Noire's core is that technical mastery can be bought, but good design and compelling dramatic choices can't. The ending of the game leaves the table set for a sequel, but I hope that next time a little more care is put into the elements that are supposed to separate it from all the other third-person open-world shooting games out there. Right now, the very things that should be making L.A. Noire special are exactly what hold it back from being the most impressive Grand Theft Auto clone yet.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 22 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time).
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, nudity, sexual themes strong language, use of drugs, violence. This game is not for your children. In addition to the variety of naked, mutilated corpses, the rapes, the people being burned alive, and the surprisingly large number of references to child molestation, everything else about the game is inappropriate as well. Every third character is on morphine, the other two drink to excess, and while, anachronistically, no one ever uses the N-word, literally every other popular racial slur is uttered. I can't stress this strongly enough. This is not for children.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing: While the subtitles and minimap make navigating the story and combat sections of the game a breeze, there is one major problem for the hearing-impaired. When investigating crime scenes music plays while you walk around, then cuts out once all of the clues have been discovered. Without this vital cue, you'll have no idea when you can stop searching, and be forced to guess—which probably won't go very well.