L.A. Noire Review

By Adam Sessler - Posted May 16, 2011

Games traffic in dreams and Rockstar and Team Bondi have served up two of the most potent: the human need to reclaim times lost to us as knowable, and the desire to see the actual world present with mystery and secrets that can deliver us from the banal. L.A. Noire transcends genre and the expectations of what a game can be and casts a spell that I have yet to shake.

The Pros
  • Intense, rich, immersive storytelling
  • Interview mechanic is unlike anything else in gaming
  • Action is directly related to the narrative
  • Rockstar's most satisfying game to date
The Cons
  • Immediate feedback when you're wrong can detract from the experience

L.A. Noire Review:

L.A. Noire is not "GTA with hats." Okay. . .that's out of the way.

I am at a loss as how to properly categorize it and have little interest, as it is only a distraction from a stunning accomplishment. The sheer audacity of the game would be notable in its own right -- the languid pace, the de-emphasis on combat, the prohibitions against the player going on auto pilot -- but it's how the role of design, storytelling, art direction and sound all conspire to create a sublime experience, one that feels altogether new and unrelentingly captivating. That is the lasting impression. Grand Theft Auto is an improper corollary for what to expect from LA Noire but its significance in the pantheon of games is equal to that of GTA III.

You’re Up, Gumshoe

You begin the game in 1947 as Cole Phelps. Fresh from WWII, and carrying a rare honor for bravery during his tour on Okinawa, Phelps shifts his service from the military to the LAPD.  A straight-arrow to the annoying extreme, he becomes a poster child for the police department, desperate to draw attention away from the cloud of official corruption that surrounds the city's finest.  Such favor moves Cole through the various desks: traffic, vice, arson and, of course, homicide, allowing the game to intersect with real events like the infamous Black Dahlia murder, and historical figures like the gangsters Mickey Cohen and Johnny Stompanato. 

To give away more particulars about the game's story would risk ruining one of the biggest pleasures of the game. L.A. Noire does acknowledge the rich heritage of the genre both contemporary  (L.A.  Confidential, Chinatown) and classic (The Set-Up, Gun Crazy), and does so without self-consciousness or send-up.  If anything, L.A. Noire is deeply reverential, not of the works specifically, but of the genre's deep roots in popular narrative, the myths of recent history, and the essential sense that things are not right with the American Dream: the post war economic boom is masking an epidemic of GI's who cannot acclimate; pervasive alcohol and drug abuse exist by those desperate to escape discontent; and manicured lawns hide dysfunctional marriages. This is all surrounded by a simmering violence that those in power choose to sweep under the rug in the rush to embrace progress. 

L.A. Noire knows to keep narrative and gameplay spectacle to a minimum (only once does the game veer towards the flamboyant excesses of the GTA series), without sacrificing interest. For most players, the quiet, mature treatment of the material, and its elegant weaving of storylines, should come as a welcome respite from the Sturm und Drang of so many other games. 

This is an advertisement - This story continues below

There Are Eight Million Stories. . .In L.A. Noire

That understanding of the pleasure of detective fiction and noir is what informs the single most striking aspect of the game: the storytelling.  In noir, truths are revealed casually, the significance of facts unfurls slowly and no one talks directly. It’s the antithesis of traditional game narrative, which is designed to motivate the action quickly.  L.A. Noire approaches the dichotomy of interaction and narrative by integrating them together inextricably.  The cutscenes are essential to informing the interactive detective work and the detective work drives the narrative forward.  Each element of the game is so intertwined with the other that it takes some time to realize the subversive genius on display; the story is the game, the game is the story.

The interactivity can be broken up into two parts; investigation and action.  The investigation requires the heaviest lifting on the player's part through the collection of evidence and the interviews of the myriad characters that populate this dyspeptic world.  The collection of evidence is a straightforward affair; carefully peruse a location and, with music and rumble queues to guide your attention, analyze items of curiosity. 

This can result in the mundane examination of a hairbrush or the grotesquely cold process of looking for clues on a desecrated corpse.  With each appropriate clue found, the evidence is entered in your journal and can open up a new avenue of investigation;  a location, a person or insight into motive.  This seemingly rote mechanic is anything but, as it is so predicated on a sense of discovery, the basic fantasy of being a detective, seeing special meaning in the pedestrian and knowing that it leads towards a deeper truth (despite the protests of your recalcitrant partners).

Interrogation Techniques

The interviews are unlike anything else available in games. While the Bioware model has the player drive the conversation through the attitude they impose, L.A. Noire is all about reaction.  Questions are available from your journal and are derived from evidence found in clues and other interviews.  Once the character has answered the question, you then respond to them as if they told the truth, as if they are withholding information, or as if you can catch them in a lie with the gathered facts in your journal. 

Careful examination of their facial movements gives further indication of their forthrightness and listening to what they say can make all the difference in how the interview unfolds.  The result is one of the most harrowing experiences in games and that's a good thing.  Never have I been so transfixed to the screen or so absorbed in the minutiae of the moment.  The desire to have the upper hand over obstinate or self-possessed witnesses became compulsive and success at breaking them was a thrill that no perfect headshot can replicate. 

The game immediately indicates if your response was successful and I find it the one misgiving I have in L.A. Noire's design.  The game continues despite your successes.  Each case can be seen as following the model of 2010's Heavy Rain in that you can make it to the conclusion, but the choices you make determine the path that takes you there.  Collect all the clues, you can find a particular location, botch an interview, you just follow the subject to see where he goes. 

