The streets of post war Los Angeles may be paved in gold, but the promise of riches does not necessarily ensure a safe passage through the City of Angels. This is a theme brought up numerous times in Team Bondi's new detective crime thriller, L.A. Noire.
The allure of star-studded Hollywood naturally attracted many people to California's capital, with L.A. quickly transforming into one of the largest and most prosperous cities on the globe. Playing as Cole Phelps players are tasked with helping to maintain a grip on these dangerous streets by attempting to solve some of the most mysterious crimes that has helped shaped the city's history.
While L.A. Noire has a decidedly Rockstar feel to it, the game doesn't play off like some of the studios' other mayhem simulators. Instead of being the criminal menace or the wild and hardened cowboy, in L.A. Noire players take on the side of justice through and through.
Beginning your newfound career with the L.A.P.D., players take on the role of patrol-man Cole Phelps, a war veteran and regular cop doing his part to keep the city safe. Soon, some lazy detective work presents us the chance to prove ourselves, with two detectives ordering you and your partner to comb an alleyway for a murder weapon.
This is where the real L.A. Noire starts. Combing the alley we find nothing of note but empty bottles, but as we round a corner a glint from the roof allows Phelps to notice a semi-automatic pistol lying on the roof, clearly visible in the reflection of an adjacent window.
Closer inspection of the murder weapon then led us to trace and interrogate its owner, culminating in our first successful case. After proving our Sherlock Holmes knack on yet another occasion the department saw it fit to promote us to traffic detective, and after donning our freshly pressed suit and fedora we set out with our new partner to take on the ugly face of vehicular manslaughter. Our detective career had begun.
L.A. Noire's vibrant and amazingly detailed storyline plays off over numerous cases, with detective Phelps rising through the ranks of the L.A.P.D. As we mentioned earlier, L.A. Noire isn't like your classic Rockstar title, nor is it a 1940s GTA.
Instead the game follows its own unique traits. With somewhat of a de-emphasis on combat, players will find they spend a lot of game time investigating scenes, interrogating suspects and tracing leads - you know, doing actual detective work. While to some this may sound a bit dreary, it was actually shocking how quickly the game pulled us into this immersive mechanic.
Every case feels like your biggest one yet, every witness harbours potentially devastating secrets and every clue may lead to a new discovery. There's also not too much to hold your hand in the game, especially when interrogating suspects, meaning that if your line of questioning is faulty you may lose your suspect, and if you make false accusations you might lose a prime witness, or miss out on a juicy bit of info.
And while you may spend the majority of your time sharpening your detective skills, that isn't to say that L.A Noire is without action. Indeed, the action sequences in the game were some of the most impressive we've seen on a console in a long time.
These chases also looks great, with the attention of detail on character animation really shining through as Cole runs up stairways, jumps fences and slides down ladders. During these foot races players sometimes have the option of stopping the suspect with a warning shot, but at others the only way to get your guy is to introduce his face to some concrete.
Not all chases will occur in alleyways and fire escapes though, as sometimes the suspect will bolt into a car and speed off. These car chase sequences are also a lot of fun as players pursue the suspect, sirens blaring, and your partner attempting to shoot out tires if you can get close enough. These scenes help satisfy our inner GTA road rage craving, with players able to aggressively ram suspects off the road.
In addition to the action-packed chase scenes, gunfights and brawls also appear frequently in the game and looks and feels just as great. Every punch thrown feels like it winded you, with the stellar audio performance of knuckles smacking skin doing a great job of intensifying the action.
Gun battles were also very well done, with snappy controls and an intuitive cover system making it easy to take down suspects before they can do the same to you. These sequences were once again extremely immersive, with details like Cole's hat getting shot off his head, along with the game's explosive sound and historic locations really embedding the action in your memory.
Action-packed scenes don't always revolve around specific cases, as players can respond to radio dispatches reporting crimes throughout the city There are 40 of these 'street crime' sequences in all, usually involving gun battles, hostage situations or chases. It's not mandatory to respond to these crimes, but they add an enjoyable bonus layer of action to the game.
An eye for detail
Before we can get to any action though, players will have to comb the scene of the crime in question, looking for clues, interrogating witnesses, and slowly putting the puzzle pieces together.
