Just a year removed from the successful Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar Games (along with Australian developer Team Bondi) is back with a 1940s police drama in LA Noire. Considering it's based during a time where Hollywood was deep in the studio-era, there's no wonder as to why this is one the grandest Rockstar games to date. Custom technology was even created to track even subtle facial movements. But will a grand scale and fancy tech be enough to make LA Noire worthy of its massive hype?
What's It About?
Los Angeles, 1947. World War II has been over. Citizens are back in their daily routine, but plenty of military men are still trying to become normal civilians. Mortars and barrages of gun fire are replaced by traffic and a blue-collar job. Not for Cole Phelps. A decorated war hero, Phelps returns home still intending to make a difference. He joins the LAPD, which is just a different type of crazy than what he saw overseas. Phelps plunges into the underworld the glitzy Hollywood lifestyle tries to cover up.
Starting off as a patrolman, Phelps works up the chain, from homicide to administrative vice. At first glance, LA Noire is based on the Black Dahlia murder and possible copy cats. As Phelps, you run between the glamorous and seedy parts of Los Angeles, covering all angles to try bringing a sense of justice to the city. But it’s only the start.
Flashbacks of Cole’s war days and an odd doctor/patient relationship start guiding you towards the real problem LA is facing. A jittery former Marine named Courtney Sheldon befriends psychiatrist Harlan Fontaine. Their relationship is complicated by a start-up drug trade. Typically a mob-run scene, Sheldon and a band of men play a key role distributing thousands of morphine syringes throughout the city. As cases steadily come through Phelps’ desk, the more Phelps’ past starts to play a difference. Eventually, you’ll find just how deep this drug trade runs through the mob, business and even the police force.
Why Should I Care?
While the visual quality of games are continually pushing towards a more cinematic look, rarely does a game use them to truly capture a cinematic feel. Heavy immersion and development of an urban environment push the game further to that feeling. One of the keys is Detective Cole Phelps. He’s a great character. Being the protagonist, there’s no avoiding him being the hot-shot detective, but you aren’t perfect. If you wrongly accuse a suspect, you lose their cooperation. You can’t bring up a save file or have the option to re-interrogate the suspect or witness- you genuinely blow that portion of the case, or in some cases, you will just fail. Ultimately, it will make you care how you handle being Cole Phelps. You must carefully play your hand. Is the person lying? Telling the truth? If you lose this witness how hard will it be to charge a suspect with a crime?
For a casual gamer, this may be a turn off. Why play a game that doesn’t give you the chance to clean up your mistakes? But for the daring, it’ll be an interesting ride. LA Noire isn’t to be played casually. It requires careful attention. Look away for a few seconds during an interrogation and you may miss the shifty eye movements or an uncomfortable gulp. You select that they’re telling the truth; turns out they weren’t. Then there's folks who have incredible poker faces and really get your gears going. For as unforgiving as the game sounds, it won’t be massively difficult.
In an RPG element, you earn Intuition through gaining experience. Intuition will help you see all clues at a scene, eliminate answers, or “ask the community” (be shown what most other people chose). It comes in handy for the overly difficult suspects. Of course, the limited supply must be used wisely. If you still fail an interrogation, you won't be stopped from moving on. You'll suffer some consequences and make adjustments, just as a true officer would. And it just works. Sure, you may curse yourself out a bit, but it helps you read people better and make wiser choices. With this type of game model, LA Noire could have easily set itself up for massive failure. Rockstar has to be given a great amount of credit, though. They pulled off with incredible execution.
I can’t really let the environment slip by with such a quick mention. It’s one of the most believable settings you’ll ever see. As Rockstar touts, they’ve faithfully recreated 90% of 1940s Los Angeles, but it all works so well. The cars. The style and speech. It would have been easy to plop a story in a pretty setting. That happens far too often. But they carefully worked an attitude into the game. The wretchedness of racial tensions and sexism, “fabrics of society”, are necessarily included. You’ll have your progressives, but also the typical jerks who can’t stand African Americans, doubt a Mexican simply because he’s Mexican, or won’t give a woman the time of day. Taking the cake? The politics.
Often times, you may sneer and think “typical.” But it’s not that typical. LA Noire isn't a generic, predictable game. It’s the corruption you won’t be surprised by. There's more of a sense of intrigue. A good amount of characters create a gray area, so you won’t quite know which moral road somebody may take. Progressing deeper into the game will only bring out a thicker web, but it's not a twisted mess. The story finds a solid balance between being easy to follow and intricate enough to keep your attention.
Is It Worth My Time and Money?
Absolutely. While LA Noire may not be completely revolutionizing the way video games are made, it can certainly bring a very fresh attitude of how to go about making them. It’s very apparent that a lot of care was put into the game so it would play smoothly.
Of course, the game isn’t without its oddities. After all, it’s still a Rockstar game. For as great as the game looks, some characters still look a little blocky or move like a hunchback. Women's hair also looks very flat. If you want to go for 100% game completion, keep your eyes peeled for obscure police badges and golden film canisters. At least the badges glimmer as you walk near; the canisters are nearly impossible to find. They’ve at least included a collectible worth your time: there are 13 story-expanding newspapers that can be found during investigations.
Furthermore, Rockstar still hasn’t quite mastered driving. I understand these are cars from the 1940s and won't be the most graceful of automobiles (though they do look oh so pretty), but too many times do you end up in a clunker or dealing with terrible motorists. Computer drivers won't always be respecting your siren. You may also find the fighting system to be a little clunky, but it's a very subjective part of the game. The cover system is far more awkward to deal with, at least getting in and out of it.
Yet these flaws don’t cripple the value of LA Noire. It’s refreshing, cinematic and beautiful. Allow yourself to sink into the game and you may start to feel like a detective. If anything, you’ll be put through one fine experience in a post-war environment that hasn't ever been captured quite like this. I hesitate to call LA Noire unique, since it's such an insufferable term, but there certainly isn’t a game quite like it. And when everything is said and done, there is a sense of satisfaction. Questions are answered and you feel closure. Better yet, the biggest feeling is fulfillment. And that’s one of the best things you can get from a game.