First posted on 10 February 2012. Last updated on 10 February 2012.
The game is available at Steam.
As a game, L.A. Noire—developed by Team Bondi (in collaboration with Rockstar Leeds) and published by Rockstar Games in 2011—is an intriguing combination of the popular Grand Theft Auto series formula and traditional point-and-click adventure game mechanics. While there are plenty of intense shooting, driving, chasing, and fighting sequences throughout the game, the player must also solve logic puzzles, interrogate suspects, and pore over crime scenes. The graphic content of the game definitely suits a mature audience: expect to see grisly corpses and full frontal nudity, though oddly no sexual encounters. Even though many of the action sequences can be skipped without penalty, I still do not recommend this game to casual gamers. Rather, this game is more suitable for gamers who enjoy open world games like the Grand Theft Auto series but who also appreciate a good story and the intellectual challenges of adventure games. Personally, I have greatly enjoyed L.A. Noire—a game that offers a great story, memorable characters, and spectacularly detailed graphics throughout.
L.A. Noire has a long and convoluted story, most of which plays out over cut scenes and in-game dialog and events. It is organized into chapters or cases, which are mostly self-contained, though each is part of a bigger set of narratives that only becomes clear as the game progresses. The game is set in 1947 in Los Angeles, and inspired, as the title implies, by film noire—the Hollywood crime dramas of the 1940s and 1950s. For most of the game, the player assumes the role of Cole Phelps, a marine veteran who has just returned from active duty to a new life as a police officer. He is determined to quickly rise up the ranks, becoming a star detective, but he is also deeply troubled by his war experience and, later on, his adulterous lust for a German lounge singer. The main theme of the game is vice and corruption. Every major character in the game has plenty of issues and vices, and the most seemingly innocent characters usually turn out to be merely the best liars. The police are, of course, obviously corrupt, and each of Phelps' partners has his own secrets and problems, as he is frequently told throughout the game, "Everybody has vices, including you, Phelps." Over 20 hours or so of gameplay, the player eventually learns a lot about his impressive but undeserved status as a war hero, a citywide story of corruption at the highest levels of the administration, and the futility of trying to be an honest cop in Los Angeles during that era. Staying true to its roots in film noir, L.A. Noire shows an overwhelmingly pessimistic and cynical view of the human condition, where absolutely no good deed goes unpunished. While many gamers may be turned off by this negativity of the world, I find it refreshingly mature and well worth experiencing.
In many ways, L.A. Noire is truly an epic achievement. Of particular note is the level of detail: the city is rendered in such detail that it is completely immersive. Often, I feel as though I have been transported back in time and allowed to explore a real city firsthand. In every direction are countless 3D rendered models of objects expected to find in that time period; the developer has taken great pains to make the city feel authentic. Without question, a great pleasure of playing this game is experiencing the game world, such as driving around town behind the wheel of classic cars and listening to period radio stations. Even the many suits (called "outfits" in the game) that the player's character wears are accurate to the period and varied. Walking or driving down the streets reveals a stunning amount of detail; I can easily spend hours just studying storefront displays and marveling at the many character animations. While I am unsure if this recreation is entirely historically accurate, I have certainly enjoyed it and have no problems staying immersed in this environment. The game is a testament to the experience, resources, and skills that have all been put to great use by the developer.
Unfortunately, even a game of this magnitude is bound to have flaws, and the gameplay does not always measure up to the superb graphics. A great deal of time is spent searching crime scenes for clues, which amounts to walking all over the area and clicking on all clickable objects. The game provides visual and aural cues to help the player find them all, supposedly—the special detective music ends when a site has been cleared. In my own playing, though, no matter how diligent I try to be scouring the crime scenes, I am never able to get them all. This becomes very frustrating, since it is not much fun going through a crime scene over and over again, trying to find whatever stray bottle, scrap of paper, or pebble is left unturned. Fortunately, the player can ask other characters for advice, and they will usually indicate whether or not to continue the search or go somewhere else.
Likewise, the interview sequences, of which there are many, are nearly impossible for me to get through correctly such that I end up guessing at half the questions. At certain moments, the player must select 1 of 3 options: truth, doubt, or lie. To get the right option, the player must carefully study the body language of the character being questioned, looking for details such as aversion to eye contact or a nervous grin. However, the player must also have all of the evidence collected beforehand, since the lie option always requires the right piece of evidence to back up the claim. I am seldom clear, however, on whether doubt or lie is the right option, and even with the "intuition" feature—which eliminates 1 option (thus leaving 2 options behind) and irrelevant evidence—getting through these sequences is often just a guessing game. Fortunately, the player does not have to get every question correct to move on, though it is disappointing. As an adventure game fan, I am uncomfortable with this much uncertainty and being forced to simply guess at the game's intention rather than just use deductive reasoning. Still, sometimes saying the wrong words can be entertaining, and perhaps more fun than simply getting every part of the game correct.
The weakest part of the game is the logic puzzles, which often seem too simple. Most of these puzzles require the player to put together pipes, rub out messages with a pencil, or (in a particular case) decoding a secret communication. While these sequences provide some diversion, they are not nearly as fun or involved as those found in most pure adventure games. A couple of these sequences require the player to enter coordinates on a mapping device and then digits on an adding machine. These sequences are simply tedious. A few of the animations also get a bit tiresome, particularly whenever the player makes a call. There seems to be only a single female telephone operator in Los Angeles, and she always goes through the exact same formal routine to route the connection despite what feels like hundreds of calls.
Fortunately, the action sequences are much better designed, with some really intense shootouts, car chases, and foot races. There are also several episodes that involve trailing a suspect without being detected. Although some of these segments are difficult, the save points are well placed to prevent excessive repetition. If the player fails to complete a segment, the game reloads quickly and usually just before the fatal mistake, preventing excessive repetition.
The PC version of the game is only available as L.A. Noire: The Complete Edition. This version includes all add-on content (including 5 additional cases and a challenge) previously released as downloadable content for the consoles. The game is otherwise identical between the PC and the console versions.
All in all, my favorite part of L.A. Noire is the exquisitely detailed game world, followed by the gripping and well developed narrative. It is quite possible to imagine to having been transported back to the late 1940s and to be seeing history made real. The characters, especially Phelps, are nuanced and convincing, and they are often likable despite their rough edges. Likewise, I feel true sympathy for Phelps as his inglorious military past is revealed in dramatic cut scenes. I also commend the game's story writers for offering plausible heroes and villains, who are never simply good or evil but always richly nuanced, with a clear (if not necessarily justified) reason to behave as they do. I cannot remember playing a game with such dramatic intensity since The Longest Journey. Yet, despite the game's many good qualities, I doubt any game that relies so much on intense action sequences will satisfy most fans of traditional point-and-click adventures. While it is possible to skip many if not most of these segments, this seems self-defeating. The adventure elements are only mediocre and not nearly as fun as the action elements. Unless the player gets hooked on the story, there will be little incentive to finish the game. My recommendation is that if you are an adventure game fan who enjoys Rockstar Games' other games, you will likely enjoy playing L.A. Noire. If, however, you dislike shooting or driving games, have an aversion to graphic violence, or want a game with challenging logic puzzles, you will likely be disappointed.