L.A. Noire PlayStation 3 review

Aaron tackles the seedy underbelly of L.A. in Rockstar’s film noire detective drama title…

It’s said that there are countless ways to detect if a person is lying, and that everyone has a tell, be it a twitch, nervous shuffle or the inability to look a person in the eyes. It’s this simple fact that forms much of the basis of L.A. Noire, Rockstar’s latest high profile release.

Packing the much vaunted facial animation system that’s been wowing all comers in the various teaser trailers released over the past few months, L.A. Noire is a new IP that casts players as Cole Phelps. War hero and newcomer to the L.A.P.D, Cole is a genuine good guy in a city full of corruption and vice, and during the course of the game you’ll guide Phelps from simple beat cop through the ranks, right up to the big leagues of homicide and organised crime.

This is no GTA, though, and L.A. Noire is a totally different animal to Rockstar’s flagship title. Although it features an open city, shootouts and car chases, this is a far more cerebral outing, and one that features some very impressive and unique elements.

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The main course here is not combat, or even driving, but is instead methodical investigation and interrogation. The game is split into various chapters, or cases, each presented as classic 40s detective stories, complete with period narration, and within each you’ll have to investigate various types of crime, ranging from traffic-related incidents and blackmail to far more serious crimes such as murder one.

Each case usually requires attendance at a crime scene, where you’ll need to look for clues and evidence, as well as question witnesses. Once you’ve found enough clues or gleaned enough information from witnesses, you’ll then be able to progress and visit further locations of interest uncovered by your investigative findings.

This trail of clues and questions leads to various suspects and confrontations, and hopefully, to a successfully solved case. Solve enough cases and you’ll get promoted through the ranks of the L.A.P.D.

Accompanying the investigations are plenty of on-foot and vehicle chases, and a good amount of gun play. This is a slower paced title than we’re used to seeing from Rockstar, but one that’s every bit as impressive in many ways, even without the added flair of the often ridiculous, controversial GTA.

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It’s all in the eyes

Rockstar has made a big deal about the facial animation system seen in L.A. Noire, and after playing the final game I’m happy to say that it’s every bit as impressive as Rockstar has claimed. It really is quite staggering just how lifelike these digital characters are, and the range of expressions demonstrated here is amazing. This really is the most impressive system of this kind I’ve ever seen, and it makes even the superb Mass Effect look positively wooden. People express anger, fear, joy and everything in between, and coupled with Rockstar’s impeccable direction and cut scene production, the whole package is one that’s both solid and dramatic.

No matter how good this effect is, though, it’s all for naught if it’s merely an aesthetic gimmick, and I was concerned that the claims of being able to tell if people are lying were exaggerated. I was relieved, then, to find out that, not only can you tell if people are lying, scared or just plain confused, it’s a central, very important aspect of the gameplay.

During your investigations you’ll interview and interrogate a mass of witnesses and suspects, and in each confrontation you’ll have to carefully observe each person you speak to. As they answer your questions, you’ll need to pay attention to their mannerisms and habits, and based upon this, and a good deal of evidence analysis and logic, will have to decide if they’re telling the truth or trying to hit you with a big, fat lie.

This system is excellently done and is kept very simple. After you’ve asked a question and heard your subject’s response you simply have to decide if the answer is the truth, a lie, or remain unsure. You make this decision by observing your interviewee and by consulting the evidence you’ve collected. This evidence includes information from witnesses and objects and leads from crime scenes. The latter is obtained by looking around for clues, manipulating objects and searching victims and the like.

You can search dead bodies for any pertinent evidence, such as wallets with ID cards, and you can find all manner of items hidden around crime scenes and other locations, such as bloody knives, bullet casings, photos, incriminating cheques and more. Items found can be manipulated with the left thumb stick in order to find important details, such as gun serial numbers or identifying marks.

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The attention to detail gives you a heads up on possible motives and also serves as a key element during interrogations, used as proof to catch people in a lie. For example, a suspect may deny knowing the victim, but you can then pull out a bank receipt that was found on the cadaver with the witness’ name on it, exposing the lie and forcing the devious liar to tell the truth.

You have to be careful, though, as selecting the wrong answer may cause the witness to clam up, meaning you’ll miss important information. Incorrect deductions will also affect your overall score and level progression.

This progression is important, as you gain intuition points as you level up. These points can be used to make investigation easier, by eliminating wrong answers from interviews and revealing clues found in your current location. Intuition points are limited, though, so you need to use them sparingly, otherwise you’ll be out of lifelines later on, when you may need them even more. You can also use the ‘Ask the community’ feature, which uses the Rockstar Social Club to provide help from other players.

This all sounds simple, and mechanically it is, but in practice, L.A. Noire is pretty tricky, and it’s sometimes very difficult to tell if people are lying, and to piece together the various clues, evidence and facts. Plenty of deduction is needed, and the ability to read people’s faces is paramount. Some people are better at lying than others, however. In some instances, your only weapon is analysis of evidence, so careful attention to detail is needed. It really is satisfying when you correctly catch someone in a lie and pull out some prime evidence to catch them out, and even more so when you conduct a perfect interview, getting the best possible rating.

