What awaits Cole Phelps at the next crime scene? Will it be a couple of hopheads who overdosed on morphine and are now on the midnight train to nowhere? Or maybe a young lady whose dreams of Hollywood stardom were chewed up and spit out by the studios and who now lies naked in a park, the victim of a brutal murder? L.A. Noire confronts you with these sad situations and many more. Inspired by film noir classics and hard-boiled crime fiction, this tale of a complicated and troubled cop in postwar Los Angeles makes the business of detective work absorbing and rewarding, and it's drenched in so much authentic late-'40s style that you'll practically be able to smell the acrid mix of glamour and corruption in the air.
Imagine having to carry one of those around. Still, a tad classier than a smartphone...
(Credit: Rockstar Games)
The City of Angels is one of the stars of L.A. Noire, and it gets the red-carpet treatment here. The game re-creates a vast swath of the city circa 1947; though it's by no means accurate down to the tiniest detail, those who know Los Angeles will appreciate the tremendous amount of research that clearly went into designing this version of it. (You expect to see the historic Egyptian Theatre in its proper place on Hollywood Boulevard, for instance, but seeing the Pig 'N Whistle right next to it, which has been there since 1927, is impressive.) Your journey takes you from filthy flophouses and hobo camps to elegant mansions and the sleek, modern offices of a company that's shaping the development of postwar Los Angeles. The architecture, which includes cookie-cutter housing developments that are springing up in droves to capitalise on the return of soldiers from the war, as well as jazz clubs where cops and gangsters alike relax after night falls, is authentic and makes this Los Angeles an absorbing and immersive place.
And it's not just these big things that the game gets right. As a detective, your work investigating crime scenes is often about the smallest details, and the richness of these details in L.A. Noire makes rummaging around grisly crime scenes and perusing the personal effects of victims a compelling process. The homes of murder victims feel lived-in as a result of pictures on the walls, notes pinned on refrigerators, and clothing tossed on the floor and forgotten. Pick up an official document while rummaging through some files and you'll see that it looks genuine right down to the fine print. This attention to detail makes the often unsavoury business of being a detective deeply absorbing. On top of this, the period fashions, actual cars and music of the era — along with a score that evokes the style of some of the great composers of film noir — weave an intoxicating spell that's sure to stir the heart of anyone with a fondness for 1940's style. The art direction that pervades every aspect of L.A. Noire is simply outstanding, and it's a huge part of what makes this game such a memorable experience. And if you want the game to look more like Out of the Past than Chinatown, there's an option to play in crystal-clear black and white.
Another poor sap meets a violent end in the City of Angels. (Credit: Rockstar Games)
But all that attention to detail wouldn't amount to much if it weren't in the service of a game that was worthy of it. Thankfully, L.A. Noire is worthy. You play as Cole Phelps, a young veteran of World War II who enlists in the LAPD in 1947. Phelps is played by Aaron Staton, best known for his role on Mad Men, and thanks to L.A. Noire's use of a new technology called motion scanning, his performance goes far beyond voice acting. Phelps' face is Staton's face, and while motion scanning doesn't quite capture all the soul of an actor's performance, it nonetheless allows for a great deal of the subtlety of that performance to come through. It may take a bit of adjustment, seeing almost-but-not-quite-real faces on these characters, and there's sometimes a bit of a blurriness around the lips that can be distracting. But for the most part, it's very effective, allowing for rich and nuanced performances that seem to fully inhabit the world of the game. And this isn't just for show. The story of L.A. Noire hits harder because its characters look and sound so believable. Phelps' commanding officer Captain Donnelly has a passion for swift, merciless justice and a preacher's gift for oratory, while the weathered face of Herschel Biggs, one of many partners you have throughout the game, speaks volumes about his years on the force. The performances have a concrete impact on gameplay, too. When you're interrogating a suspect or questioning a witness, it's the facial expressions of a real person that you're reading when determining what approach to take.
You start out playing Phelps as a newly recruited uniformed officer. When a call comes in over the radio that a few homicide detectives need some assistance, you make your way to the crime scene and get your first crack at investigation. While investigating, you move Phelps around the environment and look for clues. Of course, not everything in any given location is going to be relevant to your investigation, and at first, the process can feel a bit silly. You might pick up empty beer bottles, hairbrushes, rolling pins and other meaningless stuff, making Phelps move them around in his hand as if they might conceal vast significance while he mutters to himself (and to you) that these particular items have no bearing on the case. But as you progress, you develop a sharper eye for what things in an environment might be relevant. By default, the game indicates that you're near something you can examine with chimes and controller vibration, but with this option turned on, investigations often boil down to just walking Phelps over every inch of an area, waiting for those indicators to go off. Turning these off makes investigation far more involving and encourages you to carefully study the environment looking for anything that might give you insight into the case. You still know when you've found everything important in a given location because the investigation music fades out, though, if you like, you can also turn this indicator off.
