I’m sure by now you’re familiar with the formula for a Rockstar game. Open world, a plethora of cars to drive around in, plenty pedestrians to run over and torture, shooting stuff with shoddy gun and cover mechanics, a large variety of mission based gameplay and narrative advancement, a decent narrative and story wrapped around a pretty one dimensional protagonist with a lot of cool friends, America, political commentary, and the words Grand Theft Auto in the title, but for the most part, with as many flaws their games might have, they made up for it with witty humor and giving the player freedom to reek havoc in almost anyway that they may choose. Recently Rockstar have noticed that their company can’t survive on Grand Theft Auto alone, so they released the stunning Grand Theft Horse, err, Red Dead Redemption. They kept the basic gameplay elements of the Grand Theft Auto series such as the open world, mission base, ect. But they went and made some major tweaks to their style such as improving the gunplay mechanics, pulling the style out of modern America into the wild west, creating one of the more interesting video characters out there, and also crafting one of the best game narratives available today. While from a technical stand point the game was filled with flaws, it completely won over gamers as they got sucked into John Marston’s wild west and his quest to hunt down his ex-gang members. Along with the great narrative, the game its self was just damn fun to play and in its own right, Red Dead Redemption was a very ambitious game. Now Rockstar pushes its self further and brings players into Los Angeles during the 1940’s right after the end of WWII and the ambition scale is through the roof.

Rockstar’s latest offering to the realm of video games comes in the form of L.A. Noire. Ultimately what this game does is make an attempt at bringing an little known genre of video games to the forefront. That genre would be “Detective Video Games”. While there have been games in the past that had you going around searching for clues, interviewing bad guys, and using said clues to solve a mystery(Phoenix Wright anyone?), none of them have been able to reach a mass audience and therefore games based around on playing as a detective(or lawyer/prosecutor) have been few and far in between. L.A. Noire removes the methodical pacing of detective games by introducing lots of action, lots of multidimensional characters, excellent acting, and a Film Noire detective story that trumps almost any narrative of any game preceding it.

This is, however, a Rockstar game, so there are the trapping of previous games released under their name(not that it’s necessarily a bad thing mind you). You get an open game world to explore, lots of cars to drive around and plenty of pedestrians to use those cars to run over(though it’s highly discouraged, more on that in a bit). You get to shoot stuff, there’s more Americana than you can fill an ocean with, political commentary, side missions, and plenty of car chases. That’s about where all the similarities end. The paint job may say Grand Theft Auto, but the core screams something else.

In L.A. Noire you play as Cole Phelps(voiced by Aaron Staton of T.V.’s Mad Men). Cole is a G.I. who has recently returned from his tour of duty during WWII in Japan where he was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery. At first glance, Cole seems to be a rather paper thin Johnny Do-Good Whitey McCornfed, he always does what is right and every thing is done by the books. He comes off as the kid in school that would tattle to the teacher because you said a curse word during recess. And at first you don’t like him, but as you play through the game delving deep into the violent world he polices and start to uncover corruption and view some of the flashbacks during his time as an Officer in the Marines while fighting in Japan he starts to unfold and become one of the most intriguing characters you will ever spend you time with.

Cole isn’t the only interesting character in the game, not by a long shot. Throughout the course of L.A. Noire you will meet plenty of people whom you need to interview, partners who join you on cases, antagonists, and plenty of other people who inhabit 1940’s L.A. Through the interaction between the various people of the game you dig not just into the mind of Cole, but also into the heads of the character you’re interacting with. These interactions play out through interview sessions, while driving from crime scene to the next point of interest, and through cut scenes, the most interesting delivery method of those being the interview sessions.

The basic way that L.A. Noire plays out is through various cases in which your drive to an area of interest, search for clues, and then interview someone, rinse and repeat with a bunch of monkey wrenches thrown in to break up the monotony. When you arrive at the point of interest, after a brief introduction, you set out in search of clues in which you must walk around the scene and pick up and inspect various things strewn about. Some items have no relevance to the case others do and the game usually lets you know when you’ve picked up something useless. When you find a item or clue of interest a note is made in your notebook that can be referred to at any point in the game and often you will have to inspect a clue further by zooming in on it or moving it around to view a specific area such as a brand name or specific injury on a dead body. You are given aid in clue searching by form of the controller vibrating and a tone playing when you are near a inspectable object and when all clues are found the “clue searching music” dies down. While this bit of help speeds along clue searching and makes it less difficult to find hard to spot clues(some are near impossible to see with the naked eye), it does at times detach you from the game by not allowing you to meticulously read every paper in the trash and turns some searches into nothing but roaming around waiting for the controller to buzz.

After you’ve collected all your clues you can proceed to interviewing the witness or suspect(or before if you want to go in unprepared). These interviews are what makes L.A. Noire unique and ambitious and are presented with a simple yet engaging mechanic. During the interview you select from a list of predetermined questions and then listen to the others response. After they respond you can choose to A. Believe them, B. Doubt them if you think they are holding back on information or lack proof, or C. Call them on lying. When you challenge an interviewee on a lie you need to back your claim up with evidence. For example the person you are interviewing says they didn’t purchase a shovel, lime, and lawn darts, you can call them on it, then select the receipt you found in the truck of their car to prove them wrong. Of course it’s not always that easy, even though some of these people are some pretty big dumb asses.

If you think they are lying but don’t have the proof to back it up, you can doubt them and Cole will usually proceed to berate them with a threat, and if you are right, they will divulge more information. When you think the truth is being told you can believe them and validity them and they will usually divulge more details for you to follow.

