It warms my heart when I see some Australian talent out there.
L.A. Noire was developed by Sydney developers Team Bondi in conjunction with Rockstar. The game certainly has all the hallmarks of a Rockstar title – the sandbox environment, the system prompts, the control scheme, the auto-aim locking, the minimalist HUD design, and so on. You’d probably be forgiven for thinking that, on the surface, this looks every bit like a glorified GTA4 mod.
However, it runs much deeper than simply cruising around in a police car and pulling people out of vehicles. The woefully untapped genre of film noire has been realised in L.A. Noire: a selection of cases, crimes and stories that you play through as former war veteran / aspiring gumshoe Cole Phelps. The cases see you moving through the various police departments (traffic, arson, homicide and vice), and the crimes all reveal the seedy underbelly of LA in unflinching detail. You’ll also be working with a variety of characters, from the hot-headed traffic detective to the jaded, cynical, hardened homicide detective, all overseen by possibly the best police chief I’ve ever witnessed (then again, maybe it’s just his Irish accent).
Characters in the cases are balanced between down-to-earth personalities, tough-talking wise guys, wailing damsels in distress, and the criminally minded. The post-WW2 setting has also been faithfully recreated – big cars, sharp suits, and complete lack of forensic integrity in crime scenes are all present and accounted for. (You’ll know what I mean when you first start manhandling a body for clues.) It’s definitely the stories and the characters that portray them that really make L.A. Noire, and you’ll be right at home if you’re a fan of good narrative or detective stories.
The gameplay, while not quite as brilliant as the story-telling, is bearable. Controls are identical to other Rockstar offerings (right down to the cover system). You’ll spend most of your time scouring crime scenes and interrogating suspects, and it’s these two mechanics that feel the most awkward.
Investigating a crime scene is done by walking around and locating pieces of evidence (indicated by a vibrating controller). You can manipulate objects by rolling the analogue stick, and Phelps will say whether it’s valid evidence or not. Some of these scenes feel like glorified Easter egg hunts – rather than using any sense of deduction, you go through each and every single object in order to get all the evidence you need. (At least there’s a prompt to indicate that all items of evidence have been collected.)
Interrogating people is also a hit and miss affair. By referring to the evidence you’ve collected and the game’s excellent facial animation technology, you’re meant to gauge whether a person is telling the truth, outright lying, or holding something back. Sometimes answers are straight-forward, but other times the game feels like a bastardised version of those guess-the-right-card games you see on street corners. For example, the line between “Doubt” and “Lie” can get grey at times, and it’s immensely frustrating when you choose the wrong one. (“Why the hell can’t I use this piece of evidence?”, I find myself muttering at the screen). Maybe I’m just a terrible detective.
As your character gains experience and progresses through the ranks, you can earn Intuition points, which can help your investigation (e.g. removing incorrect answers, highlighting evidence and so on). This can be good and bad – these certainly help and there are times when you really do need these points, but if you’re playing badly and don’t have many Intuition points, you’ll be bottlenecked. Having said that, there are other ways of grinding out experience.
Random police calls break up the rather slow, measured pace of the game. They’ll have you giving chase to criminals, stopping suicide attempts, brawling with thugs and participating in the occasional shootout.
No doubt about it – L.A. Noire is fun in its own way and is certainly one of the key titles of the year for audiences of a more mature disposition (and that’s not only because of the adult themes). Gameplay niggles and some awkward mechanics mar an otherwise impressive experience.