The result is a wondrous sense of personal ownership over the investigation, illusory or not, which is at the core of the game’s transfixion over the player.  The intrusion of evaluation over your questions in the moment can give the wrong impression of failure and disrupts the game's spell.  For the neurotic (myself included), let go of the need for a perfect playthrough on the first go, all the cases are available for replay upon conclusion.

Delayed Action

The action in L.A. Noire will be the most familiar to those who have played any recent Rockstar game, aim-assist, cover and reload are all available.  What will be thoroughly unfamiliar is how sparing the action sequences are doled out, perhaps the most daring of all the design choices in the game . . .and it's a good thing. 

All the actions in the main story are directly motivated by the narrative and are given greater significance through their infrequency. Car chases, shootouts and fistfights are not telegraphed and, as a result, take on the surprise and thrill they deserve.  None of them are hard and all are relatively short which stays consistent with the tone of the game, you are the cops they are the hapless crooks.  Towards the game's deeply satisfying conclusion the action sequences themselves take on a narrative heft that offers a stunning release to the claustrophobic turns in LA Noire's noxious story.

It's such deliberate design in L.A. Noire that makes it Rockstar's most satisfying game, despite and probably due to, its relative brevity (around 20 hours) compared to GTA or Red Dead Redemption.  The game unfolds case by case, with small side missions available through the police radio (although they are dispersed somewhat unevenly) which benefits the game greatly by propping up the narrative as the primary focus as opposed to the free roaming mayhem that has been a hallmark of the company but can distract from their true talents and weaken the impact of the story.  In L.A. Noire, the player is asked to pay attention unlike anything before, and the laser focus on narrative efficiency is only to the benefit of the experience.

I Can Tell By The Look On His Face

None of this could work as effectively as it does without production values that invite the player into a world that merits the attention and effortlessly allows the player to relinquish themselves to the sensuous pacing of a good crime story.  What has received much advance attention, and deservedly so, is the facial animation system that turns every cutscene and character interaction into moments stripped free of crude archetype, allowing for nuanced acting and visceral reaction on the player's part. 

The significance of this innovation cannot be overstated, especially in the interview sequences where you scrutinize every tic and sideways glance and the gasps of shock when a misdirected question would unleash a torrent of umbrage. (I actually said “sorry” out loud once.) The use of the animations is handled with great sophistication and those who think that a visual tell in one character is equitable with the next will be woefully surprised. In LA Noire, a good liar. . .is a good liar.

Even more impressive in the application of this remarkable technology is how L.A. Noire declines the urge to revel in its novelty.  Very quickly, my eye-rubbing awe gave way to a sense of normalcy and comfort.  The top-notch acting that drives the animations are primarily responsible, in particular Michael McGrady, Adam Harrington, and Aaron Stanton as Cole create complex and gripping characters that work so well in concert with the technology that the interplay between the two give way to a collective vitality that it quickly absorbed into the greater game.

In fact, the entire production design may be at risk for being underappreciated as it steadfastly refuses to invoke a sense of awe.  From the costumes to the intricate sound details of hard-soled shoes on gravel and granite, L.A. Noire is rife with details whose service is only to the sense of place and drama; you can run, but watch and see the impulse to walk slowly to the suspect's door, savoring every small morsel of law-enforcing authority.  The radio transitions from period comedy to be-bop to news broadcasts about the commencement of the HUAC hearings as you drive under banners celebrating Richard Nixon's election to the house of representatives 12th district, all quietly pointing toward a future of great uncertainty.  The dripping sunshine that made Los Angeles a beacon to all of America after 1945 is relentless in L.A. Noire and slowly shifts into something mocking and malevolent as the story unspools the myth of paradise.

The City of Angels

Perhaps the strongest character in all of L.A. Noire is Los Angeles itself; 8x8 square miles of the city are available for exploration and the city of 1947 is represented in such detail that it could reasonably be considered an act of madness. Former and present Angelenos can drive themselves silly looking for intersections and buildings that still stand but the overall effect is not just a fully realized sense of place but also a sense of lost place. 

This is not the Los Angeles I know, nor is it an American city familiar to anyone not alive during the transitional era of the later 1940's.  The decision to place the game in a period that predates most of the famous architecture from the 1950's, a time more commonly associated with the noir genre, engenders a greater sense of the alien but also the real, the excesses of the fifties, celebrating a newfound middle-class are in their inception as people struggled to get themselves out from under the wreckage of the depression and the war.  The city and the history depicted in the game are about to vanish in the wake of subdivisions and freeways to become, as one character puts it, "The City of the Twentieth Century."

Watch Larger Version of this Video


That sense of something out of reach, of history that can only be gleaned through the refracted lens of books, film and now games provides L.A. Noire with its remarkable effect. Games traffic in dreams and Rockstar and Team Bondi have served up two of the most potent: the human need to reclaim times lost to us as knowable and the desire to see the actual world present with mystery and secrets that can deliver us from the banal.

L.A. Noire transcends genre and the expectations of what a game can be and casts a spell that I have yet to shake.  For the past week, I drove around Los Angeles looking for the remnants of its history amid the assorted mini-malls and other travesties ushered in with the eighties, thinking of how I would once throw on a hat and clutch a magnifying glass ready to solve cases and bring truth as only a six-year-old can and wanting just one more opportunity. 

Until then, you'll find me at Musso and Franks, drinking a martini. . .wearing a hat.

Adam L.A. Noire

Adam at Musso and Frank Frill. . .waiting for DLC