L.A Noire breathed new life into the noir genre and delighted and infuriated critics and fans alike with its revolutionary game engine which added some real depth to the police procedural aspect of the game. Its truly one of Rockstar’s finest developments.
L.A Noire is a quintessential neo-noir game and it was developed by Rockstar, a company more famous for featuring games with protagonists on the other side of the tracks but it was a real game changer from a developer famous for making game changers.
As the title of the game suggests the events take place in L.A and they do well to recreate L.A as it would have been during the 1940’s. In fact developers took inspiration from aerial photographs of the area taken by photographer Robert Spence. They went as far as to build up traffic patterns and transport routes using the photographs. They make a fairly accurate landscape although in true Hollywood style weren’t against bending reality a little for the sake of the story. For example the film set for D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance was in reality dismantled in 1919 but made an appearance in the game, to great effect as well I might add.
I think what I liked about this game most was the noir framework that it was built around. Firstly it felt like a real hollywood movie, except one where you get to take control of the character and secondly I personally love crime fiction and the noir thriller stacks up highly amongst all the other inclusions in the genre. It makes for such an atmospheric and enigmatic story that’s rich in iconic imagery and captures a visual style that will be eternally interesting and personifies America in a time when things were morally ambiguous to say the least.
To maintain the feel of the genre and pay homage to classic noir films like Sunset Boulevard and The Big Sleep you can play the game in black and white, although the regular gameplay has a distinctive colour scheme of its own.
The entire game feels like one big reference and homage to classic noir and detective/mobster movies as well as true crime because at least some of the story is taken from actual events in L.A history. Not very pleasant events but certainly sensationalised ones.
We follow Cole Phelps a decorated marine and war veteran of the Pacific Campaign. Much like the main character of Fox’s Batman prequel ‘Gotham’ he returned from service and unable to break away from the action and the lifestyle joined the police force.
We enter on Phelps as a newly minted patrol cop who comes across a murder scene and through sleuthing and borderline supernatural observation skills solves the crime. This feat wasn’t ignored by the higher ups who taking into account his military background promotes him to police detective with the snazzy suit and everything.
The players progress is equally fast throughout the game, practically meteoric. You make your way through the various departments of the LAPD including traffic, homicide and Vice by solving the crime presented to you. Popular media portrays the homicide department as the end all and be all of a cop’s career prospects so I respect the game for not buying into that. In fact everything seemed to be coming up roses for Phelps at least until he meets and falls in love with a German Lounge singer by the name of Elsa Lichtmann. His partner in Vice just happens to be corrupt and is looking for an angle on how to control Phelps (who doesn’t jive with his more relaxed way of dealing with law breaking) so he gives this information to several key figures in the city (including the chief of police) who cover up a major scandal by having Phelps act as a scapegoat. So Phelps career was ruined, he was demoted to working in the arson department and his wife ended their marriage. It’s all classic stuff and it’s an incredibly riveting. I remember blowing through this game quickly because I needed to experience more of the story. It’s tight and well written and as I’ve made clear it’s ripped right out of classic noir fiction.
The secondary story which ties in really well with the main plot is that several members of Phelps old marine unit have been selling morphine syrettes which they stole from the SS Coolridge when the were returning home. The former marines were killed by a local mobster who didn’t like someone muscling in on the drug trade in L.A. After the deaths of the soldiers involved it becomes clear that a lot of the drugs have gone missing which is another thing for officer Phelps to uncover.
I don’t want to ruin the story because it’s well worth playing and experiencing on your own but it has everything from murder to governmental conspiracy and everyone should play it.
L.A Noire took considerable time in development because it made use of a newly developed technology from Depth Analysis which uses motion scanning to capture facial expressions from every angle so that they can be more accurately displayed. They used this feature as the root for one of the main aspects of the game. During interrogation suspects will answer your questions and you’re supposed to be able to tell depending upon their facial expression whether they’re telling the truth or a lie. I think it was an important point in the development of video games because it added a whole new potential aspect to gameplay for the future as well as bringing something unique to the genre. Not that it was perfect, sometimes it felt like the visuals were misleading and others even when it was obvious whether you were being told the truth or a lie it wasn’t made clearer because of the facial expressions but I think all that means is the technology responsible needs further development something that will hopefully have been seen to in the eventual development of L.A Noire 2.
As I mentioned earlier Rockstar characters are usually on the other side of law enforcement but this was a welcome change as you took control of a Los Angeles police officer and solve a variety of cases across five police departments. While at times the gameplay handholds you. In fact you just need to get near evidence and Phelps starts feeling a tingling (spidey sense anyone?) but either way it’s exciting and enjoyable to search the crime scene for clues, follow up on leads and take advantage of the games groundbreaking mechanic to interrogate suspects.
At times the game doesn’t let you have much freedom and you’re experiencing the story rather than playing through it and it’s undeniably repetitive as times but regardless it’s still a fun story. As well as following the linear main storyline you can roam free and experience the rich backdrop of 1940’s L.A and engage in 40 optional side missions where you solve other crimes like bank robberies and car thefts.
As a great lover of both story and cinematography I really looked forward to discovering newspapers because not only did it help to advance and explain the plot but via a short cinematic cutscene we discover either a part of the overall story or a war flashback.
Maybe I wasn’t hugged enough as a child but I like the gratification of knowing exactly how well I did in a game. Getting 100% for me is important and in L.A noire you literally get a gold star for your progress. To make that point clearer when you complete a mission you will receive a rating of between 1-5 stars for how well you did.
I usually go on a lot more about the actual gameplay but being honest it all ran really well. In fact while the core of this game was more about the story and the investigative aspect to it the action elements were fast paced and enjoyable, in fact their was a palpable sense of excitement pursuing a suspect and if it was required getting physical. I guess when I buy a game I expect to play it so I never took advantage of being able to have another player drive so you can skip to the destination. I just prefer doing it myself I mean why would you want to miss some of the classic L.A landscape.
Overall though I think the verdict for this game is quite clear I thoroughly enjoyed it and think that it’s well worth playing both for the gameplay itself and the well paced storyline.