So, how do you tell if someone is lying, hiding something, or telling the truth. Well, the graphics and voice acting department have done an excellent job at making that as realistic as possible. The facial expressions and body animations along with the voice work in L.A. Noire are the best you will see in a game yet. When someone is lying their eyes shift, they make a quick bite of the lower lip, they have a specific tone to their voice, they get aggressive or passive, in general, they do things people do when they are lying. And when the truth is being told they are usually pretty straight faced. Since the tech is pretty new and actors at times can over act their lies making it less than subtle it can be pretty easy to discern whether to choose truth or lie/doubt. There are times where it does get challenging due to an actor/animators great work, such as when you go to interview a husband that is a suspect in the murder of his wife and he has just found out mere seconds ago about her death and he would naturally would be a little edgy. Some of the real challenge comes from trying to figure out if you have the evidence to call them on a lie or doubt them, and which piece of evidence is the piece needed to make the connection.

While Rockstar could have made an entire game of nothing but clue searching and interviews they knew many people would be bored to death and L.A. Noire would go the way of other detective game that have appeared before it. The slow paced investigating and interviewing is injected with plenty of action scenes. In some a suspect will try to run resulting in Cole chasing after them by foot or by car. Sometimes a suspect will get a little frisky and try to slug Cole, so you need to show him whose boss and give him a beat down, and sometimes you arrive at a crime scene and it turns into an ambush in which you need to shoot your way out of. All of the action scenes play out excellently, especially the chase scenes. The shooting sections are entertaining, but while being improved upon, the gunplay still suffers from the same problems as Grand Theft Auto, with the cover system needing the most work.

The driving is surprisingly much better than I had expected as I’m used to car handling like cars with cars tied to the top of them like in Grand Theft Auto. All the cars handle great and making turns at a high speed doesn’t require mastery of using the e-brake, even though a little skill is needed. And they look awesome as well with models taken directly from the real cars of that era. As good as the mechanics of driving in L.A. Noire can be there are a few things that did mildly annoy me.

This is probably the first game that encourages good driving and scolds you for driving bad. Driving good in a game of the GTA type is a task difficult for me. I’m impatient and need to drive at full speed at all times, it’s just more fun. And those sidewalks filled with innocent people just sit there and tempt me to go on a murderous vehicular massacre.

Now, you can rack up all the damage to other cars and the city you want and all it does is effect your final case rating(a rating based on the amount of damage caused, the amount of clues found, and interview questions investigated correctly), but if you give in to your fun loving murderous side and peel out on the head of a kid on the side of the road, you game is over and you need to restart from your last auto-save point. You can have your partner drive and activate a quick travel so you can skip all the driving, but after a while I started having fun weaving madly around in traffic avoiding obstacles and pedestrians. You do have a siren available to make other cars move out of your way, but its sound gets annoying, quick. So, yeah, the idea of making you drive good fits with the game, you do play as a cop after all, but it can be a little jarring to the story if a few seconds before arresting someone for a hit and run I slammed my car into a family out for a Sunday drive and left them capsized and dying on the side of the road without even glancing back. Small complaint though.

Graphically L.A. Noire is technically proficient being one of the nicer looking games out there. At times when you zoom in on a clue you can see digital imperfections and the textures can be blurry up close, but nothing really bad. The excellent motion capture acting and the realistic facial expressions have set a new height for other games to try to reach and really shows that emotion can now be seriously portrayed in game outside of voice acting and story. A lot of what we learn about the characters is learned through their body language and subtle facial expressions and movements. In one scene you catch some one lying and as you start to call them on it, Cole gives a quick half smirk and a raise of the eyebrow, it’s very subtle but you see Cole develop as he becomes a bit smug as he is continually successful in his job. In the earlier parts of the game, that smirk would have never have happened, and now that it did happen you see much more character development than you would have ever seen with tons of great dialogue.

Aesthetically, L.A. Noire is great really capturing the essence of the time period. The cars are the real cars used then, the radio plays real radio programs from the 40’s as well as music from Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Dizzy Gillespie. The mannerisms of the people seem to be in line with the way people would have acted then as well as the clothes and hair styles of the inhabitants. The game doesn’t shy away from the racial tensions of the era and treats those racial situations with great respect as well as dealing with the effect of war on a person, and those touchy topics also add to the overall aesthetic reiterating the actuality of the time period. Of course the game isn’t an a simulation of the 1940’s and has some over the top moments, like a film. That’s the other part the aesthetic draws from to make the style of the game unique. The color style of the Film Noire movies has a strong presence in the game, most notably the classic Chinatown, and if you wish the entire game can be played out in black and white making it feel like an even more old school Film Noire movie.

While L.A. Noire is full of problems and is far from perfect, it is a game that really needs to be played, if alone for the excellent story, which is better than many movies it takes its inspiration from, and for how well it tackles subjects such as race and war. The interviews play out great and it’s a blast to catch someone lying and have Cole yell into their face(especially when it’s an old lady, lol) and really satisfying to put all the pieces to the puzzle together correctly and get that coveted five start rating at the end of the case. It’s something fresh and I hope that now that the right pieces are in place more developers will begin to release more games in this detective genre, how cool would it be to play through a well designed Se7en, Blue Velvet, or L.A. Confidential style game. The possibilities are endless. Do yourself a favor and play this game, it’s lengthy so you get your money’s worth and more importantly, you will highly enjoy yourself while playing.

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