Top 100 XBox 360 Review: #95 – L.A. Noire (2011)

Breath of Fresh Air.

Is it perfect? No, but at least it is something other than a FPS/RPG/Platformer.

Game FAQs Ranking:  #95/100
My Rating: cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586cropped-smooth-star-e1545863035586

[INTRODUCTION]

First let me say that L.A. Noire has problems: it gives zero reason for replay; the main sleuthing mechanic can be harsh while also irrelevant; the seemingly bustling city of 1940s LA is actually vapid and superficial. But, we’ll get into all of that later.

What matters now is to express that L.A. Noire quenched a thirst I didn’t know I had. I forgot in the 90s that video game genres weren’t genres; they were just ideas not fully realized. You went into games not exactly understanding what it meant to play an RPG because the game developers didn’t know themselves what that should exactly play like.

Overtime, these genres became ossified. While we have to learn new mechanics with every game, they are just a superficial button-layout of memorization away from mastery.

It was a revelation to have to understand something wholly new.

Yes, L.A. Noire uses the third person GTA game mechanics as the foundation, but it integrates it within a completely different element of interrogation which is unlike any game I have played before. Nestled along with this new mechanic is a bittersweet story that unfolds through your investigation that is as worthy as any Noire novel or movie.

Throughout the game, you must interrogate people and push and prod to get important information. Choosing the wrong technique will only get you blow back.

[THE GOOD]

Let’s Set the Stage.

You play as Cole Phelps, a decorated WWII veteran returned home to become a patrol officer. He quickly rises in the ranks due to his exceptional detective skills and ardent idealism. This is juxtaposed against the times he finds himself in: the LAPD’s idea of justice is bending the will of the police force to protect the elites of the city. The closer he gets to the truth about the how the system works, the closer he gets to his demise.

The story is the main driver of the game. While the beginning investigations have no overarching purpose other than to introduce you to game mechanics, they slowly become more and more integral to the main theme of the corrupted political and justice system.

The veneer of LA perfectly reflects 1940s aesthetic.

The game nails immersion. The detail is stunning as buildings, fashion, products, and advertising have all been perfectly recreated to create a functioning simulacrum of 1940s America. This can be easily appreciated as the game plays out on a very intimate level; you actively go through people’s homes, travel the city, and talk to people. It would have been easy to notice incongruencies, but nothing is out of place here.

It is fascinating to be surrounded by people doing without technology. The ennui drips as you see people seperated in the corners of a bar. It is crazy to think we are approaching a full 100 years since this was the human condition.

Smokey filled bars with people drinking their problems away is a common theme of LA Noire.

Just the Facts Ma’am.

Along with setting and story, the games central mechanic is fascinating. A typical case has you investigating the crime scene for clues, interrogating witnesses, and funneling down to a prime suspect.

Looking for clues is as straightforward as you would expect. You enter the premises and a vibration happens with any item of interest. You are able to pick up these items and rotate them using the control stick. Some things are junk (like an old pack of cigarettes), but other things pique your interest (like a bloodied knife thrown away in the trash can).

Is it just a shoe or the final piece of evidence you need? Sometimes, it is hard to tell.

With the clues in your notebook, you then interrogate the witnesses. This is where the beauty, and ultimately the frustration, of LA Noire comes out.

After someone makes a statement, you have three choices: truth, doubt, lie. Truth is when you feel like the person is telling the truth (duh). Doubt is when you think they are lying, but don’t have any direct evidence to contradict their testimony. Lie is when you not only think they are lying but you also have hard evidence that counters their claims.

Interrogations are anxiety-riddled affairs. It requires you to analyze the body language and facial expressions of your suspects. The person calmly telling the truth will maintain eye contact and be steady while those hiding something will begin to fidget, moving their body and neck to release the tension. Many times it comes down between whether to doubt or challenge a lie.

ANXIETY.

To make things a bit more strategic, there are things called “intuition” points that you earn from solving cases and responding to APBs. This removes one of the options and narrows the applicable evidence making it easier to successfully challenge a lie. This can make the process go smoother, but there are not many points to go around.

Your notebook keeps track of POI and evidence.

While there are problems with its execution (we get there next), there is no denying it was fresh and intriguing. It felt so good to be in unknown territory, completely in the dark of what to do next.