The information you gather can also change the flow of a case. If you do well enough, you may find an easier, alternate way to proceed, such as an address of a suspect, whereas missing some information will lead to more information gathering, and possibly more difficult routes. You can also revisit previously examined locations to find extra information.

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Paperback writer

Luckily, Cole always keeps his trusty notebook handy, and this is used to compile all your evidence and persons of interest’s details. A simple press of Select will bring up the notebook and you can view all collected information, including suspects and witnesses, evidence and locations. You can also use the notebook to set waypoints on the map, and it’s here where you spend intuition points during interrogations or at investigation locations.

The book is very important, as you’ll acquire a wealth of information about each crime, and without it you’d quickly find yourself lost in the details.

To help further, you’re accompanied by your partner, who can be consulted at any time for hints and tips on what to do next, even providing directions when driving. Partners don’t do all that much more than this, though, and often even get in the way, standing right in front of you, or walking right into you, but having a wingman adds to the realism, and helps to reproduce that 40s gumshoe feel as two street savvy detectives cruise the city fighting crime.

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Gun it!

In addition to the impressive investigation component, L.A. Noire has plenty of action sequences, as well as a good deal of driving around the city, which is fairly large. When driving, the game handles much like GTA, albeit in a slower, less frantic manner. (This is the 40s, after all.) It’s important to drive carefully here, though, as damage to your car, the city and citizens will affect your overall rating. To help, you can hold down the triangle button and your partner will take the wheel, warping you to your selected destination.

Car chases are decent enough, despite the cars of the era being less than speedy. Handling is good enough, though, and the need to drive responsibly, even during chases and when tailing suspects, adds to the tension. Don’t expect to be driving boats, helicopters or planes. This is down to earth stuff, and realism is the order of the day.

When on foot, the game feels very much like GTA4, and features a similar aiming and cover system. This works well enough, but controlling Cole in combat, and to some degree when investigating, can be clunky and cumbersome. The cover system is a little shonky, and the floaty movement and unresponsive directional controls can make things difficult, especially as Cole can’t take a great deal of damage. There’s also a smattering of basic fisticuffs, which again, handles in a similar way to GTA, but is a little smoother and more refined.

There are plenty of chase scenes where you’ll have to subdue fleeing suspects, and these are handled well, but still occasionally suffer from the limitations in the control system. There’s a small auto-tracking element designed to facilitate running through tight areas at times, but for the most part, you’re in full, if a little sluggish control.

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Sadly, these chases scenes are heavily scripted, right down to traffic accidents and environmental hazards, so there’s little challenge above trial and error. More random chase scenes with differing routes would have been nice, but as with much of the game, the action is quite scripted in order to hone the experience. It’s still very enjoyable, but I feel Rockstar missed a trick by controlling the action a little too much.

Controls don’t suffer only in fast-paced scenes, and when investigating it’s sometimes difficult to line Cole up to a possible clue, often leading to awkward shuffling around until you feel the vibration of the controller that indicates an item of interest.

These issues with controls are by no means game breaking, but it’s a flaw on what is an otherwise brilliantly polished game.

City of angels

As I mentioned before, the 40s Los Angeles seen in the game is big and stretches across various parts of the famous city, including central downtown, residential and, of course, Hollywood.

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As you drive around on your way to crime scenes or other important locations, you’ll often be alerted to a crime in progress, and can accept requests for help. There are plenty of these, and they serve as entertaining, and often action-oriented diversions to the main story, and are a good way to level up and gain intuition points.

However, apart from these side missions, there’s not much else to do here, and the city is a fairly barren place when you’re not solving crimes. There are some collectibles, such as hidden cars and newspapers that reveal other goings on in the city, but that’s about it.

While the game doesn’t actually need much in the way of distractions, so engrossing is the main story and gameplay, some may miss the added touches Rockstar has developed in games like GTA and Red Dead, and there’s no denying that these diversions can enrich the game world and enhance the experience. A few optional distractions (minus GTA4‘s irksome social networking system) would have been welcome.

Case closed

I’m sure many will come to L.A. Noire expecting a wide open, GTA-like game, and in some respects L.A. Noire is similar, but this isn’t really open world, per se. The game is far more linear than GTA, and although there’s a large number of optional side missions, progression through the main story is strictly one way.

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You really shouldn’t be put off by this, though. The mixture of action and investigation is just about right, and the impressive visuals and excellent voice acting, coupled with the facial animation system that’s a genuinely impressive and well worked feature work together to produce another classic from Rockstar, undoubtedly the first in a new series.

There’s more than enough content here to keep most players going for hours, and thanks to the flexible investigation system that allows for alternate possible routes, even when you’ve completed the story, there’s reason to come back for more, even if only to play the game through with the optional black and white filter.

L.A. Noire is an impressive and unique title that mixes in traditional Rockstar elements with some great new additions to create an engrossing and high quality detective romp, and it comes very highly recommended.

L.A. Noire is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.

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5 out of 5