I’ve been playing L.A. Noire for about 3-4 hours (which equates to the first 6 cases in-game), and I’m loving every bit of it. If you enjoy detective work, solving crimes or adventure games in general, you should check L.A. Noire out.
Simple, Stylish, Effective
The start screen is a simple, but effective one, that of the game’s logo. The main menu is just as stylish — a car’s headlights in the background shines into the alley, and the text is shown as shadows on the wall. Sounds a little weird, so just check this video. The opening cutscene introduces you to the game’s setting: Los Angeles, the City of Angels, set in 1947. You play as Cole Phelps, LAPD Detective and decorated war hero. The first few levels serve as a tutorial to the basics — investigating a crime scene, chasing and questioning suspects, as well as engaging armed criminals (i.e. shoot-outs).
Each level starts off with a brief cutscene prior to the start of the case, and you’ll begin your investigation thereafter. In the first case you’ll investigate a dark alley at night where a shooting has just taken place. The game offers various cues which lets you know you’re on the right track: if you approach an item of interest, your controller vibrates and a soft chime plays over the investigation music — which in turn, plays when you enter a crime scene. The music only stops when you finish going over all the clues, so you know you’re still missing something if it doesn’t. That and your partner will tell you to go back and continue searching if you start walking off. It may seem like the game is holding your hand (which it does, actually, and at least for the first few levels) but it’s an effective way to signal players.
When you pick up an item of interest, you can use the left thumbstick to turn the object in your hand, which really helps to further immerse you into the game world. Not all items will serve as actual clues though. You’ll get plenty of bottles, cigarette packs and what not, in which case Phelps will mutter something along the lines of “this doesn’t pertain to the case” — yet another form of contextual cue. The same applies when inspecting a dead body, where you get to choose various parts to examine (head, left/right hand and shirt pocket). It feels kind of surreal (and eerie?) tilting and twisting a corpse’s head and hands, but hey, tell that to the coroner.
The clues you pick up have a great level of detail, from the victim’s driving license to letters from an insurance company, you can pick them up and read the fine print as though you’re actually holding it. Each time you find a clue, you’ll also update it as an entry into your notebook — the quintessential companion of every detective. Remember, they didn’t have fancy smartphones or PDAs then (and apparently, they didn’t have gloves either). Entries are recorded in pencil, with shaded portraits and sketches of clues (add another point to the game’s style). After gathering enough clues, your next stop will be to the suspect’s or next-of-kin’s place of residence, where you can search for more clues. You’ll be talking to them as well; asking questions as represented by important points in your notebook. For each dialogue you can choose “Truth”, “Doubt” or “Lie” to continue with the line of investigation. If you played Phoenix Wright, “Doubt” is pretty much the equivalent of “Hold It!” and “Lie” equates to “Objection!” “Truth” is, well, just that, “press A to continue”.
You’ll have to observe the interviewee carefully and watch for signs that he/she may not be particularly forthcoming — nervous twitching, shifting of the body, not making eye contact with you etc. I couldn’t tell the difference between “Doubt” and “Lie” at first, but later on I realized that “Lie” is for cases when you have evidence to support your claim, whereas for “Doubt” you don’t. To help you out in your choices, there is a detective level system in-game where you gain experience for successfully questioning people of interest. For every few levels, you’ll gain intuition points which — similar to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? — can be used to remove a conversation option (leaving you with 2 to choose from) or Ask the Community (which shows how other players approached the situation). For the latter, you’ll have to be signed in to Rockstar’s Social Club network though. At any time you can also look up from your notebook to see how the interviewee is responding, or press the Start button to look at the transcript of the conversation.
A living, breathing city
Besides the high level of detail you get from investigating, the general feel of the game is much the same. You’ve heard of the advanced facial expressions, and they’re definitely not just gimmicks. Characters squint, arch their eyebrows, grin (the list goes on) realistically, and it’s not just during the interview/interrogation sequences. They do so during regular conversations (like when you’re talking to your partner) too. Body animation is great too, and for once, characters actually climb staircases — each footstep corresponds to each step on the staircase, and characters (well, mostly Phelps since you’re controlling and looking at him) lift their feet one by one as they climb. Hold the Run button, and you’ll see him take two steps at a time. Go down the stairs, and he’ll glance down to watch his steps as well. While in a brawl, I had my hat knocked off from me, and after apprehending the suspect in a cutscene, I was put back in control of Phelps. In other games you might expect the hat to be magically back on again, but in L.A. Noire, it stayed where it landed. As I walked over to it, my character bent down, picked it up, and put it back on. Again, a small touch, but it works wonders.
Onlookers gather at crime scenes, and will comment as you walk near them. You can tell them to buzz off, at which point some of them will start walking away whereas others will take a few lingering looks before skulking off. Sometimes you won’t get any response from individuals if you try to interact with them, but if you ask me, I don’t usually talk to random people on the streets either. Last example: at the crime scene, a forensics staff was taking photographs of the evidence, and I went right up in front of him. He looked up from the camera and told me to move away (“Gangway, Detective!”). When I wouldn’t, he gave up and went somewhere else to take his photographs. The game has certainly been fine-tuned down to the smallest details to increase the level of immersion.
The game isn’t without its faults though. Texture pop-ins occur, although not very often (it was probably only once or twice in a single playthrough), and certainly not as often as another game I’ve played recently. Cases don’t seem to be connected to each other (so far, at least) so you’re just moving on from one case to the next. But in the end, L.A. Noire is still a fantastic game that has much more good points than it has bad. I mentioned Phoenix Wright earlier, and if you enjoyed it, you can think of L.A. Noire as Phoenix Wright if he turned into a detective, went back to LA in the 1940’s, got more serious and took steroids. And got rid of his spikey hair. OK, maybe not but hopefully you get the idea. Now, I must return to ridding the streets of LA from crime.