L.A. Noire reviewed

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“If you think the atmosphere is thick in here, wait until you try the gas chamber.”
Det. Rusty Galloway, LAPD

L.A. Noire, in some of its best and most grim moments, is a title that reminds players that homicide is a part of American life.

Crime scene after crime scene, L.A. Noire forces players to confront the consequences of violence. In the role of Los Angeles Police Department detective Cole Phelps, players must examine the bodies of the dead and pursue their killers. The investigations can be a slow and deliberate process, and in playing Phelps’ part, players must try to think like a detective as they sift through clues and interview witnesses and suspects.

In this writer’s opinion, the question of whether games can be art is not a matter of if, but how. In L.A. Noire, developers and publishers Team Bondi and Rockstar Games, have put together an attractive game with top-notch voice acting and story that usually hits the right marks. All that can be achieved in cinema, and L.A. Noire’s storyline could have easily been written as a solid detective drama.

But despite being screened at the Tribeca Film Festival, L.A. Noire is not a movie and its merits as a work of art must be considered as a function of its merits as a video game. As such, if a work of art can be assessed in its ability to make its audience feel an emotional response or fire their own imaginations, L.A. Noire succeeds as a game and art by giving its players an opportunity to imagine what it is like to investigate a murder.

The true drama of L.A. Noire is found not so much Phelps’ narrative but
in the individual moments of solving each case: searching for evidence
in married couple’s bedroom; proceeding with case even though you’ve fouled up an interview and not sure what to think, trying to figure out if a suspect is lying –
or just scared – and interrogating two suspects and having to determine
which one should be charged.

Violence is a common currency in games, but L.A. Noire is one of the few
in which violence is treated as a serious subject matter. As in many games, players who
complete the storyline will fire thousands of bullets, but L.A. Noire also makes players experience much more somber moments, as is the case when Phelps calls dispatch while the daughter of a murder victim can be heard crying in another room.

In terms of L.A. Noire’s, I’ll keep the details to a minimum since the object of the game is in large part the challenge of figuring out those details. What I will reveal is that Phelps starts the game in late 1947 as a World War II veteran and LAPD patrol officer working the downtown beat. He quickly shows his promise for detective work, and while paired with different partners, the straight-laced Cole gets a chance to work cases for the department’s traffic, homicide, vice and arson bureaus.

The game portrays the City of Angels as a place where it’s easy to find people guilty of all seven Deadly Sins compared anyone who makes a profession of virtue. Phelps and the player investigate a serial killer whose crimes are similar to the infamous Black Dahlia slaying, search for a ring of criminals peddling surplus morphine around Hollywood and a series of deadly arson fires.

Again, I don’t want to reveal too much, but I will say the vice and arson storylines were vastly superior to the homicide stories. I’d like to base the review solely on my own opinions, but I tried to research some history on the LAPD after finishing the homicide stories and came across a forum filled with players who were dissatisfied with that plot’s resolution. After some thought, I realized I agreed with them. The resolution does not completely make sense.

Fortunately, the rest of the game is better, and the vice and arson missions get deeper into noir storytelling, complete with an elaborate conspiracy, corrupt cops, a guest appearance by real life gangster Mickey Cohen and a femme fatale in the person of German jazz singer Elsa Lichtman. Some of the characters, such as Phelps’ crusty partner Rusty Galloway along with Capt. James Donnolly and his thick brogue seem ripped out of a B-movie at times. Overall, I enjoyed the story and as I wrote earlier, the game succeeded for me in its moments, as opposed to the overall narrative.

In terms of actual gameplay, controlling the game feels a lot like controlling the characters in previous Rockstar releases “Red Dead Redemption” and “Grand Theft Auto IV.” Phelps’ movements can feel a little stiff at times, and there were moments during gunfights when he didn’t take cover when and where I wanted him to. Those moments were not game breaking, but they were a little frustrating. There are also a few times when the game forces you to jump and climb around obstacles. These moments don’t fit the feel of the game and are not always fun.

On the plus side, I only saw the game slowdown at one point and my console was spared from the overheating issues I’ve read about.

But the real story is that the game’s highly touted facial recognition technology works. Players can read witnesses’ facial expressions and each blink, facial twitch and head movement tells a story. I saw a strategy guide in Best Buy that tells readers whether a character is lying or on the level. I don’t understand why anyone would buy it, since trying to make those determinations is what makes the game interesting.

For those who complete the storyline, L.A. Noire lets players go back and try each case again. I look forward to doing so after the details of each episode recede into the back of my mind and I can look at each crime scene with fresh eyes. Players can also access a “Streets of L.A.” and respond to police dispatch calls. The street crimes can be played during the main storyline, but I preferred playing those small stories this way. As a detective, Phelps and partner are not going to react to every call while driving from scene to scene.

L.A. Noire is not a perfect game, but Team Bondi was very ambitious in creating it and mostly successful. It may not be for everyone, action addicts are not likely to enjoy slowly searching for clues and it the game is very explicit. For anyone bothered by the prospect of viewing a nude murder victim, even in video game form, would not enjoy L.A. Noire.

But L.A. Noire does not simply dwell in morbidity and shock. As players find clues and learn more about the story, L.A. Noire asks them to think not only about the details of each case but about duty, honesty and what it means to do the right thing. Or what it means to want to do the right thing and being scared to do so. Taken as a whole, L.A. Noire is one of the few M-rated games that deserves to be called “mature.”

L.A. Noire
Team Bondi/Rockstar Games
PlayStation 3/XBox 360 (Reviewed on XBox 360)
Rated M for Mature