Video Game Review: Amazing Ambition of Stellar ‘L.A. Noire’

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CHICAGO – Game developers have spent decades fine-tuning the art of puzzle-solving. How do I get from point A to point B? How do I defeat enemy X to do so? It is the foundation of almost every video game. But most developers have used the same tools to build on that foundation, primarily building their houses with hand-eye coordination, whether it’s jumping a platform at the right time or shooting an enemy with perfect precision. What if there was a game that valued intuition over marksmanship? What if there was a game where storytelling was more important than action? These are the daring questions being asked at Rockstar, easily the most important studio working today, and the building blocks of “L.A. Noire,” an imperfect game that is still so remarkable that its imperfections become easy to overlook. Video Game Rating: 5.0/5.0
Video Game Rating: 5.0/5.0

Rarely has there been a game as ambitious as “L.A. Noire,” one that has already been credited with bringing cinematic storytelling to video games. With cut scenes that aren’t merely there so the game can load the next gameplay level, the best acting in the history of video games, and a deep, complex world that feels vitally alive, it’s easy to see why one would compare the title to films like “L.A. Confidential” or “The Black Dahlia.” The comparison isn’t quite right though. The episodic-yet-connected nature of various cases make for something that feels a lot more like an HBO TV series. And don’t be surprised if, by mid-season, you can’t wait for the next episode.

L.A. Noire
L.A. Noire
Photo credit: Rockstar

1947 Los Angeles was a dark, dark place. The men who expected to still be fighting World War II were home to a world that had changed significantly while they were fighting the enemy overseas. With demons of war still fresh, many men took out their aggression on those they deemed weaker than them. Like a lot of ’40s noir fiction, much of “L.A. Noire” features extreme violence to women. Whether it’s the husband who may have hired someone to kill his alcoholic wife, the girl who was drugged and raped by a Hollywood producer, or the repeated slayings by what could be the notorious Black Dahlia killer, “L.A. Noire” never lets you forget that this is a dangerous, dark world. This is not a game for kids.

L.A. Noire
L.A. Noire
Photo credit: Rockstar

Like the best of Rockstar, the world of “L.A. Noire” is a character in itself and you’ll get to know it well driving from case to case or just perusing to up your total of found landmarks. The Los Angeles of this game is simply enormous. And crowded. Vehicle and foot traffic peppers the entire city and you get the feeling that this world truly is alive.

The game divides itself up into major story cases without much control on your part. In a daring move, there’s no home base in “L.A. Noire.” You don’t have a safe house to go back to as in other Rockstar games and you’ll just start at the last checkpoint if you’re unlucky enough to die (which will happen more often than you might expect). The game merely saves itself automatically as the story missions progress. Some have complained about the lack of a save system, but I think it works in this case because the idea is to create organic, fully-unique story. Each case plays out a bit differently for each player and if you had the option to “reload and try again” with multiple saves, it would remove a bit of the realism that the titles needs to work.

Much like “Heavy Rain,” to enjoy “L.A. Noire” you need to give yourself over to the experience. Don’t worry about making mistakes (which you will). Don’t worry about an interrogation going wrong (which it will). “L.A. Noire” is a game about instincts and it works much better if you discard that need that gamers often have to be perfect at something and just let it unfold.

L.A. Noire
L.A. Noire
Photo credit: Rockstar

The bulk of the game comes down to detective skills. As the player, you are given the basics (guy killed in hit and run, woman found dead in a park, etc.) and then you will have to search the crime scene for clues to take you through the case. Naturally, you’ll have to question witnesses and suspects and that’s where the game truly attempts something that no one has done before. Using verbal and physical cues, along with the clues you’ve collected, you’ll have to determine if your suspect or witness is telling the truth, hiding something, or flat-out lying. It’s amazing that motion-capture technology has reached a point where the intricacies of the human face when it’s lying or when it’s telling the truth can be discerned by a player, but that’s the focus of “L.A. Noire.”

Don’t worry, “L.A. Noire” only rarely falls into that Uncanny Valley where the mo-cap characters look weird. For the most part, the game looks absolutely amazing. And it helps to have a multi-talented cast telling a well-written story. You’ll recognize a dozen or more character actors in “L.A. Noire,” including John Noble (“Fringe”), Greg Grunberg (“Heroes”), and star Aaron Staton (“Mad Men).

L.A. Noire
L.A. Noire
Photo credit: Rockstar

While the story cases are the foundation of the game, you’ll also receive dispatches for street crimes like a bank hold-up or an attempted robbery. You can respond to these side missions mid-case and not lose your way. They earn experience points, which raises your player rank and gives the player Intuition Points (which can be used to reveal clues or the answers during an interrogation) or even just new outfits. The ranking-up system in “L.A. Noire” seemed unrefined and almost unnecessary. The game does so many things that have never been done before that having a half-conceived XP system feels like a relic.

Most of the side missions in “L.A. Noire” are action-driven, almost as if they were conceived to appease players who might complain that the story missions involve way too much of that silly thing called talking. While the game does place the occasional emphasis on running to catch a suspect and you will shoot a lot of suspects in your time on the force, the action portion of the game is the least refined. The cover system feels a bit glitchy and some of the run-and-catch scenes felt pre-scripted.

Honestly, any complaint I could levy at “L.A. Noire” falls away at the pure, unadulterated ambition of the title. No, it’s not perfect, and I don’t expect it to win as many GOTY awards as “Red Dead Redemption,” but there is no denying that this game will be one of the most influential of 2011. At least, I hope it will be.

L.A. Noire” was developed by Team Bondi and released by Rockstar Games on May 17th, 2011. The version reviewed was for the PS3, but it is also available for the Xbox 360. It is rated M (Mature). content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

Anonymous's picture

Stellar ‘L.A. Noire’

Let’s get this straight. LA Noire is not stellar. Gamerankings has it as 89.44%. There are many far better games. Yes, this game is somewhat original and ambitious. But that does not make it “stellar.”

The facial motion capture is the best so far, but let’s face it. It is not as subtle as actual human expresions. Avatar is the only media that has come close to that, but even it was too obvious.

I understand that the press wants to post all the “me too” articles, but this one sounds like got paid for it.

Anonymous's picture

L.A. Noire is awesome so

L.A. Noire is awesome so far! I just found a blog that’s giving out the DLC for all the extra cases! I just got my Slip Of The Tongue Case DLC, but I don’t know if there’s anymore DLC codes left.

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