Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Review: LA Noire by Rockstar Games

Name: LA Noire
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar Games
Type: 3rd person Adventure
Version: Playstation
Reviewed by Earl Davis

L.A. Noire is a gritty, single player detective game set on the infamous streets and in the smoke-filled back rooms of post-war Los Angeles. Designed and developed with a nod to the classic film noire movie genre, L.A. Noire blends crystal clear graphics that bring the iconic look and feel of the era to life, with a combination of innovative technology and unique gameplay that allow you to solve crimes through interrogations and investigation. Additional features include: five LAPD based crime desks to work, the ability to analyze the case as well as suspects for clues, an accurate block-by-block recreation of eight sq miles of 1947 Los Angeles, multiple difficulty settings and more.

Cole Phelps winces at the morning sunlight, tugging gently at the brim of his hat, hoping to give some small relief to his eyes. The well-worn grip of his snub nosed .38 digs into the thick scar between his ribs; a gift from a Jap soldier in the war. Off in the distance, the grinning teeth of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign offer a welcome and a warning to the denizens of Angel City. This is a world of booze and blood, of bullets and broads.

This is LA Noire.

Rockstar has written a love letter to the hardboiled detective and all of his fans. No, this is more than that. It’s the love letter given before dinner, followed with drinks, and dancing before culminating in an orgasmic reach around that may have the neighbors calling the police.

Players are dropped into the role of Cole Phelps, a war hero of the Pacific campaign, who is now a Los Angeles police officer. Eschewing the standard tutorial structure, Rockstar chose to begin the game with Cole and his partner being dispatched directly to a crime scene. There are a few helpful information pop-ups, but for the most part education comes (the way it should for any great detective) from the mean streets.

After solving several crimes, the player advances upward in the LAPD moving from Patrolman to the plain clothes detective division. That’s where things really start to get interesting. At each “desk” or subdivision of the detective unit, Cole is assigned a new partner. The dialog and interaction with each partner constitutes some of the most fascinating elements of the game. Views on history, politics, race, marriage are all addressed in great detail. The team at Rockstar walked a tight rope with several of those conversations between maintaining historical accuracy while not offending modern sensitivities.

Far and away, the best part of LA Noire is the actual police work. Cole must scour crime scene identifying and recording relevant clues. Then as the cases proceed, suspects are interrogated. During this phase, the detective must not only choose the line of questioning, he must decide whether or not to accept the response as truthful or call the subject out on their lie. Visual clues and case notes help guide the player in making the choice. Incorrect choices have severe consequences and will cause Cole to miss important clues or even fail to apprehend peripheral culprits in some cases.

However for all of its success, the game isn’t perfect. There is one design choice that had me screaming at my television and a few technical issues keep the game from achieving digital nirvana. The inclusion of the “follow that car” missions is unnecessary at best and downright infuriating at worst. Rockstar’s tester obviously reported the same thing because after failing these missions three times, players can skip that portion of the mission.

Technically, LA Noire suffers from the same issues that have plagued third person open world games (especially Rockstar’s) from the very beginning. Invisible artifacts or tiny debris from car wreckage can stop a speeding car dead in its tracks. This is especially true when driving through the LA River. Also, there is a delay when the player’s character breaks into a run from a standstill. It wouldn’t be a problem if the NPCs also had the same delay. Unfortunately, it means that fleeing suspect will always have a ridiculously large head start making some of the chases harder than they should be.

Anyone who has ever played Grand Theft auto or any of its clones will be comfortable with the gameplay of LA Noire. The same mission based, open city gameplay is at work here. Cole can even “commandeer” nearly every vehicle in the game. LA Police Commandeering just doesn’t have the same ring as a title though. The only true innovation comes in the investigation portions of the game described above.

While in third person, street level mode, LA Noire does not appear to be a significant upgrade over Grand Theft Auto IV. At first, gamers may be a little underwhelmed. Fear not though, once the interrogations gear up, you will be blown away. Rockstar created a new form of face mapping and hired myriad of B and C List acting talent to film the question and response sequences. The level of facial detail and visual cues for lying are on a scale never seen in a video game. It is quite simply, stunning.

A great part of the fun of this game is trying to identify exactly which movie or television show you recognize the game character from.

Audio (Voice):
The IMDB entry for LA Noire lists over 150 individual voice actors. Do I need to say more?

Audio (Music):
Rockstar is the king of “in game” entertainment and the title remains safely with them. The radio programs and music are 100% of the period. Even those who aren’t fans of big band swing or pre-television radio drama should appreciate the painstaking level of detail in these performances.

It’s dark, gritty, well-conceived and tied into the Black Dhalia murders. Anyone who spoils this plot should be punched in the throat.

The PS3 version from Gamestop included two additional cases, “The Consul’s Car” and “The Naked City”. Both cases are mildly interesting but don’t add anything significant to the game beyond an extra chance to gain experience.

A third extra, a badge collection challenge is far more entertaining. The challenge itself is a pretty standard “roam the city and collect” challenge. Clues to the various locations are pure genius. Rockstar included a series of photo negatives that reveal the targets. It’s the perfect mini-game, hands down.

PS3 vs. XBOX360:
Historically, Rockstar games have run far better on the XBOX 360 than the PS3. With LA Noire, that streak is broken. The PS3 edition maintains a solid frame rate equivalent to the 360 edition. Plus the PS3 version is just prettier. Details are sharper, shadows are more defined and reflective surfaces fare far better on the PS3. When added with the fact that the PS3 edition comes on a single bluray versus three discs for the 360, I must declare the PS3 edition the winner in this showdown.

LA Noire is a masterpiece. It’s not perfect but then again neither is the Venus de Milo. Purchase this game. Purchase it brand new and unwrapped because Rockstar deserves every cent.
5 out of 5 stars

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