It was a cold Spring morning, and the smell of malt hung in the air. Grey slanting rain beat down puddles on the sidewalk like a drunken boxer, hammering his own reflection in a broken mirror. Outside an unassuming semi-detached, somewhere on the fringe of surburbia, the crime scene was as busy as a good steakhouse at feeding time. The coroner hid under his umbrella and smoked as his assistants loaded the postman’s body onto the gurney, ready for the morgue. Bullet casings littered the garden path. His chalk outline was already gone, but the blood was still visible as it ran red down the gutters and into the drain.
No folks, not the opening case of Team Bondi/Rockstar’s L.A. Noire, merely what I imagined happening had said postie dared to put one of those little ‘we tried to deliver but…’ cards through my letterbox and preventing me from getting my potentially GSR-stained hands on the most eagerly anticipated game of the year so far.
As with any new release bearing the Rockstar imprint, L.A. Noire has been trailered with cinematic tasters, blanket press coverage with rumours of their biggest ever open-world-type game yet, claiming a bigger map even than the sprawling GTA: San Andreas and promising 50′s detective thrills and kills. The game casts you (and Mad Men alumni Aaron Staton) as WW2 survivor Cole Phelps, working his way through the ranks of the LAPD, encountering dope pushers, jazz singers, old comrades, and corruption seeping from every pore of a beautifully realised city.
The game begins with a gritty narrator grumbling over a montage of Los Angeles life, the developers immediately displaying their research by showing the Hollywoodland sign still sporting its original appendage. Casting hopefuls line up for the dirty movie couch, property developers beam from billboards at the thought of their bold profiteering, doctors espouse the values of psychiatry and self-obsession; the twinkling night-time lights of the City of Angels fail to illuminate the black shadows that are cast daily under the hot sun. It is in these shadows you will investigate – the dark side of the post-War American Dream, where sex, money and narcotics are the holy trinity and anyone who stands in your way is just another potential homicide ‘client’.
With queasy jazz strings soundtracking your every move, the game throws you in to your maiden case with a brief tutorial of driving, evidence collection and interview technique that works well, and you’ll find yourself tearing through the Traffic desk to other departments in no time, assisted along the way by a string of partners, including the slow and steady Bukowski, through the irritating but well-meaning Finbar ‘Rusty’ Galloway, the grey-and-pink suited dandy that is Vice Squad’s Roy Earle and more.
Evidence collection sees you searching the scene, looking for glints of light reflecting, listening for the telltale chimes or feeling the rumble pack hinting at something worth investigating. These may take the form of many objects, from property ledgers to family photographs, parts of gas heaters to bloody lengths of rope. Often you will be able to manipulate these to reveal clues that can be used in the interviews.
Interviewing is based on a simple set of responses to the interviewees — truth, doubt or lie are your optional responses, depending on if you believe the suspect, doubt them or have evidence to prove they are falsifying their account. You must collect the necessary evidence that will help reveal the truth behind the various cases, and judge your suspects according to not only their words and your evidence but a host of non-verbal tics from dry mouths, squirming in the seat, furtive glances, nervous hand-wringing, twitchy eyebrows or any number of giveaways. These three options allow diverse paths through conversation, which is constantly branching in different ways — accusing someone may cause them to clam up, but doubting an honest person may stir their guilt and see an outpouring of important information — it all depends on the situation.
Much has been written about the motion-capture skills of Team Bondi, and it is clear to see they’ve made a massive difference in the quality of both facial and body animation with this game. There’s lots of fun to be had spotting Staton’s fellow Mad Men cast throughout the game, and it’s clear to see why they were so keen to get on board — this game is in a level of it’s own when it comes to the dramatic side of things. Cutscenes and interviews are almost indistinguishable as you get swept along in the cinematic atmosphere of things, and the claim for two series’ worth of dialogue seems to be almost modest as you enter into the heady heights of homicide. Picking up newspapers scattered across the various locations gives you a cut scene filling in not only your backstory but that of your marine buddies, and is an effective device for driving forward the slowly unravelling plot.
Graphically, the city looks lush but perhaps not spectacular in the driving sections — authentic, certainly, but not the next step up in realism. The style is heavy on the sun-bleached pastel-housed Los Angeles of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, and the bold lines of the old-style cars almost give it a cartoon feel in some ways. However the more you pry at crime scenes, poke dead bodies and chase criminals at high speed, the step up does become apparent.
The locations varied and detailed enough to bear close inspection well — from the ashen hulks of burned out buildings found on the Arson desk, rendered glorious in white ash and black charcoal, to the hall of records bedecked with its gleaming marble surfaces. Shop windows have rotating displays as opposed to flat textures, furniture warehouses are full of diverse and different items instead of four stock repeated ones, and the bloodstains shine on the railroad tracks.
