Enter the Phelps
It’s post World War 2 in the late 1940’s and Los Angelos, the City of Angels, is experiencing the golden era of Hollywood. Glamour, fame and wealth are all to be found in Hollywood, with many moving there to follow their dreams and make it big. But underneath the surface, everything isn’t as dandy as one might think. Crime, corruption and vice are running rampant and rife. This where you come in, a returning war hero, Cole Phelps, now working for the L.A.P.D as a uniformed police officer. Humble beginnings for young Phelps, but you’ll be going places.
At first, I thought Cole Phelps might be a bit one dimensional as a character. He certainly gives the impression at the beginning that the world is all black and white, with no shades of grey. As the game progresses however, we see the character of Cole evolve, as well as learning about his past serving in the military which I think lends to his depth as a character and ultimately makes him more enjoyable to play.
The Other Characters
Throughout the game, you’ll meet and interact with a whole host of characters. Civilians, suspects, other police officers and more. In particular, the characters that serve as Cole’s partners as he progresses through the various departments of the L.A.P.D received a fair bit of attention (as you’d expect) and they are generally well done. Particularly with the relationship they form with Phelps over their time together solving crimes. As a player, you get to know their background, their motivations etc from the conversations they have with the protagonist.
Other characters that pop up throughout the game, are also fairly well done too, in my opinion. Particularly those that are considered the big players in Los Angelos at the time. For example, you can find newspapers at some crime scenes that give you an insight into Dr Harlan Fontaine, known as the ‘psychiatrist to the stars’. Dr Malcolm “Mal” Carruthers is another character you’ll be dealing a fair bit with as he is the L.A. County Coroner. He’s one character that I thought would have been nice to explore further than what we got to.
I found the captains of the various police departments to be a bit of a let down as well, thanks in part to minimal interactions with them. At least in my experience anyway, I think only the homicide captain was interacted enough with for me to determine that he wasn’t just a “angry, grizzled police veteran”. One of the areas the game could have expanded upon was post case, IMO. There’s little to no interaction with the D.A. and once the case is ‘solved’, you’re done with it.
Most of the suspect characters were also well developed, though the mileage you’ll get from that will ultimately come down to how much time you spend finding the clues and how interrogations go.
As the title suggests, L.A. Noire draws heavily from both the plot and aesthetic elements of film noir (Film Noir wiki page) which is particularly noticeable throughout the game both in the story and the style. The story of the game itself starts of fairly slowly and doesn’t seem to have direction and while this may sound like a bad thing, I think it ultimately played in well with the overall story. Starting out, we also know very little about Cole Phelps prior to joining the L.A.P.D and his involvement in the war.
While you discover a little info here and there from partner conversations, the majority of this information will be relayed to you via flashback cut scenes delivered upon the successful completion of each case you work. Without giving away too much, (I generally try and avoid spoilers as much as possible in reviews) these cut scenes are more important than taking a look back at Phelps in the war. I generally don’t associate Rockstar with great storylines (Grand Theft Auto games for example are fun, but not amazing in that department) so I was pleasantly surprised with the story in L.A. Noire.
It’s possibly the strongest point of the game for me. Having said that, it does have a bit of a negative mark to it. While I thought the ending was good plot wise and worked, I’m also not a fan of it for the simple fact that (without giving much away) it is a bit of a slap in the face to the player.
Take away the ability to create chaos, mow down people in the streets etc and L.A. Noire plays much like Grand Theft Auto in a lot of respects. Particularly driving and gun fights in that respect. So if you’re making the jump from GTA IV to this, you’ll probably not have too many troubles in that area. The handling of the cars was a bit suspect at times and coupled with other reasons, I didn’t really enjoy driving that much in this game. The option to let my partner drive between crime scenes etc, was one I exercised a fair bit I will admit. The car chases in this were both fun and infuriating, depending on the routes your suspect takes. Following them down a series of small alleyways and the like takes some effort and in my case, potentially memorizing the route they take so I can keep up.
Moving around and running also falls into the category. It can be a little clunky at times but foot chases I enjoyed a little more overall than car chases. The music playing with them definitely helps set the mood too. L.A. Noire also uses a cover system and again, I felt this clunky to use, particularly peeling out of cover to move to the next lot. And because you will die fairly easy if you aren’t in cover, it’s something that perhaps needed a bit more attention to detail.
The things unique to L.A. Noire were done really well though, I thought. The questioning of civilians and interrogations of suspects were fun and a lot harder than I initially expected them to be. The technology that Team Bondi employed for the facial stuff really shines through and looks realistic, while not giving away too much in a lot of cases. You get three options whenever a suspect answers one of your questions and they are pretty much self explanatory as to what their purpose is but; Truth (you believe what they are saying), Doubt (They might not be outright lying but they aren’t telling the whole truth either) and Lie (accuse the person of lying, at which point you’ll have to provide evidence to support your accusation).
Searching for clues is something that prior to the game, I thought needed to be done well. When searching a scene, your controller will vibrate and a little music will play, whenever you get near to a clue; even if it is superficial and not at all important to the case. You can interact with the clues and potentially discover more depending on how important they are (flipping through a note book, manipulating an object to see the logo, looking through a wallet etc). Because of this it’s easy enough to pick up most clues but there is still a challenge associated with the harder ones.
The bad part about it is there can often be no indication of what you’ve missed and in some cases, if you don’t find anything, you can’t progress and are stuck. It only happened to me once in the game, but the community is extremely helpful, so I was able to find what I need and move on with minimal fuss after the initial frustration.
The World Itself
Team Bondi and Rockstar certainly went to a lot of trouble in replicating 1940’s Los Angelos and as such the game world is HUGE (for a modern game anyway) and can take a good 20 minutes to drive from one side of the map to the other (if not longer – I wasn’t timing!). It’s a beautiful recreation but ultimately it feels a little.. lifeless. Cars drive and people walk around on the pavements, but not much else is going on. So after driving around for a while it can be pretty boring and leaving you wanting to be able to skip to your destination (which thankfully you can do, in most cases).
In addition to the above, there isn’t a whole lot to do in the game beyond the cases you are working. As you drive around, calls for help will periodically be heard over the police dispatch, which you are able to respond to. There are about 40 different street crime cases to attend to if you find yourself driving around enough to get them all. Littered around the city as well are land marks and secret vehicles to discover. A small paid DLC also adds in badges to find, if you are so inclined.
You can replay cases in order to obtain different outcomes or better ratings, but the lack of multiplayer might hurt the game’s potential life to most players and there are certainly a few game modes that could have been added that would be fun to play online. All in all, I think that L.A. Noire was more of a pioneer game than a masterpiece. There have been crime solving/detective games in the past, but this outing takes it in a new direction, both in mechanics and style, that I hope other developers take notice of and we hopefully see more games playing with a character on the right side of the law.