Your name is Cole Phelps, and you’re going to become the Los Angeles Police Department’s brightest-shining star. But first, you have to work your way to the top.
Siobhan Keogh | Monday, June 27 2011
Platform: PS3; Xbox 360
Test Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Team Bondai; Publisher: Rockstar Games
A good, slick game, but too flawed to be a great one.
You walk down dark alleys carrying a flashlight. You drive 70-year-old cars with sirens that sound like Civil Defence alarms. You watch beautiful women perform sad songs and listen to smooth jazz on the radio. Your name is Cole Phelps, and you’re going to become the Los Angeles Police Department’s brightest-shining star. But first you have to work your way to the top.
Before you play Detective Phelps, you have to play Officer Phelps, a beat cop and ex-military man. In the world of L.A. Noire, Phelps is a jaded war hero who valiantly defended his country against the Japanese in World War II and earned himself the Silver Star.
The atmosphere created in L.A. Noire is one of the most developed, artistic experiences I’ve ever seen in a game. Before playing, I thought that the game would borrow elements from film noir, but L.A. Noire simply is film noir. Newspapers spin at the screen and shout headlines, Phelps traipses around in the rain looking for clues, and the sandbox world is an immaculate recreation of 1947 Los Angeles. Film noir is a celebration of darkness, of the seedy underbelly of society, and Noire captures that feeling perfectly.
Interestingly, Cole Phelps isn’t just voiced by Aaron Staton of Mad Men fame, but actually played by him as well. No, it’s not live action – developer Team Bondi used new technology to track the movements of an actor’s face, then animate it so gamers can better read characters’ emotions. A cool concept, but to be worthwhile it needs to be crucial to the gameplay – and in L.A. Noire it is.
As you work your way up the desks in the police force – from beat cop to traffic to homicide and then, in what seems like a step down, to vice. On your way you’ll interview many people, and each time you’ll have to determine whether they’re telling the truth or whether they’re lying. You can also ‘doubt’ them, which makes the distinction between ‘doubt’ and ‘lie’ confusing. And here’s where the first of many flaws rears its ugly head.
Let’s say I accuse a suspect of lying about killing someone because I’ve found a bloody murder weapon in their apartment. The suspect might then say something like, “You can’t prove I was at the crime scene!” Because I found the murder weapon at the suspect’s apartment, I can’t place him at the crime scene, even though I can link him to the murder. So I have to back out of the lie and choose ‘doubt’ or risk getting an interview question incorrect. But it makes no sense – I have evidence, just not the right evidence.
The game’s biggest flaw, however, lies in its repetitiveness. There are 21 different cases in the Xbox 360 version of L.A. Noire, and they all play exactly the same, with the exception of maybe two or three cases. Your character goes to a crime scene, looks around for clues – a potential clue makes the controller vibrate when you walk near it – then interviews a suspect, which is nearly always followed by an action sequence. Action sequences take a few different forms – you can get into a fistfight, have a shootout using cover-based combat, chase someone on foot or chase someone in a car.
You’d think that since Rockstar Games of Grand Theft Auto fame also published L.A. Noire and had an obvious influence on it stylistically, the driving mechanics would be near-perfect. Unfortunately, they’re terrible. Every time I got into a car chase I would have to do it three or four times, because the ultra-sensitive controls would send me careening off the road and into a tree when I was merely trying to aim my car 30cm to the left. If you don’t drive near-perfectly, you can’t keep up with your suspect. Fortunately, if you fail a car chase three times the game will ask if you want to skip the action sequence, but I was too stubborn to take the out and got endlessly frustrated. Pro tip: focus on controlling the car rather than speed and you’ll fare better.
Because of the incessant repetition, I got bored about halfway through the game. So bored, in fact, that I wouldn’t have finished it if I weren’t being paid to do so. Fortunately, getting to the end proved to be worth the effort.
If L.A. Noire looks like a classic Rockstar sandbox game and quacks like onegame, then gamers could be forgiven for assuming it is, but Noire is actually very linear. There’s really no incentive to explore the environment, partially because it’s such a great recreation of 1940s LA. I could hardly tell the difference between the suburbs.
One way of exploring is by solving street crimes – cases you accept when you get a call from dispatch on your way to the main story missions – but the street crimes don’t add to the storyline. The game’s linear style isn’t a bad thing, exactly, but you should go into the game aware that your world only appears to be open or you may be disappointed. I ended up getting my partner to do most of the driving because there was no real point in doing it myself.
It may seem like I’ve been quite hard on L.A. Noire, but it really is a good game. It just has the unfortunate distinction of being compared to other games published by Rockstar, and it doesn’t hold its own. Fans of film noir will love it as art, but I don’t know how anyone can ignore the long, dull period in the middle of the game. L.A. Noire is similar to its protagonist in many respects – overall good, and true to itself, but still deeply flawed. That may make a perfect hero, but it doesn’t make a perfect game.
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