Hmmm. Very mixed feelings about this one. In a nutshell it’s an attempt to do a kind of James Ellroy video game. You play do-gooding cop Cole Phelps in corrupt 40s LA, with an emphasis on casework, hunting for clues and interviewing suspects. It’s a concept of which I heartily approve, both in the offbeat choice of setting, which they summon up beautifully, and in the attempt to provide innovative investigative gameplay, which ends up a little more hit and miss.
On the upside, 40s LA looks spectacular, as massive, free-roamable and characterful a setting as Rockstar have produced, which is saying something, and the various crime scenes, flats, stores, warehouses and railroad sidings you explore are spectacularly detailed, every one unique and lovingly rendered, full of appropriate objects and neat touches. The sun bakes the patchy asphalt, the rain hammers the sidewalks at plot-appropriate moments. How much of a contrast from Dragon Age 2’s endlessly repeating bland warehouses and backstreets? This is setting and atmosphere done right. The policework can also be surprisingly rewarding, and certainly refreshing. We’ve all gunned down a lot of heavies in the past, but how often have we cornered one in an interrogation and wrung the truth from him?
And this brings us to LA Noire’s real USP, which is the faces. I’d heard some bragging beforehand about how they’d worked out some totally new way of rendering faces and expressions and thought, yeah, whatever, if I had a penny for every time I’d heard overinflated claims from software houses I’d be a rich man indeed. But the faces in LA Noire truly are incredible. And not only the faces, but the range of expression, the movement, the body language of the characters. It truly is uncanny. And every single character has their own set of mannerisms. Some swallow when they’re lying. Others’ eyes wander. Others twitch about a bit. Again, it makes the odd eyebrow twitch, hand wave and walk-up-and-down-while-expounding stuff of Dragon Age 2 and the like look absurd. A quantum leap forward, I’d have to say, and it allows for the acting to be raised to a whole new level. Frequently you’ll see a character and immediately recognise the actor. They’ve not only captured the voices but the faces, the mannerisms, whole.
Unfortunately, what they do with these two class-leading tools of setting and faces is, for me, rather flawed. I remember bemoaning with Grand Theft Auto 4 that, while the setting was beautifully rendered, there just wasn’t enough going on within it to really involve you, and drag you into exploring and getting to know the city. The same is doubly true here. Outside of the main cases there really isn’t much going on, so you tend to end up just driving from one set of clues to another, or more frequently just getting your partner to drive and skipping it entirely. Red Dead Redemption was ingeniously designed to draw you into completing all kinds of side quests, experimenting with the corners of the game. LA Noire provides the corners in spades but gives you no reason to look into them. Likewise the central character remains a bit of a mystery. You see none of his home life. You understand he has a wife and kids but never see them and then, when this suddenly becomes key later, it feels a bit thrown away. You feel that for a little more effort in extra stuff around the edges they could have made a 100% bigger and better game. Maybe it’ll come in the DLC…
And the casework system also doesn’t work brilliantly. There’s a lot of inventiveness and variety in the cases, and they do their very best to provide new things, but looking for clues can become a bit of a matter of walking around whacking the x-button. Your options in conversation are usually to believe what you’re told, doubt what you’re told, or accuse someone of lying based on some hard evidence. Sometimes it’s neat and rewarding, at other times will spin off on wild and unintentional tangents. You might doubt you’re being told the whole truth, so go for doubt, only to have Phelps leap immediately to accusations of murder. You often have very little choice about how cases play out, as well, with no option but to charge a guy you’re pretty sure is innocent. Ultimately, I guess it’s a lot harder to accurately simulate conversation than gunplay.
And then there’s the plotting, which I think could have been a lot tighter. Things and people are given a lot of prominence then disappear never to return. Others become important having been only skated over earlier on, and in the end a lot of the great characters they’d set up felt somewhat underused. Maybe that’s the realistic complexity of life, the loose ends of true police work, but I don’t know, it all just felt a bit unrewarding in the end – I’d have liked to see some of the relationships and rivalries have a bigger pay off.
So I guess I’d have to put LA Noire in the category of a glorious failure. I’ve a lot of respect for the attempt to do something new, for the setting and the atmosphere, and for the acting above all, but it didn’t all roll into one cohesive, convincing, and immersive whole in the way that, say, Red Dead Redemption did. I never felt it truly grip me and force me to play just one more hour. Still, I do think that long after a lot of perhaps more enjoyable games have been forgotten, the faces in LA Noire will still be seen as a milestone.