There’s no question that Team Bondi have created a world of very appealing appearance, and her soundtrack is no different. Featuring an excellent original score by Andrew Hale, reminiscent of Bernard Hermann, Jerry Goldsmith or Adolph Deutsch’s noir classics, full of flugelhorn, saxophones, clarinets, uneasy orchestral strings and even the odd vibraphone, the presentation of the game is as perfect as a Raymond Chandler simile.
Somewhere around the fifth or sixth case, the deeper differences between this and it’s open-world predecessors Red Dead Redemption and GTA slowly reveal themselves. Having no home base other than the various police stations, and being thrown straight in to the next case immediately after finishing the last means that open-world roaming is restricted by your ability to defer the all-encompassing plot arcs and wander off, risking the five star status of your next case report if you cause too much city, civilian or vehicle damage. The inability to draw your weapon at will, and the lack of personal possessions e.g. guns, vehicles or houses, means that the only real distractions from the main cases are sightseeing, film reel hunting, and the street beat cases which while full of variety in themselves, mainly reiterate parts of the game from elsewhere, with you shooting, chasing and subduing various subjects.
As you chase cases to their conclusions, making a reputation for yourself – every two minutes someone recognises you on the street as ‘that cop from the newspapers’ — the gameplay begins to sag under the weight of the storyline, the repetitive shuffle of pursuing suspects, clue searching, interviews and driving from place to place (a task your partner will actually help you with — a rarity) grinding as you get closer to the heart of various mysteries.
There are welcome puzzle-solving elements that see you re-assembling broken machinery, playing with fruit machines, even traversing a garden maze, and some well-constructed set-pieces — a superb early example sees you navigating a crumbling film set while escorting a suspect, all while a posse of gangster goons try to pick you both off. As someone who found most of GTA IV’s missions incredibly dull, I was glad of these diversions, but nothing really staves off the monotony that sets in about halfway through the game. I wonder if the aforementioned lack of ‘home’ and the relentless drive into cases actually hurts the game in making it seem more repetitive than it actually is – if you had encouragement to free roam on your way to the police station in the morning, or on the way home after a successful prosecution it may feel less claustrophobic.
Relying on the plot to drive your progress in the game is a risky business, and often the last few cases of any particular desk (Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson – more to come as DLC, including Burglary) feel rushed through for that next big reveal. It’s as if you lose control of the game and instead it begins to play you, becoming more and more an interactive movie, with actions on your part failing to register, and the plot plodding ever onwards regardless of your input.
The finesse with which it’s packaged means it’s enjoyable nonetheless, but it fails to quite match the synergy of plot and action that worked so well in Rockstar’s previous titles. A few neat twists towards the end keep you racing for the finish line, but certain elements of the writing let L.A. Noire down as it draws to a conclusion, and it ultimately fails to match either the emotional impact of a top class film or television series, or the gameplay kick of the best games.
I understand this title is supposed to be different from previous sandbox games, and it is the interrogation mechanic and diversity of the paths available that adds longevity, rather than the glory of the action sequences. However, upon replaying previous cases you do realise a lot of the seeming alternative paths are closed off — visiting certain locations in a different order often sees necessary locations closed off, or persons of interest absent. Even when you know someone is guilty as you’ve played a case before, often you can’t make the case any more convincing, or prevent future events.
The lack of appropriate consequences for your actions can see you fail miserably at an interrogation, charge a suspect with flimsy evidence, then being heartily congratulated by the watch captain in the next cutscene. You are demoted and promoted more because of the whims of the plot than your own actions, and here I find one of the most disappointing aspects of L.A. Noire – the lack of key Noir principles. Apart from a few key cases, the game’s Los Angeles has too little personality, whereas in classic Hammett or Chandler, it has, and is, a character in it’s own right. The lack of interior monologue, and the situations where the player knows more than the protagonist at crucial junctures, shifts it out of the Noir idiom, and hurts the game’s key elements of authenticity and atmosphere.
In fact, the opening hard-boiled voiceover only appears a few times before disappearing halfway through the game, the reasons for which are unclear. ‘I was hired for the narration — the job was a sham — we ran out of time and cigarettes, and I was back on unemployment’. Coupling this with a dodgy ‘six months later’ time shift, the absence of Cole’s wife as a character before her key appearance later in the game, and some glitchy elements (freezing and occasional disappearing textures, mainly on the final disc) point to a release that was perhaps a few months too early, and a game that was perhaps too ambitious and too keen to reinvent the genre in one fell swoop.
It may seem harsh to be critical when there are so many plus points, so much innovation, style, and research involved, but there’s no doubt this game perhaps isn’t quite as good as it could have been. L.A. Noire is a stunning achievement that falls a little short of it’s own insatiable ambition.