Thursday, May 26, 2011

Review: L.A. Noire

When a game that's been talked about as much as L.A. Noire has been over the last few months finally sits in your console ready for action, the sense of anticipation is matched by one of trepidation. Let's face it, we've all been here countless times before; expectations built high by hype, with the feeling you're about to embark on a gaming adventure of previously unseen epic proportions, see you utterly deflated after five minute's play. As I've written previously, it's a situation I've encountered more than a few times myself. In many cases the games involved have been superb, it's just that riding into it on the back of hype's wave left me, initially at least, feeling let down.

So, as I heard the familiar sound of L.A. Noire's disc spinning into life, trepidation was the order of the day......I don't know what I was worried about.

L.A. Noire is quite simply, stunning! Without a doubt what we have here is one of the most amazing games that this generation has delivered - in fact, make that any generation.

Team Bondi and Rockstar Games have done an incredible job. They've managed to create a wonderfully authentic game; the outfits, vehicles, music and dialogue all do their bit to transport you back to the 1940s, and the city, recreated using Robert Spence's aerial photographs, is truly incredible. L.A. Noire just oozes atmosphere from start to finish.

If ever a game blurred the lines between game and movie then this is it. Playing as Cole Phelps, a returning war hero, you begin life as an L.A.P.D. Officer walking the beat on the lovingly recreated L.A. streets, Phelps' ambition and drive to succeed sees you quickly climbing the Department's ranks and spending time on the various desks as detective. During your time working on the likes of Homicide and Vice you'll encounter the real underbelly of darkest 1940s L.A. and use a combination of wit and gunfire to deal out some much deserved justice.

The story is a sprawling, twisting, masterpiece. It has the power to grab you and demand your attention from the very off, and believe me when I say that once you take your first footsteps in Cole Phelp's smart shoes there will be little else seeing any action on your console. You can always tell a game is going to be something special when after an hour's play you're already worrying it's all going to be over too soon. Bearing in mind L.A. Noire spans three discs, that's quite something.

Gameplay wise there's a nice mix of styles going on. There are moments that will undoubtedly bring other games to mind. The action sequences are of the GTA and Mafia II variety, you can cruise around L.A. in a large array of vehicles with the music of the times coming merrily from the radio, interspersed with the usual radio DJ waffle. But, of course, in L.A. Noire we're playing the good guys so every now and then the police radio crackles into action with calls for assistance on a variety of incidents taking place at any given time throughout the vast expanse of the city. These can range from bank heists to a husband going nuts at home with a shotgun. Most end in either a shoot-out, chase sequence or hostage situation, but each of these missions has a neat little intro cut scene to at least adds some meat to the bones of the drama. The only problem I found with the side missions is that at times they seemed to be on the other side of the map from where my next main storyline objective was and it could be a bit of a drag getting there. All the side missions are of course optional but if you want to milk everything you can from the game sometimes the only option is to drive.

Shootouts in L.A. Noire are simple yet effective, anyone familiar with either the GTA or Mafia games will know what to expect. We get the classic over the shoulder view, a quick pull of the left trigger to aim and fire away with the right. You can move in and out of cover with the left shoulder button and that's all there really is to it. As I said, simple yet effective, but with one tiny gripe, sometimes movement in and out of and between cover feels a little clunky and it lacks a certain fluidity. It's not enough to ruin an action sequence but can certainly be a tad frustrating at times.

But enough of that because as fun as the action is in L.A. Noire, this is merely a side dish to the true main course of this game - the detective work. Each case within the realms of L.A. Noire is a total gem, from the early more straightforward affairs to the later spiralling, multi-layered mysteries, they're all wonderful. As each new case begins with a title screen, there's an overwhelming sense of intrigue and anticipation for what's to come. A case in L.A. Noire basically runs like this: quick briefing from the Police Captain, head off in the car with your partner to the crime scene, and upon arrival it's now your job to start piecing things together. Examining the body, searching the surroundings for clues and speaking to the coroner and potential witnesses are all key to solving the case. The clues and interviews you conduct at the scene will then open up new leads and the case evolves from there.

As you search the area for clues the game helps you along, firstly with a particular piece of music that plays in the background (the music will continue to play until all clues at the scene have been found), and secondly a chime and pad vibration will alert you when you're near a new clue. Thankfully these hints can be turned off at the menu and I'd strongly recommend doing so. With them on, it just feels a little too much like the game is holding your hand through the investigation and it's far more satisfying to piece everything together yourself.

