This review was originally published on the Femme Gamer website and is reprinted with the permission of the author.
L.A. Noire’s main protagonist, Cole Phelps, is a returning war hero and newly-minted beat cop in 1947 Los Angeles. By successfully investigating crime scenes and arresting criminals, he eventually becomes a detective, and works his way up through the ranks of LAPD’s Traffic, Vice, Arson and Homicide divisions. Cases are rarely as clear-cut as they first appear, however, and simple murder investigations can wind up revealing sweeping conspiracies involving some of the most powerful people in the city. Finding the various newspapers scattered throughout the city reveals a wartime drama that tells us more about Cole’s experiences during the war, experiences which ultimately intersect with his present in shocking ways.
The gameplay in L.A. Noire is divided up into cases that you and your partner will have to work through. Typically you’ll start most cases by being given a quick overview in the police department’s briefing room, then you’ll head out to the crime scene, and get to work compiling clues and evidence. Once you arrive on the scene, you’ll need to search both the surrounding area and any bodies that are present, and also question any possible witnesses or persons of interest involved with the crime.
A word of warning: some of the crime scenes are quite graphic, and you probably won’t want to play these sections around children or the squeamish. Uncovering new information from clues or questioning, will open up other avenues of investigation, and usually result in either apprehending or killing a suspect, often after a shoot out or car/foot chase. Some cases will involve more than one suspect, and you will have to use interrogation techniques and evidence in order to choose which suspect to charge.
The driving and shooting parts of the game are done well, but the investigation and interrogation sections are where the game really shines (once you overcome their initial, somewhat frustrating learning curve). Playing L.A. Noire is fairly idiot-proof, because you’ll still be able to complete all of the cases even if you don’t necessarily do so in the best way. There are lots of car chases and shoot outs, but you’ll have the option of bypassing the more challenging action sequences if they continue to give you trouble. You can fast travel to most case destinations by having your partner drive. Although doing so means you’ll miss out on the optional “street” missions that only come in over the police radio while you’re driving. You can free roam anywhere you like on the map and there are hidden cars and gold film reels to hunt down for achievements, but that’s pretty much the extent of the game’s sandbox content.
The much-hyped facial motion capture technology used in L.A. Noire is every bit as impressive as it’s supposed to, providing for incredibly realistic performances by the actors. That being said, there is sometimes the slightest bit of deviation between what the actor’s face is doing and what the body is doing for the character. The sound effects and graphics are generally where they should be for this quality of game, although most of the textures look like the sort of thing we’ve seen before from other games. As for the game world itself, the city of LA in huge and feels very much alive around you, although the AI of pedestrians and drivers is a bit quirky and can cause frustration from time to time.
The music for L.A. Noire is a mix of original score, licensed music and original vocal tracks created for the game. The score by Andrew Hale is more cinematic than I typically like game music to be, but works exceptionally well here due to the gameplay and stylistically noir setting. The licensed tracks overheard on the car radio at random while driving around are a great collection of popular tunes from the era, with a mix of stuff that everyone’s heard and more obscure tunes. The original Blue Room vocal tracks (composed by The Real Tuesday Weld and sung by Claudia Brucken of Propaganda) are believably smooth and sultry, if a bit uninspired. There are some aspects of the soundtrack that I like more than others, but generally it’s all solid and terrific work.
L.A. Noire is very cinematic in nature, so much so that the experience often feels a lot more like watching a film than playing a game. The quaint glamor of 1947 Los Angeles as it’s portrayed here is charming, but racist and sexist views are also socially acceptable, and openly expressed by the characters in a way that’s perhaps true to life; still, they can be a bit cringe-inducing at times. Cole Phelps is an interesting and layered character, though something of an enigma compared to the sort of protagonist I’m used to playing in a game of this nature. Very little information is revealed about Cole’s inner world, home life, or motivations and this makes it challenging to feel a bond with him or care much about how his personal story plays out. Later in the game, I found other characters with more minor roles, such as Jack Kelso and Herschel Biggs, to be more relatable and emotionally engaging.
Part action adventure and part murder mystery with a dash of sandbox game thrown in, L.A. Noire has many appealing gameplay elements. I can’t help but feel that there are missing bits of plot here and there, as certain plot points seem to happen out of the blue and the characters will sometimes make references to events that we’re never shown. Nevertheless, the story builds up well over the course of the game and definitely holds your interest until the end. Overall, L.A. Noire is a polished and fun gameplay experience that has a lot more strengths than it does weaknesses. I’d definitely recommend checking it out, if it sounds like the sort of title that catches your interest.
L.A. Noire was developed by Rockstar Games, and is available for Playstation and XBox platforms.