[THE BAD]

Just One More Thing.

While the interrogation aspect is riveting, it eventually becomes a chore and ultimately doesn’t matter. No matter how poorly you do during an investigation, the show must go on to push the story forward. Since the story is the main reason to play, you aren’t punished in any significant way other than receiving a low grade at the end of the case.

While this seems like it would be a good replay opportunity, it really isn’t. During each investigation, there are multiple suspects and witnesses that are asked a handful of questions each. It is hard to return to a case and remember exactly which questions you got wrong. You only get ONE swing during these interrogations: with so many pieces of evidence to choose from, it is easy to get an accusation wrong on replay spoiling the whole thing.

Five star case reports only matter to those going for achievements.

There is a particular case where you have two suspects, and it is up to you to book the right one. Each have equal evidence of being involved. After twiddling my thumbs, I just chose a guy and was berated for how I put the wrong guy behind bars. I was immediately shuffled onto the next case without any blow back.

It was ultimately deflating to find out how little my actions actually mattered. If it weren’t for such an intriguing story, I’m not sure the sleuthing mechanics could have weathered the problems.

Skin Deep.

Driving around in LA is fascinating. Experiencing it is another matter.

I can’t imagine the amount of time spent replicating an entire Los Angeles full of cars, people, and locations. It’s a shame that there really is no reason to admire the hard work.

What usually happened to me when driving in LA.

The game requires that you drive between locations during cases. This is so you feel immersed and feel like there is a connection between the isolated cases you are investigating and the thriving city they happen in. Driving immediately became one of my least favorite activities.

Outside of a little banter with your LAPD partner, driving serves no purpose other than to rack up property damage. Obeying traffic adds several minutes to your driving time and is an absolute waste. Driving like a banshee gets you to your destination faster but puts every pedestrian in LA at risk. Destroying property or putting people at risk lowers your case grade.

The game has a built in feature where you can just ask your partner to drive. Here, you can still have the bantar, but when the conversation is over, it skips to a loading screen and fast forwards to your destination. I found myself more and more frequently using this feature meaning I spent less and less time in the city they spent so much effort in recreating.

The side quests in LA Noire are mini-games involving street crime and add no value to the game.

Another reason to drive is that you will hear a dispatcher alert you to crime. If you decide to accept, you will drive to what essentially amounts to a side quest where Cole has to resolve a street crime. Completing street crimes do come with a prize: they improve your rank and gain you intuition points that you can use to be better at interrogations.

Unfortunately, they succumb to the superficial nature of everything outside of the sleuthing mechanics in LA Noire.

These crimes typically are where you have to subdue or eliminate criminals. This involves chasing people on foot, hand-to-hand combat, or shoot outs. All of these “modes” aren’t really good enough to stand on their own outside the context of the story mode. They are simultaneously mind-numbingly easily while having some catch that is extremely frustrating. You’ll spend 98% of your time day-dreaming and then have to jump to it for the 2% that requires ultimate precision.

They are usually very, very out of the way from where your cases happen. This means you have to survive the mean streets of LA driving for several minutes before your even arrive at the destination of the street crime.

The juice just isn’t worth the squeeze.

The best boy.

[CONCLUSION]

I was just happy to play something that wasn’t the 13th iteration of Final Fantasy turn-based fighting. The story and setting are amazing and the innovative sleuth mechanics do a lot of heavy lifting even if ultimately the game falls short on gameplay.

Other People’s Takes:

  • Chrism227 Blog: Overall, although some aspects of the game are a bit unconventional and experimental, and the game is heavily scripted and linear (as in the story still continues even if you flop the interrogations), it’s still a very fun game with a compelling story and excellent graphics.”
  • Gamer Girl Magazine: “There are some engaging moments – but this is little and far between. There’s not much to say, but it’s an ambitious game and it didn’t deliver fully. It’s still worth checking out if you like noir or detective games, but don’t expect too much.
  • SwitchUK: It’s unfortunate, really, that games like L.A. Noire come around so infrequently, considering how well received they tend to be when they do. What kind of game am I talking about? Smart, cerebral games that force the player not to think; not just about individual puzzles, but also about the bigger picture.

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