Review by Big Bob
I see what they were going for, but the execution left some to be desired.
I've never quite understood why Rockstar games get this ridiculous amount of critical acclaim behind them. Ever since they made the revolutionary Grand Theft Auto III, every one of their products gets ridiculous reviews and sells zillions of copies. It's not that they make bad games, but to me, they have plenty of problems that overshadow what's good about the game. GTAIV had a ridiculous difficulty level and was too dang serious for its own good, and Red Dead Redemption was ridiculously easy and protagonist John Marston came off as an errand boy who would do whatever you told him to as long as it upped your game completion percent.
Now we have L.A. Noire, which is less about shooting tons of dudes, and more about solving murder cases through detective work and investigation. The game has been getting extraordinarily high review scores, and while I do agree that the setting and style of the game, as well as the way cases are played out is original and fun, there are just way too many problems for me to declare it a must-play. The awkward controls and inconsistent tone make for a game that's frustrating to play and hard to follow at times.
The leading man this time around is Cole Phelps, a World War II veteran turned Detective. Unlike other Rockstar Games protagonists, Cole leans heavily on the "Lawful good" side of things. He plays by the rules, gives people a chance, and does everything he can to uphold the law, even when his partners would rather just let everything go. As the game progresses, we see Cole rise through the ranks of the police force, tackling more and more complex cases that he seems to be the only one willing to put in the effort to uncover.
On one hand, it's nice to see a protagonist that takes something like killing very seriously, and it tugged at me a bit to see him call up an ambulance whenever a bad guy gets shot. However, unlike Nico Bellic and John Marston before him, Cole Phelps is an extremely uninteresting character. He's a little too by the books, to the point where nothing ever challenges him. He supposedly has a wife and kids, but we don't see them except for a single scene with his wife late in the game. He has frequent flashbacks to his time on the battlefield, but these moments lack context and don't serve to really humanize him until much, much later in the story. The storywriters eventually noticed his lack of flaws, so they had him do something incredibly stupid later on that just left me upset with him, rather than sympathetic. Cole is an emotionless robot, plain and simple.
L.A. Noire is best described as Grand Theft Auto meets Heavy Rain meets Phoenix Wright. As with all Rockstar games, there's a big, open world for you to run around in, but the problem is that the game is incredibly linear. You're always solving a case, driving from Point A to Point B, and there's no incentive to explore. Every so often you'll get a call on your radio to help out with a local disturbance, but there's no point to do them unless you want Trophies. They mostly just consist of "shoot these guys" or "chase down this guy", anyway, and they're irrelevant to the storyline.
A big problem I had with the open world and the driving is that you're supposed to be this law-abiding citizen who's going out of his way to catch criminals, yet the moment you sit in a car, you're a maniac who drives 20 miles over the speed limit and crashes into everything. This was fine in Grand Theft Auto, considering you're a criminal who doesn't do it anyway, and in Red Dead Redemption there's really no way to ride your horse "wildly" anyway. But in L.A. Noire it just hurts the game's immersion. Most of the time I let my partner drive to the destination (the equivalent of just teleporting there), but now I see
even less of the city.
When you're actually at the crime scene, things are a little more reasonable. The area of interest is essentially taped off, so you don't go wandering off too far, and the creepy music tells you whether or not you've found all the clues in the area. To aid in your investigation, Rockstar put a little rumble in the controller whenever you're standing in front of something of interest. There's a chance the clue will be irrelevant, like a discarded bottle, but looking for documents or hidden objects will help you along further in the case. The walking controls leave a little bit to be desired though, and often I found myself stumbling around trying to get into position to look at something at the right angle.
Another part of the investigation are the interviews with witnesses and suspects. This is where the Phoenix Wright comparisons come into play. Cole will ask a question, they'll respond, and you have to figure out whether they're telling the truth, leaving out information, or flat-out lying. The game's face-capturing technology is supposed to make this more engaging, to tell whether someone is lying by their body language and facial expressions. However, everybody looks guilty when they're sitting there awkward waiting for you to make a decision. Also, often people will leave out information even when logically there's no reason for them to do so. Seriously, why would that random waitress who witnessed the murder have any reason to leave out facts? It doesn't help that their answers can be incredibly vague, to the point where "lie" and "doubt" is a toss-up. Also, you have to have perfectly dead-on evidence in order to get them to squeal. Thankfully you don't have to get every statement right in order to proceed, but it can still be infuriating.
Finally, there's the action sequences that every video game has to have. It seems that the developers thought the average person would get bored looking for clues and interrogating suspects, so there's a lot of arbitrary shooting and chasing scenes. The shooting is a lot more awkward than it was in Red Dead Redemption, so I found myself stuck to cover trying to wrestle my way out, and Cole often gets stuck on scenery when running. It also seems like everyone in the city has something to hide, so people bolt either on foot or in a car as soon as they see you. I actually enjoyed the chase scenes, because it gives me some room to be reckless without hurting the game's tone, but the frequency at which they happen gets a little ridiculous. One guy was completely innocent, but ran because he "knew" they wouldn't believe him". Good job, idiot.
There are several other complaints about the game, like the fact that the hand-to-hand combat is clumsy and reminded me of Rock-Em Sock-Em Robots. I had to restart a case because the game wouldn't let me examine a piece of evidence. In another case, one of my partners climbed up on a random hedge and wouldn't come down. I had to drive off without him. Thankfully he was waiting for me at the crime scene. Seeing as how there's a lot of scrutinizing and reading to do, I would recommend you have a big TV for this game, as the one I played it on made me stand close and squint in order to see everything.
Overall, I would say I liked L.A. Noire. The setting is well-realized, the gameplay is unique and interesting, and the voice acting and art style are well-done (and the facial capture technology really works). However, as you just read, there are a ton of problems with the game, from the story to the controls to the tone, that I really can't recommend it without hesitation. I got it on launch day with a $20 gift card, so if you pay more than $40 dollars for this, I would say you're getting ripped off. However, if it drops below that and you're still interested, I would say go for it.
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: L.A. Noire (US, 05/17/11)
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