I Think it's Spelled "Noir"

L.A. Noire Screenshot

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.

L.A. Noire Screenshot

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.

L.A. Noire Screenshot

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. Rating: 6.5 out of 10.


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.

Daniel Weissenberger

Daniel Weissenberger

What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?

Nothing relevant to this conversation, that's for sure! Because we're here to talk about (sorry, write and read about, respectively) GC_Danny, who's updating this profile for the first time in thirteen years!

So let's take a gander back at that time and see what's happened! In addition to writing hundreds of video game reviews, Dan produced a book that can be legally purchased by almost anyone! He also wrote two short films, two episodes of television, and two movies! Although, sadly, and through much fault of his own, the movies have yet to be released.

In addition to general game reviewing, he's also dabbled in more long-form work, writing some of the longest and most comprehensive game reviews of all time. Then there's his non-GameCritics blogging, where he's famous as the world's foremost expert on the TV show Criminal Minds, as well as the co-host of a weekly podcast!

If all that wasn't enough, just a few months ago he rebranded himself as 'The Hidden Object Guru', hoping to stake another claim of ultimate expertise, this time over a genre of casual games! Will he be successful? Only time will tell, but you're free to join the thrilling ride at his YouTube channel!
Daniel Weissenberger

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23 Comments on "L.A. Noire Review"

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Anonymous
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Anonymous
2 years 6 months ago
How is this the only review that gave this game bad marks? An uninteresting protagonist whose fate at the conclusion of the game is laughable. A disjointed story that takes twists and turns that NO ONE could see coming. Clunky controls and obnoxiously obvious game time padding with driving across the city, back and forth, to do ‘street crime’ missions. An inconsistent, frustrating and near guessing-game ‘interrogation’ system. I can’t see this game getting anything better than a 7/10, I’d give it a 6/10. If it weren’t for the exceptional motion capture technology and solid performances from the notable actors… Read more »
TheSabi
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TheSabi
5 years 28 days ago
I haven’t played the game yet, I have been watching the Yogscast “Hannah Plays” just cause I’d rather get a feel for a game before I buy it (and yogscast is pretty funny) then once again get burned by a “great” game. Just going by what I’ve SEEN it doesn’t seem like R* has actually made realistic car physics especially when you see a car hit a slope then bounce around like the Rover in Mass Effect. The pedestrian AI seems typical R* “Oh a police car is flying by let me turn into it’s way”. The faces look good… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
5 years 1 month ago

this is why i visit gamecritics – to read the opinions of cooler heads that prevail after the flurry of praise this game received in its first week of reviewing. a mediocre game in a pretty package – i thought as much. thanks daniel 🙂

Peter
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Peter
5 years 1 month ago

I didn’t trust the music cues enough to be sure I’d found all the evidence. Instead, I’d go to my notebook and to the intuition points. If you can’t select the option to show all clues, then you’ve found them all.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
5 years 1 month ago

I tend to agree with most of the criticisms. In fact, I am more than disappointed by the interrogation and adventure game mechanics. I though that looking through the evidence would/could get interesting but it never really did. Then when I played a side mission of a “jumper” and the game did not even bother with a classic dialog to convince the jumper not to jump. The mission just ended once you reached him. Such a missed opportunity.

Mell0n
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Mell0n
5 years 1 month ago
Hey, thanks Dale. As a Renaissance Man I am far too cultured to care about something as vulgar as a score when I’m consuming my Game Criticism, but it’s nice to have my confusion alleviated nonetheless. 6.5 seems a little low though. The Metacritic score is 8.9. Hmmmm, maybe this site really does deliberately lowball scores to generate traffic. I guess the only way to find out for sure is to check the score of a game that is universally agreed upon as a masterpiece. Now, let’s see…what score did Daniel give to Halo 3? …ok, left-click and drag as… Read more »
Dale Weir
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Dale Weir
5 years 1 month ago
[quote=Mell0n]gentlemen, I’m a long time reader of your reviews as I generally find them to be a reliable barometer of my own gaming priorities and tastes, and although I fully agree that a ‘number out of ten’ is practically valueless next to the actual text of a review I must admit to some frustration when another reader posts a comment that says something like ” dude, I like totally agree with your score”. Erm, where may one find the score exactly? [/quote]Mell0n, At the end of our reviews the rating is hidden. Take this L.A. Noire review. The last sentence… Read more »
Crofto
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Crofto
5 years 1 month ago
[quote=Mell0n]gentlemen, I’m a long time reader of your reviews as I generally find them to be a reliable barometer of my own gaming priorities and tastes, and although I fully agree that a ‘number out of ten’ is practically valueless next to the actual text of a review I must admit to some frustration when another reader posts a comment that says something like ” dude, I like totally agree with your score”. Erm, where may one find the score exactly?[/quote] I assume you’re referring to me here? I’ve likely been reading this site equally as long as you have,… Read more »
Ben
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Ben
5 years 1 month ago
There are games that become widely regarded as “important”. These are games that do something new, something that goes on to influence the way other games are designed. Pac-man. Doom. Zork. King’s Quest. Sim City. The Legend of Zelda. Super Mario 64. Golden Eye. Half-life 2. GTA 3. I think L.A. Noire has the potential to possibly earn a mention on this list. The reason why is simple. Play a few cases in L.A. Noire. Then pop out the disk and put in some other game. Watch as the previously charismatic Nathan Drake seems to have been kidnapped and replaced… Read more »
Mell0n
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Mell0n
5 years 1 month ago
forgive me but I can’t stands it no longer… gentlemen, I’m a long time reader of your reviews as I generally find them to be a reliable barometer of my own gaming priorities and tastes, and although I fully agree that a ‘number out of ten’ is practically valueless next to the actual text of a review I must admit to some frustration when another reader posts a comment that says something like ” dude, I like totally agree with your score”. Erm, where may one find the score exactly? oh, and Daniel, “Noire” is an acceptable variation although given… Read more »
Ben
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Ben
5 years 1 month ago
Just to add to my tl;dr previous post: I guess that overall I felt that for me personally, the things it did well way overshadowed the flaws during my time with the game. I mean, I had a blast with it, didn’t want it to end, and picked it right back up and started over when it did. This may sound like sort of a backhanded complement, but I just don’t see other games too often that attempt to do anything near this level either naratively or production value-wise. When it comes to games, ultimately, I guess I tend to… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
5 years 1 month ago
“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 implies that the torturing of suspects to get confessions is not only common, but tacitly approved of by “the brass”. One feels that Cole Phelps with his reluctance to beat on suspects in the Interview Room is the exception, and not the norm. As for sending innocents to jail, the game does not shy away from this topic at all. Finally, regarding systemic racism… Read more »
wilycodger
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wilycodger
5 years 1 month ago