Phelps goes above and beyond the call of duty to close this first case himself, but it's not out of a selfless wish to protect and serve. He has a cold ambition to rise up the ranks in the department, and it's not long before his drive pays off politically. This determination also isolates him from his fellow cops and makes him a bit hard to root for initially, but this only makes him a better noir protagonist. He's a deeply flawed hero, and as the game progresses, you learn more about the experiences that turned him into the man he is today, and he develops in some fascinating ways as the narrative approaches its powerful conclusion. It takes quite a while for the story to build up steam, but the excitement of the later chapters makes the more deliberate pace of what came before well worth it. And you don't need to be a fan of film noir and hard-boiled crime fiction to appreciate this tale, but if you are, you may take particular pleasure in the inspiration L.A. Noire takes from many terrific sources. (James Ellroy's bloody epic L.A. Confidential is a particularly clear influence.)
Some interrogations are easier than others. (Credit: Rockstar Games)
As Phelps makes a name for himself in the department, he's called upon to start heading investigations himself, and that means questioning witnesses and interrogating suspects. During interrogations, you select something to question the witness or suspect about from a list in your notebook. (This is partly why thorough investigation of a crime scene is important; if you miss an important clue, you won't be able to ask people about it, which may prevent you from getting vital information.) Once the person responds to your question, you have three choices. If you believe the person is being honest and forthright with you, you can select Truth, which results in Phelps responding positively to the witness or suspect and coaxing more information out of him or her. If you think a person is being less than entirely honest, you can select Doubt, which often translates into "press the witness or suspect harder", and if your instincts are correct, this generally results in the suspect giving up something useful. But if your instincts are wrong and the person was cooperating, this approach results in him or her reacting negatively, which gives you nothing. Finally, if you think the person is lying to you and you have a piece of evidence that proves it, you can select Lie. In this case, you have to back up what you're saying with evidence. For instance, if you ask a suspect what shoe size he wears and he tells you he wears a size nine, you can use the size eight work boots you found in his home to prove that he's lying.
In the early cases, the game holds your hand through these processes, and, as a result, they can feel narrow and artificial. For instance, at one point, you need to get a confession from a suspect. If you botch the interrogation, the suspect will dismiss you, at which point your commanding officer will tell you to get back in there and get a confession out of the suspect, starting the whole thing over. It's also typically very obvious early on when a suspect or witness is not being entirely honest, as he or she makes an exaggerated show of looking nervous or shifty eyed. But once the training wheels come off, the process gets a lot more interesting. It becomes entirely possible to miss vital clues at crime scenes or fail to get important information from a witness and to progress through a case, and suspects behave more naturally, which makes them tougher to read.
It wouldn't be a proper detective noir without a bevy of classy dames. (Credit: Rockstar Games)
When you're stumped about the right approach to take, you can spend a point of intuition, which bears unmistakable similarities to the lifelines on the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. Intuition can be used either to remove one of the incorrect approaches — eliminating Lie, for instance, and leaving you to choose between Truth and Doubt — or to see what approach other players took at that particular moment in the interrogation. Intuition can also be used to highlight the location of every important piece of evidence while investigating a crime scene. You don't earn intuition points very quickly so they must be spent sparingly, and they serve as a bit of help without taking all the detective work out of your hands.
There's only one save file that the game updates automatically, so you can't just restart when an interrogation goes badly, but this is for the best. It's far more interesting to just rely on your instincts and finish the case to see how things play out, at which point you can restart the case and try for a better outcome if you like. Cases can definitely take some very different turns depending on your actions, which makes replaying them worthwhile. In one case, for instance, you might end up shooting a potentially innocent man and earning the scorn of Captain Donnelly, or you might put away a social menace, at which point Donnelly takes you and your partner out for a celebratory drink.