These crime scenes will take you on a journey of 1947 L.A., from hobocamps to suburban homes to the exotic mansions of the Hollywood elite. At each scene players will have to use a keen eye to try and spot any clues which may impact the investigation.
At the start of the game rummaging through these crime scenes might feel a bit awkward, with players picking up and checking out everything they can find. Needless to say, not every empty bottle, cigarette butt or hairbrush will have an impact on the case. After a while though you automatically start noticing things meaningful to the case, a suspicious family photo or mud-caked work boots for example, and in some cases even blood specked clothing.
The game also includes options to help players through these crime scene investigations, and these can be turned off and on depending on how challenging you want the experience to be. At the default option a controller vibration and audio chime helps indicate a possible clue, while the background music will fade if all possible clues have been discovered.
Investigating objects also reveals the massive amount of effort the game's art team put into every last detail. From readable notes on a refrigerator, to dirty clothing unceremoniously dumped in a corner, houses of victims and suspects feels real and lived in. Additional details, like inspecting a victim's wallet or handbag, and even surveying deceased bodies by investigating entry wounds and rope burns adds a grisly level of detail to the game.
Just gathering evidence is never enough though, players need to find a perp and connect him or her with the evidence in question, and doing this usually requires some questioning. The interrogation feature in L.A. Noire is an aspect of the game which was widely hyped before the game's release, and it's clear why.
The game utilises state-of-the-art motion scan technology to capture the subtle changes in a person's facial expression, from a shifty look to a sneer or an all-knowing grin. Every voice actor in the game is therefore much more than that, since they literally captured their facial expressions while delivering lines.
While the technology isn't yet perfect, it nonetheless delivered the most convincing and realistic expressions and conversations we've ever experienced in a game. From Phelps's doubtful stares to Captain Donnelly's booming speeches or the frightened look of an innocent bystander, every character feels alive, and that is because they are in a way, as each character is modeled after a real-life actor.
In addition to improving the dialogue and interaction within the game tenfold, the advantages of motion scan is used in a direct gameplay sense as well. When interrogating suspects or witnesses, players will have the option of asking them questions from your notebook (this is also why combing a crime scene beforehand is important, as some questions only become available when you've found certain clues).
This is because for the 'lie' accusation to be successful the player will need to have solid evidence that the person isn't telling the truth. For example during one interrogation we had gotten some nasty info on a suspect's criminal record. When questioning the suspect we inquired about his past, but he denied any prior acts of violence. At this point we could accuse him of lying, citing his criminal record as evidence. Other examples will have you linking earlier clues to a suspect, for example he may state that he wears size 9 shoes, but you can use the size 8 boots you found in his backyard to shatter his story.
These up and down interrogation battles really added something unique to the game, with motion scan technology enabling players to spot even the slightest twitches in a suspect's face. They're not always simple affairs though and if not handled correctly could result in you accusing an innocent person, requiring players to invest a bit of brainpower in the game as well.
At times players will be able to use intuition points to help them through these interrogations, with one point removing an incorrect response from the menu. For example, using an intuition point may remove the lie option, leaving you to choose between only truth and doubt. These points are slowly accumulated throughout the game as you solve cases and complete street crime objectives. Intuition points can also be used to reveal clues at a crime scene.
One of the most impressive aspects of the game was its overall presentation, with the title simply dripping in authentic 1940s imagery. A large swath of Los Angeles is recreated in all its post-war glory, with players able to visit famous landmarks and admire the city's sprawling architecture. Cars, trams and commuters also fill up the streets of the city, making the environment seem that much more authentic. We also fell in love with the game's compelling soundtrack, at times ominous and brooding and at others as fast-paced and dramatic as a John Williams masterpiece.
It's safe to say that L.A. Noire is one of the most immersive and satisfying gaming experiences we've had in some time. The game's attention to detail, immaculately modeled environments, and of course the impressive motion scan features make it stand out as one of the most polished titles on the market.
Add to this a storyline which will keep you enthralled for many hours (the Xbox 360 version is split over three DVDs), and Rockstar's legendarily addictive driving and shooting mechanics and you have a gaming experience which can proudly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with greats such as GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption. If you're a fan of the film noire vibe and 1940s fedora capped action, all the better.