Who said that being a cop was easy?
L.A. Noire is an old favorite of mine. I’ve owned three copies so far; one on the Xbox 360, one non-functional copy on Steam, and now the Xbox One port. I wanted to get the game on the Nintendo Switch, but between the higher cost and horrendous amount of storage space required, I decided that the Xbox One version would suit me just fine.
In fact, here’s my disclaimer: L.A. Noire is a game that’s best on PlayStation or Xbox.
My other disclaimer is that while L.A. Noire isn’t perfect, it’s definitely worth consideration, and here’s why…
One thing that doesn’t make it into the dozens of procedural crime dramas on TV is the tremendous amounts of note-taking that detectives apparently suffer through. It’s odd that a game would include so much clerical work, but L.A. Noire takes what would be a monumentally dull task of connecting the dots to make a case against a suspect, and makes it fun.
The majority of L.A. Noire consists of collecting clues and interviewing witnesses and persons of interest (POIs), with short segments of gunfights and car chases interspersed throughout.
Oh my… I’m making L.A. Noire sound extremely boring.
No! No, I say! Prowling crime scenes for clues and grilling witnesses is very detailed, requiring you to make note of the evidence you’ve found. Finding the right suspect requires thorough scrutiny of the facts at hand, which means interrogations that involve connecting the dots. Of course, suspects aren’t just going to give a soliloquy confessing their crimes simply because you have the right information; you need to make sure that you’re reading them right.
Each interrogation involves determining not only if the suspect is telling the truth or lying, but also if you have ample evidence to back up your assertions. Before the remaster on PS4, the Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One, the three different options were Truth, Doubt, and Lie. They’ve since been changed to Good Cop, Bad Cop, and Accuse; supposedly to better match the dialogue options. The way it works is that if you believe the suspect, you go with Good Cop/Truth. If you’re suspicious that they’re holding out, you take the Bad Cop/Doubt route. Otherwise, if they’re just omitting or bending the truth, it’s best to choose Accuse/Lie, and pair that accusation with the corresponding evidence to back it up.
In order to achieve the best results for cases, it’s necessary to complete the interrogations accurately, since failing to properly read POIs and suspects can mean you don’t gain valuable information or possibly even fail the case entirely. Team Bondi did an amazing job pairing great actors with the right technology to make reading POIs and suspects as realistic as possible, though sometimes the sheer obviousness of
Cole’s victims those POIs and suspects lies are a little jarring.
Balancing out L.A. Noire‘s legwork are driving segments, gun fights, car chases, street crime activities, and collectibles. You probably already know how I feel about collectibles, but the rest ranges from competent mechanics to downright terrible additions.
Street crimes add a little variety to the driving around, with about 40 or so crimes to respond to. Occasionally, when you’re roaming the streets with your partners, you’re given the chance to respond to calls from dispatch. The street crimes themselves don’t have nearly the same depth as the actual cases, but they can give you a little variety to break up the evidence collection in a case. Luckily, ignoring the street crimes don’t negatively affect you in the end, which is good because sometimes they’re often extremely far away on the map from where you’re at in a case. Thankfully, there’s an option to let your partner drive to your destination, saving you the hassle of having to drive from one end of the map to another.
The map itself is rather large, sporting a large section of post-WWII Los Angeles, with period-specific vehicles and reasonably accurate depictions of life at the time. Getting a hold of someone requires accessing a landline and actually calling them, getting addresses and information for your cases means calling the LAPD’s switchboard operator, and there aren’t any fancy techniques or gadgets like DNA analysis or GPS tracking to help you out.
Because you’re not reliant on high-tech CSI wizardry, you’re allowed to do the police work, which is the fun part of L.A. Noire.
However, there are parts of L.A. Noire that aren’t fun. Most notably are the driving and shooting sections. Cover mechanics are used, but they’re incredibly dated, with snap-on functions built in that are designed to keep you from edging out of cover. Unfortunately, you aren’t guaranteed to be safe in a firefight just because you’re hiding behind something, even though Cole is held in place like a rare-earth magnet to a block of iron. Enemies can easily hit you even behind cover, and the shooting mechanics themselves are stiff.
The same can be said for the driving and foot chase sections, where you’re required to stop a suspect in order to move on with your case. These chase sections are heavily scripted though, just like in Grand Theft Auto. Rubber-banding is extreme in many instances, and once you realize this, the chases seem less like a game mechanic and more like a set piece you’re required to suffer through.
These sections also bring other flaws of L.A. Noire to light, like the fact that failing a section means being forced to relive the preceding cutscenes over and over, until you finish the section. Even failing a chase multiple times means that you need to watch the same thing over and over again.
That said, Team Bondi made it possible to skip action sequences after multiple failed attempts, but it would’ve been far more welcome to just be able to skip cutscenes you’ve already seen.
