Ah, post–World War II America: when the men were men and the videogames were, apparently, boldly different. L.A. Noire is a detective crime drama set in 1947, and it’s unlike anything you’ve ever played on Xbox 360. Part action, part adventure, part open-world game, and a big chunk of choose-your-own-adventure, it emphasizes observation and problem-solving over twitch shooting or driving skills — usually, anyway — with results that mix brilliance with occasional irritation and a semi-regular fallback to convention. Though flawed, it’s something best experienced for yourself, and we hope it’s a stepping stone to a bigger and greater game, not unlike the era in which it’s rooted.
You suit up as Cole Phelps, a Silver Star recipient returning from the war in Japan who’s joined the Los Angeles police force. He’s as lawful and by-the-book as they come, much to the annoyance of his less-motivated, more morally questionable co-workers. To put it another way, he’s the kind of guy who’d actually come to a complete, full stop at a Stop sign. This makes him a good detective, though, so you’ll quickly work your way up from the Traffic desk to Homicide, Vice, and finally Arson. Noire’s core gameplay consists of carefully combing each crime scene for clues — your controller will give a subtle rumble when you’re near something you can examine — and then questioning witnesses and suspects.
Noire fuels its catch-’em-in-a-lie gameplay with impressive performance-capture technology. It uses a proprietary camera system to record actors’ faces and then translate them directly into the game (fans of the hit series Mad Men will recognize a few of the key characters), with results that convey emotion and subtlety better than any game before it. It doesn’t completely bridge the Uncanny Valley, but it’s a clearly visible step forward and will make going back to other conversation-driven titles like Mass Effect 2 very difficult.
Each interview offers the same three options during the dialogue: Truth, Doubt, or Lie. Choosing the right path after each exchange will lead you to more information and, ultimately, solving the case, while an incorrect strategy will result in the person stonewalling you. This system is the heart of L.A. Noire, and it pumps with a satisfying vigor. It’s incredibly satisfying to siphon the maximum information out of someone with Truth or Doubt, and it’s fist-pumpingly intoxicating to bust someone with Lie and have the proper evidence to back it up.
The only downside to the interrogation portion of the gameplay is how hands-off it can be. You’ll listen to the characters exchange words, then press a button and listen to some more. It often feels as though the game is largely playing itself during these sequences. Still, the quality of the facial animation combined with the believability of the actors’ performances makes it a hell of a great drama to watch unfold.
The Intuition system adds another compelling layer to the questioning. As you progress by solving cases, completing side missions, and discovering landmarks (more on the latter two in a bit), you’ll level up and earn, among other things, Intuition Points that you can spend to help you narrow down choices during interrogations. The quiz-style TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is clearly an influence here, as you can choose to Remove an Answer (i.e., 50/50), Ask the Community via an Xbox Live connection (Ask the Audience), and Show All Clues in a crime scene. Points are doled out sparingly, though, so you truly need to save them for when you need them most. We appreciate that you can actually fail cases — we bombed three of the 21 — and have the story move on without a Game Over screen. It makes you feel as though your actions are affecting the story on the fly, even though you’re actually barreling toward a lone, unwavering ending.
When Noire gets away from these core tenets that distinguish it from the rest of the Xbox pack, however, it’s a lot less engrossing. A whopping 40 optional Street Crime missions fill in the moments between critical-path cases, but their flaws are threefold. First, most of them involve chasing and/or shooting suspects, with very little variety. Maybe the designers are big fans of Tom Cruise’s Minority Report, because as in that film, “everybody runs” in L.A. Noire. Second, these quests never allow you to question the perpetrators: nearly every one ends in a shootout. Third, many of the optional tasks are located across town from your primary mission, which only further discourages you from tackling them when you know they’re just going to involve shootouts anyway.
The city itself, though, bears special mention. The re-creation of pre-freeways Los Angeles is nothing short of stunning. More than two dozen landmarks are discoverable — with some of them tying into the main plot thread — along with hidden cars. The draw distance and texture detail are tremendous, while even the vehicles handle nicely and the music on your in-game radio is spot-on, too. It’s easily the most beautiful open-world metropolis outside of Liberty City, and we wish it offered more to do. On that note, it’s a shame the framerate is almost always noticeably — if not cripplingly — stuttery, whether you’re driving or on-foot.
Even with no multiplayer component, Noire is a three-disc beast of a game that’s good for a solid 20 hours of playtime. Disc 2 is the strongest portion; you’re at the Homicide desk piecing together the connection in a series of murders where all of the victims are women who’ve been left naked and robbed of jewelry, and have messages scrawled on their bodies in lipstick. The case culminates in a riveting showdown where you have to interview every suspect at the police station and charge just one of them with the crime.
It’s toward the end of Noire’s run that it starts to lose steam, both story- and gameplay-wise. The game drops a startling revelation about Cole, and his character flaw, while hinted at throughout the story, ultimately caught us completely and unwelcomingly off-guard because it goes against his entire personality. Furthermore, the final hours of gameplay rely almost exclusively on driving and gunplay, disappointingly drifting away from the game’s investigative and interrogative strengths. The actual climax of the story tries desperately to avoid a happy-ending cliché, but instead it ends up being a hollow letdown and (pardon the pun) a copout.
Yes, it’s flawed, but L.A. Noire is an honest-to-goodness detective crime thriller — a genuine breath of fresh air that values narrative and story above all else in an age where scripted action sequences and online deathmatch rule the day. It’s the closest thing Xbox has to PlayStation’s unique adventurer Heavy Rain, and proof that even after more than five years, our console has plenty of untapped power left under its hood.
On Xbox 360
Unique, rewarding investigation and interrogation mechanics.
Facial-animation technology is a concrete step forward and lends itself perfectly to the gameplay.
Gameplay and story finales fall flat; repetitive side missions; framerate issues. **
How about a Prohibition-era sequel? Say, Chicago Noire?
Taken from the Official Xbox Magazine
** = I have to personally disagree with this. The final moments of all of the cases are really nicely done. I REALLY do like this game. Very nice story (so far, lol), amazing facial animations. Makes me feel like I am in Law and Order
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