The interviews throughout each case are superb. Open the notebook and choose to quiz the suspect upon a certain aspect of the case, then observe closely as the suspect answers, before choosing one of three answers to their statement. The choices are, Truth, Doubt and Lie, but beware, if you decide the suspect is lying you better make sure you've the evidence to back this up. Choosing the correct response will open up more dialogue and more potential suspects, get it wrong though and the interrogation will be short lived and fruitless.

Which brings us nicely to the nicely implemented Intuition feature. As you progress along the L.A. Noire road intuition points will be earned. As you climb the ranks these points will build up and can then be spent, hopefully wisely, during investigations. The first situation in which these points can be spent is when searching for clues at a crime scene. Drawing a blank? Then spend an intuition point to highlight where the remaining clues are. Even better is how the points can be used during interrogation segments. Basically, if you find yourself struggling to decipher truth from lies, the brilliance of the characters and voice acting means this can be a fairly frequent occurrence, then it's time to open the intuition bag and get some help.

In the case of interrogations, intuition plays like 'Who wants to be a Millionaire'. Spend a point and choose to either remove one incorrect answer or ask the community. Removing an answer narrows things down to a 50:50 chance of success, while asking the community brings up a percentage next to each answer highlighting the most chosen answer by other gamers. Thankfully, Chris Tarrant is nowhere to be seen throughout this process! Intuition points are a very nice addition to proceedings and at times prove invaluable to a successful outcome of your investigations.

It's hard to do justice to just how seamlessly all this fits together, lets just say that during your time back in 1947, for a few hours you'll completely forget that it's 2011. L.A. Noire's incredible combination of gameplay, graphics and atmosphere will hold you in a sweet hypnotic stupor. It's a game that's had me so involved, I'd probably be reading my divorce papers now had it gone on any longer .

Graphically there's only one place to start really as it's received so much pre-release hype, and that's the facial animations. I'd read plenty about the incredible realism I was about to see within the faces of L.A. Noire's cast of seedy and dubious characters but it hadn't prepared me for playing the game first hand. To put it plainly, the characters within Team Bondi and Rockstar's new baby have a depth that is unparallelled; there's life behind the eyes of these folk. Even the bit part players seem to have stories to tell of living in these bygone times. Combined with possibly the best voice acting ever heard, it amounts to a game with more life and soul within it's fifteen or so hours than any game has managed before. This new depth of character and animation isn't just for show though, it's actually a vital ingredient in separating fact from fiction when interviewing suspects. They say a picture tells a thousand words and a suspect's slight shifty look here or worried look there speaks volumes.

Another nice feature here is the option to change between colour and black and white while playing. I played the first hour or so in colour and it's lovely looking. It's not a shiny and bright sort of lovely though, more a gritty, dark and subdued lovely, and still very impressive all the same. Then I made the switch to black and white and, well, wow! It seems strange to say but take away the colour from the streets of L.A. and the game just takes on a whole new dimension. The previously mentioned facial impressiveness is even more apparent - features take on more detail and it looks truly astounding. Also, of course, the switch to black and white adds a little more authenticity to proceedings and 1947 L.A. bounces out of the screen like some classic old movie you used to watch with Grandad at Christmas, albeit with added bodies and guts.

Sonically the game is solid. Cars sound as they should, guns are nice and loud and the sirens wail beautifully as you put pedal to the metal and roar towards a crime scene. But it's the voice acting that is truly setting the bar to previously unseen highs here. It's phenomenal. Never before have such a cast of inspired characters been put together in the video game world. Every sentence seems to have been well thought out and every performance is inspired. Captain James Donnelly is perhaps the most wonderful character I've ever "met", coming at you like Sean Connery in the Untouchables is a joy to behold.

So what else is there to say? Overall L.A. Noire is compelling, intoxicating, beautiful, dark and wondrous. It is a serious contender for Game of the Year and is a bright jewel in the Rockstar crown. It's adult in nature, some scenes are particularly disturbing, and it's brave in that it steps away from the usual high tempo, adrenaline fuelled bullet fests we've become all to accustomed to. It asks instead that you use your brain and wits to proceed. It still throws up enough action sequences to keep everyone happy but is so much richer for slowing the pace and relying on strong characters and beautiful storytelling to make it's mark.

It may lack a little replay value but when a game's as good as this it's of little consequence. L.A. Noire deserves - no, needs - to be experienced by adult gamers everywhere, it's simply incredible!

*Reviewed on Xbox 360


Did you find that it stayed fun? I've heard an awful lot of people declaring it gripping and revolutionary at first, before wandering back a week later and saying that it became tedious as soon as they got used to it.

I actually found myself hooked on the story right through and it never became a chore to play. I can understand where those people are coming from as in terms of what's on offer gameplay wise, you have basically seen all the game offers after a few hours, but the story kept me hooked throughout and I'll probably play through again in the near future.