It’s 1947 and World War 2 only ended two years ago. The fighting may have stopped on the front lines, but back home in Los Angeles the war on the streets never stopped. Car thieves. Racqueteers. Drug dealers. Murderers. Hot dames and sassy broads. Welcome to L.A. Noire.
Noire revels in its 1940s setting and doesn’t try to hide the fact those were less enlightened times. Women and ethnic minorities are clearly shown as second-class citizens, but without the dirty exploitative angle that could have so easily been incorporated. Chief protagonist Cole Phelps has constant flashbacks to his time as an officer during the war, and as the game progresses we learn he’s far from the perfect unblemished hero. It’s Noire’s narrative depth and engaging and realistic world that are easily its biggest assets.
Noire feels like a series of different games rolled into one. The two main elements are investigations where the player searches a scene for clues, and interrogations of suspects to uncover information. Between these main elements are what feels like various mini-games interspersed throughout; gunfights, driving sequences, the odd puzzle and, of course, some good old fashioned fisticuffs with uncooperative suspects. It would have been easy for Team Bondi to make the varied elements feel disconnected and artificial, but each case’s narrative is so well carried that the flow is almost perfectly smooth. The linear progression and lack of choice in resolving objectives does, however, expose the odd jagged edge where the glue holding various game elements has come unstuck.
Each case unfolds in a similar fashion, the police captain tells you a crime has been committed, you drive to the scene, search for clues, interview someone, drive to the next place to search or conduct interviews, et cetera. Each section is generally very well done however, and the cases unfold like mini-movies, with each new gunfight or chase sequence suiting the flow well. There’s little choice in the order of objective resolution however, and it’s mostly a case of travelling from scene A to B to C and so forth. During transit emergency calls will often come over the radio to assist in apprehending a criminal or assisting in a shoot-out, and while they provide some welcome variety they’re neither necessary nor part of the narrative.
What really drive this game are the incredibly strong stories. Each clue uncovered or fact learnt unfolds a piece of the puzzle and leaves the player guessing until it all comes together. A man was run down and killed outside a bar, you say? He recently purchased very valuable life insurance, really? His wife appears quite happy about his death, then? Yet the driver is proven to have no connection to either the man or his wife, hmm… it’s twists like these that keep the player guessing and really drive you to solve the case for your own curiosity as much as anything else.
Arguably one of the most stunning features of Noire is the facial animation technology. Created using advanced motion capture techniques, an actor’s digitised face is perfectly superimposed on every inhabitant of the city. The acting is nothing short of brilliant, with special kudos to Aaron Staton who plays Cole Phelps. This is easily the closest any game I’ve played has come to being an interactive movie, and more than once I’ve been quite stunned by how well integrated facial animation and voice acting is; especially brilliant are Cole’s occasional verbal outbursts during gunfights that fit fluidly with the action.
You’re likely to recognise a few actors throughout the game, or at least find yourself exclaiming “hey it’s that guy!” as another familiar face pops up, such as Kurt Fuller or Michael Chieffo. Sure, you probably don’t know those names but go look the actors up; guaranteed you’ll say “oh yeah, I’ve seen that guy on TV before.”
Gunfights are fast and furious, albeit lacking in challenge. They follow the familiar cover-based combat system that requires the player to keep their head down and only pop out of cover periodically to return fire. While not executed as well as some modern games, such as Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the cover-system works well enough to make combat quite fun. Gunfights are sporadic though, and always forced – the player never has any choice when to start, or when to avoid a shoot up. This is a missed opportunity, as the morality of using lethal force by choice against suspects could have been a fascinating area to explore.
It’s unfortunate that Noire’s console origins are so readily apparent. For starters, there’s no save option. If you have to quit in the middle of a case, prepare to restart it from the beginning when you come back. Controls are very clearly console-oriented, with over-simplification of certain movements that could quite easily be accomplished by using a mouse. Heck, walk down a turning flight of stairs or run up stairs on a fire escape and Cole automatically does the turning for you as long as you hold the forward button. Sifting through your notebook is a slow scrolling affair that could easily have been an instant point-and-click job. With the significant amount of resources allocated to facial animation, memory has clearly been saved for consoles by keeping character bodies simple, and I can’t help but think the constant tips reminding the player what buttons to press to turn objects aren’t much more than palpable hand-holding for the console kiddy generation.
Yes I’ll admit it, I’m one of those elitist console-hating PC grumps. While it’s still a brilliant game, Noire feels like it’s missing the vital element of difficulty. For a game based on the extraordinarily difficult real-life task of solving crimes, it’s literally impossible not to succeed in every case, even if you miss every clue and fail every interrogation. The game keeps all clues in your notebook so there’s no need for the player to decide what evidence or facts are important to note; instead the game relies on an over-abundance of evidence in an attempt to mislead. Thankfully, Noire’s brilliant character acting and storytelling more than make up for this, but it does tend to lend itself to being a highly interactive movie rather than a challenging computer game.
The extra time it took to get Noire to the PC isn’t without benefit however, on PC a special version called The Complete Edition is available. This version includes all DLC available; five new cases, a special pursuit mode, and all weapons and outfits available to date. Unfortunately, due to Team Bondi’s quite infamous collapse, it’s unlikely any further DLC will be made available for the game.
Overall, LA Noire is strong, enjoyable and intelligent and does a fantastic job of blending multiple elements into a unique and engaging package. While I’d love to give it a higher score, the game’s console-borne limitations and inconsistencies hold it back from being a true classic on the PC. For players seeking challenging gameplay, this may not be the best title, but for those interested in clever and detailed storytelling it would be a crime to miss this top cop tale.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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