The City of Angels… And Hairbrushes

L.A. Noire Screenshot

HIGH Accidentally stumbling upon a bloody knife in a trash can that was key to the case.

LOW Struggling to find a barely-visible cigarette in the neighbor's yard for a half hour.

WTF Why are there no dirty cars in L.A.?

With all the fuss made about L.A. Noire's motion capture technology, many people may be surprised to find there's an actual game underneath, and a pretty good one at that. I mention this because developers who talk more about the tech behind a game than the game itself tend to make me nervous. Amazing visuals didn't help the Star Wars prequels, and the same can happen to games if the technology isn't utilized in a way that makes the player care about what's going on. (Final Fantasy XIII comes to mind.)

Rockstar's latest epic avoids this terrible fate, but at the same time doesn't reach the bar it acted so confident in setting. What we're left with is a good game that was greatly oversold as being revolutionary. This isn't some beautiful hybridization of film and video games, and the technology doesn't revolutionize storytelling. Even so, L.A. Noire knows how to get its hooks into you, and was certainly worth the cost of admission.

As a detective, war hero Cole Phelps will engage in car chases, clue-finding, and interrogations, the latter of which players were told would make the most out of L.A. Noire's technology, allowing the player to accurately judge if someone is lying or telling the truth, although I never really understood what the purpose of the "Doubt” option was. So are the interrogations enjoyable? Yes. Is this technology somewhat undermined by how blatantly obvious it is to tell if someone's telling the truth or not? Also yes. The stuttering and panicked looks can be greatly overdone at times, and the interrogations would've been much more gripping if that had been toned down.

The Lie option in itself also has a major problem, and that's the fact that the evidence required to execute an accusation is far too specific. Even if the player is correct in accusing him/her of lying, picking the wrong piece of evidence will still get you counted as incorrect. One of the worst examples I can think of is when I was interrogating a man I suspected killed his wife. I ask him about the deterioration of his marriage, and he tells me they were happy together. I accuse him of lying, and cite the death threat directed towards his wife that I found in his house as proof that they weren't getting along. Apparently, I'm the only one who connected those two, because the game told me I got the question wrong, and only later did I find out I had to use something his neighbor had said to nail him. This simple oversight was a major drag on one of L.A. Noire's key elements.

L.A. Noire Screenshot

Of course, if Detective Phelps wants evidence, he needs to look for it. The clue-finding was the thing I was most worried about going into L.A. Noire, but I've come out pretty positive on it. Team Bondi made a good decision in having the areas to search through be rather small, so I was never going through a mansion looking for one spec of dust. It's pretty simple, but not to the point of being dull. The game would occasionally overdo it with irrelevant objects, though. I've inspected so many hairbrushes in this game, I was expecting there to be a case called "The Hairbrush Murder."

There aren't many games where the action sequences are the least interesting thing to talk about, but L.A. Noire is one of them. Don't get me wrong, they're good. Some of them are very good, one in particular being a sequence where you chase a trolley down a busy street. Some of the action sequences seemed rather forced, though, probably to ensure any gamers fresh off of Black Ops didn't fall asleep. Overall, the action sequences serve their purpose, but don't expect to be blown away by them.

Graphically, the game is fantastic. It's nice to see such graphical power being used on something other than a giant explosion or an alien spaceship—a detailed recreation of a time period that hasn't gotten much attention in video games before now. Los Angeles felt as fresh and creative as any fantasy or sci-fi world I've been to in a video game. This is the best looking game I've played on Xbox 360.

The graphical beauty of this game brings me to the biggest problem with it: its beauty is skin deep. The ultimate irony with L.A. Noire is that for a game set in a city with such a focus on entertainment, it never lets Cole Phelps have any fun. Perhaps I want this game to be too much like Grand Theft Auto IV, but it's not like this game takes place in the Dark Ages. There were plenty of ways to have fun in the '40s. It would be great if the game let me go bowling, see an old movie, or check out some television of the time period. This would allow me to engage more characters with some levity, rather than having to always be talking about death, rape, and drugs. I don't want to judge a game by what it should've been rather than what it was, but the city could've been so much more.

Although the lack of additional activities was a big issue, it actually speaks to the strongest part of L.A. Noire, and that's the dramatic weight the story sustains from start to finish. Just about every aspect of this dangerous city worked to make every crime feel as real to me as possible. The motion capture and acting greatly helped me feel for these characters as I revealed to them a loved one had been murdered. So to tie this back to the lack of additional activities issue, the reason I wanted L.A. Noire to have distractions so much was because the game's increasingly disturbing narrative can be mentally exhausting to the point that I wanted an escape from it, and that bold tone is not something a lot of games can effectively pull off.

Almost every aspect of L.A. Noire has flaws, enough to keep me from considering it the masterpiece that so many reviewers have. What saves the game for me is the incredible craftsmanship of the entire city and its inhabitants. I love the feel of my 1940's car going through a gorgeous recreation of Los Angeles, the relief of nailing a line of questioning, and the satisfaction of chasing down a fleeing criminal. While the flaws in the interrogation system and lack of side-activities certainly chipped away at my enjoyment and immersion, they weren't able to stop me from having a specific kind of fun that video games haven't been able to nail before now. Rating: 8.0 out of 10.

—by Eric Bowman

Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 25 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed one time). There are no multiplayer modes.

Eric Bowman
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