Regardless of whom you put away, you may come away from some cases with the troubling feeling that you didn't get the right man. That may sound unsatisfying, and in a way it is, but it's a good kind of unsatisfying. Noir isn't about tidy resolutions and happy endings. It's often about the cases where the truth is elusive — the cases that keep cops up at night. And L.A. Noire rewards your patience. A story strand left unresolved in one case may come up again a few cases later, and something you thought would be left unclear may finally come into focus. Less satisfying is the way that the resolution of one story case doesn't have any bearing on the next. For instance, even if you completely botch the aforementioned case and Donnelly rains fire and brimstone down on you and your partner, the next case begins with him showering you with praise. L.A. Noire has an overarching story to tell, and it's a good one, but the inelegant way in which it keeps that story on track can be jarring.
You can learn a lot from an old-timer like Herschel Biggs. (Credit: Rockstar Gamesw)
L.A. still had trams in 1947, but it was a city quickly becoming dominated by the car, and that's the only way to travel in L.A. Noire. Thankfully, driving is fun. Cars are responsive and swift, which is particularly important during the game's many car chases. Still, it's not so enjoyable that you'll always relish the thought of driving from one end of the game's large map to the other; thankfully, you can usually opt to have your partner drive, which functions as a fast-travel option for getting to your selected destination. The cars are also nicely detailed, and you can admire any vehicle you've driven in the game's vehicle showroom.
The gunplay is very easy to pick up. You can hide behind cover, and, with aim assists enabled, it's very easy to pop out and squeeze off a few accurate shots. The shooting itself feels fine, but it's the context and the atmosphere that make some firefights stand out. A pursuit through catacombs, a gunfight in a historic movie theatre, and the tumultuous climactic shoot-out are just a few of the moments throughout L.A. Noire that have a cinematic sense of place and style. Although the objectives often describe your goal as subduing suspects, once the bullets start flying, the only way out for the criminals is in the coroner's wagon. Shooting suspects in the legs a few times proves to be as fatal as popping them in the head once. The grim brand of justice that Phelps doles out in these situations is certainly in keeping with the game's sombre tone, but it's disappointing that you can't try to keep these criminals alive so that they can face a trial.
Not everyone you pursue ends up dead, though. You regularly find yourself pursuing suspects on foot, and these chases don't always end with someone headed to the morgue. Pursuing suspects is easy. You just try to keep Phelps headed straight for his target; he handles all the climbing over fences and leaping between rooftops automatically. In some cases, you have the option of trying to bring the suspect to a halt by firing a warning shot. To do this, you must keep your reticle fixed on the fleeing suspect for a few seconds as a meter fills up. But strangely, there are many chases in which you're not given this option. (When you can attempt it, you'll know because Phelps will have his gun in his hand.) It's clear that the game doesn't want you to stop suspects before you've experienced the thrilling chase through a crumbling movie set that awaits you or whatever else it may have in store, but this restriction nonetheless feels artificial and limiting.
Cars. They don't make 'em like they used to. (Credit: Rockstar Games)
Gunfights, foot chases, car chases and the occasional simple brawl don't just spring up during cases. They're also a regular part of the street crimes that are reported over the radio, which you can choose to respond to or ignore. There are 40 street crimes in all, spread across each of the desks that Cole occupies — traffic, homicide and so on. They're typically brief; you report to the scene of the crime and a car chase, shoot-out, or other action sequence ensues. These aren't as interesting as the action sequences that occur during cases, where you have a deeper personal investment in the action and the stakes are higher. But they make this Los Angeles feel more alive and troubled, and they're a good way to earn experience, which scores you intuition points and occasionally a spiffy new suit.
For all of its attention to detail, L.A. Noire hits the occasional false note. For instance, the way people you pass on the street constantly comment loudly to nobody in particular about having seen you in the papers or indicate that you could use a bath is awkward, and it sticks out like a sore thumb in a world that tries so hard to be believable. But this is a minor nitpick with a game that gets under your skin the way few games do. L.A. Noire's length can vary significantly, depending on how many street crimes you respond to and how much of your own driving you do, but in any case, the 21 story cases make for a complete and satisfying experience. You come into contact with the seamy side of the movie industry and with major players in the gambling racket; you meet working stiffs and powerful businessmen; you encounter low-ranking mob thugs and Mickey Cohen, one of the most powerful gangsters in Los Angeles at the time. L.A. Noire is a unique game with a terrific sense of period atmosphere, absorbing investigation mechanics and a haunting tale with plenty of moments that would be right at home in a classic film noir. Those smoky nights spent listening to jazz at the Blue Room, and the price you paid for them, will stay with you long after you've retired your badge and gun.
Editor's note: because PSN was down at the time of this review, we were unable to test the Rockstar Social Club integration with L.A. Noire.