I see, thanks.

I think I would like this game better if it was an onfoot racing game. Parkour in 1947 LA.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
5 years 1 month ago
Have you ever seen any actual interrogation work before?? People shut down completely when they are accused of something they didn’t do. Detectives don’t get second chances most of the time. Sometimes the person being questioned shuts everyone out when accused of something they did do. We are lucky they usually gave us the chance to ask more questions if we screw up the first one. And saying there weren’t multiple ways of proving someone was lying is just not true. You only had trouble because you rushed through. If you took your time and made sure you had all… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
5 years 1 month ago

i agree… the action sequences felt a little tacked on, though they worked as palate cleansers.

Anonymous
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Anonymous
5 years 1 month ago

the game was given supplemental development support by rockstar and they used rockstar’s RAGE engine (used for RDR and gta4) – look at the credits and you’ll see a section for the RAGE team.

wilycodger
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wilycodger
5 years 1 month ago

I’m confused about why you mention GTAIV’s driving/fighting engines; did Team Bondi somehow get access to Rockstar’s code for this project? I thought Rockstar just published this game.

The Good Doctor
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The Good Doctor
5 years 1 month ago
I usually enjoy very much GameCritics’ reviews mainly because they rarely fail to expose some otherwise not-much-discussed problems of certain gaims (the Mass Effect 2 review comes to mind). In L.A. Noire’s case, however, I don’t think that I could agree with the praise given to all the action sequences. While introducing them is a nice change of pace, neither shotoing nor foot chases are well implemented. Combat works but is so generic it almost feels painful. The cover mechanic barely works and there is virtually no variation in guns. And yes, car physics of enemy automobiles is really impossible… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
5 years 1 month ago
Praising LA Noire primarily for the shooting gameplay is similar to praising Mario Kart DS primarily for its emblem editor. It’s so far beyond the point it’s kind of crazy. But I wonder about your criticisms of the interrogations and what they reveal about how you played the game. First and most strangely of all, you say the system is too harsh but completely ignore the intuition hint system. It’s too hard to get the right answer when the game gives you the chance to ask the audience or use a 50/50 lifeline, really?? I think this is far more… Read more »
Steven Timberman
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Steven Timberman
5 years 1 month ago
LA Noire mashes together so many old elements to create something new that I’m not sure how to review it. The ambition, sense of place, and feeling of accomplishment are all superb. But it got me thinking – how much of Red Dead Redemption’s most famous and affecting material has ANYTHING to do with the first 90% of that game? Marston’s wife is one of my favorite characters ever, but she has, what, maybe twenty minutes of proper “screen time”? Much in the same way, I like the idea of LA Noire sprinkling episodic cases with occasional bits of an… Read more »
Alv
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Alv
5 years 1 month ago
I have exactly the same thoughts and feelings about this one. I find choosing the right piece of evidence in order to fish out a lie to be frustrating at times and downright illogical at others. The plot is weak and not held together well enough by the individual missions that build up to the finale. Indeed the ONLY thing that builds up to the finale are the newspapers – the individual missions during traffic and homicide and to a certain extent vice, bear no significance to the over-arching plot and it leaves most of the game somewhat disjointed. All… Read more »
Crofto
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Crofto
5 years 1 month ago
I think you give far too much praise to the combat in the game, since I honestly think it is awful (all modern Rockstar games have awful combat, to be frank) and although I consider LA Noire better for tone, setting, and narrative, Mafia II blows it away as far as combat goes. Also, technically the game is also rather disappointing, again like Rockstar games usually are. Coming from the PC version of Mafia II it felt like I literally went back a console generation when I started LA Noire. All that said… “Nearly every time a character is lying… Read more »
Gog
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Gog
5 years 1 month ago

Good review. I pretty much agree with all of your comments, except those regarding the shooting/cover system, which I find barely passable.

Like you pointed out, the story was handled very poorly, especially the B.D. cases as a whole and the last third of the game.

Also, Cole Phelps is one of the most worthless, uninteresting main character I’ve played as for a while. Therefore, some key revelations and his unavoidable fall from grace have no dramatic impact whatsoever.

I’m eager to read your next article and see if our views match up.

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