Team Bondi put heavy emphasis on making sure that the characters in the game had realistic facial animations and mannerisms, and that matters here. L.A. Noire relies on the player being able to read people well, and without excellent facial animations showing the tells of a lying suspect, L.A. Noire would be dead in the water. I can easily say that L.A. Noire has absolutely phenomenal motion capture tech behind it, and that’s what makes the game such a memorable experience. When you’re interviewing a witness, you actually feel like you’re reading their truthfulness based on their eye contact and body language.
Also, despite being a game from 2011, L.A. Noire still looks rather good. It’s a shame that there really wasn’t much done to capitalize on the colossal between the last generation of consoles and the current one, but that doesn’t take away from the core experience.
Granted, there’s a PC version out there that can be played by some people, but I wasn’t one of those fortunate few. Beware buying the Steam version of L.A. Noire, because it’s an unoptimized mess. I made the mistake of buying L.A. Noire before Valve allowed refunds, and I was treated to a cold “we’re sorry, but…” email from Valve explaining that I was SOL.
What you can expect, assuming you play one of the working versions, is muddy environment textures, and occasionally poorly rendered face textures as well. Additionally, L.A. Noire is a buggy game still; I was treated to multiple hard crashes on the Xbox One, though I don’t know what to expect from other versions.
Futhermore, there’s evidence of a lack of polish in some conversations as well, with several instances of dialogue being cut off between characters. I’m by no means an expert in voice over audio, but I can recognize when sentences are poorly spliced together.
L.A. Noire steps out of the modern era and into the past, and puts players in the shoes of a cop trying to do his job by the letter of the law. That means following protocol (for the most part), and looking for the best possible suspect before charging anyone for a crime. L.A. Noire isn’t about killing, but about justice. It follows in the line of hardboiled fiction, pitting the character against both criminals and corruption within the government.
It’s nice to play a game that doesn’t focus so heavily on combat, and puts player intuition and knowledge to the test.
Something you’ll quickly learn between the main story of L.A. Noire and the intervening flashbacks to the Pacific theater in WWII is that Cole Phelps is a man of intense ambition. He seeks glory and recognition to a fault, and even when he gets knocked down a peg or two, he consistently finds himself looking up to the next best thing in his future.
He began as a gung-ho Marine, an officer candidate with delusions of grandeur, hellbent on making a name for himself. Inevitably, after the war ended and he began his career with the LAPD, he does the exact same thing. Cole isn’t content to be just another police officer, he wants to be the best damn police officer on the force, no matter the cost. His exploits in the present are paralleled by his past, and the consequences of the war take a foothold in Los Angeles around him.
The story of L.A. Noire is masterfully concocted, calling back to detective stories back in the day: jaded, beaten cops trying to deal with all the horrible crime and politics surrounding their daily lives. Cole tries his damnedest to rise above it all, to a degree of success perhaps. But the pursuit of making his name in Los Angeles takes its toll.
What interested me most about L.A. Noire‘s story is that the developers didn’t try to make Cole out to be a savior or anti-hero. He’s a zealot of justice that does whatever it takes to get the job done, as long as it doesn’t compromise his beliefs. His fervor and passion become his undoing though, and I have to commend a story that doesn’t attempt to paint a rosy picture of the main character.
WILDCARD: BAD COP, WORSE COP
As I mentioned earlier, Cole Phelps is a flawed, determined character. He isn’t content to let people off the hook, and it shows during his interviews of witnesses. Cole’s aggressive interrogation dialogue influenced Rockstar’s decision to modify L.A. Noire‘s interview choice labels to better depict the choice made, to some degree of success. In order to complete cases with the greatest degree of success, the player is required to use their judgment to properly leverage the “Good Cop, Bad Cop” routine to draw out the truth, only instead of the routine involving two people taking the different roles, Cole adopts a split personality of sorts.
It can be a little jarring at times (and sometimes borderline comical) to see Cole’s rapid personality changes. He can go from a sympathetic ear to a witness one moment, to making sweeping accusations the next moment. While I can understand the reason that Team Bondi chose this particular portrayal of Cole – a man that does whatever it takes to get to the truth – watching Cole off the deep end on a witness often feels like it comes out of nowhere.
But then again, that’s just the kind of cop that Cole is.
What L.A. Noire does right, it does really right. The only problem here is that it isn’t all right. It’s a flawed gem of gaming, filling a gap in my gaming catalog that I didn’t know I was missing until I gave it a shot back in 2012. It makes me happy that one of my old favorites has seen a re-release on this newest generation, even though the Switch version I wanted to get is only slightly better than the non-functional PC port.
What drew me in and held my attention, both then and now, is the immense attention to detail of portraying life in the late ’40s, the gritty detective story, the flawed characters that seem like they’re straight out of a ’50s crime drama, and the intense interrogations. L.A. Noire is not a game that I’d recommend for everyone, but those looking for something to play that veers outside the normal genres and want to try something a little different, I’d say “give it a shot”.
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