One of the perks of being press at PAX East is that, on one day, we are given one precious hour on the exhibition floor before the general public is allowed in. Now, there were plenty of good ways to spend that time, and we did our best to spread cover all that we could, but one thing we made sure we took the time for was LA Noire. Just watching the screens outside of their preview area was enough to convince us we had to try this game. Now that we’ve had it for a few days, we’ll let you know if it lived up to expectations.
This is a Rockstar game, so you know from the start that it is going to be a visual tour de force. Grand Theft Auto 4 and Red Dead Redemption both cram as much detail into their environments as humanly possible, and LA Noire continues that policy brilliantly. The setting is a stunningly authentic LA in the late 1940s. The cars are massive hulking classics. Billboards are period perfect. The tables are scattered with magazines and comic books fit for the era. Even little things like traffic signs with little “Stop” and “Go” flags show up. The indoor environments are as detailed as the outdoor ones, with clutter on the floor, fully stocked liquor cabinets, and the artifacts of daily life. Many of these items are even interactive, which makes sense, since you are frequently investigating a crime scene. Thus you can marvel at the realistic cloth physics of those torn panties or the way the light passes through bloody panty hose… you know, if you are into that sort of thing.
Speaking of that sort of thing, the attention to detail extends much further than many would be comfortable with. As a detective, you will see your share of murders, and no punches are pulled in the representations of the crime scenes. You’ll see naked, brutalized women and blood soaked men, and you’ll need to investigate their wounds and clothes carefully. This can become downright sickening to people with a weak stomach.
Augmenting the detailed visuals are a few interesting effects. There seems to be a gritty overlay to the screen in regular gameplay, and flashbacks to different events in the lives of different characters are viewed through different filters. For instance, the main character, Cole Phelps, is shown in his army days through black and white vignettes seemingly filmed with an undersized lens, as though we are watching something filmed with a WWII era camera.
Obviously, visuals aren’t just about helping the player see what is going on, but providing them with visual feedback, and they managed to do so with excellent subtlety. In the massive, sprawling city, doors that you can actually interact with are plainly visible from a great distance, because interactive doors are the only ones with gold knobs. Clever. Likewise, your investigations will often take you to areas with many floors and long hallways, or filled with dozens of interactive items that are not plot relevant. In these situations, the items or locations of interest are always better lit than their surroundings, either by lamps or drawn curtains, instantly attracting the eye. The HUD is minimal, comprised chiefly of the map in the corner that is so ubiquitous in Rockstar products that it may as well be their logo. Your health, which is less frequently an issue in this game than it has been in the others, is indicated by screen cues. If the scene is beginning to get washed out, best to retreat.
Now, you can see by the screenshots that this is a pretty good looking game, but single frames don’t even begin to tell the story. The real strength is in the animation. The detailed physics system that made getting hit by cars and cannoning through windshields so entertaining in GTA IV is here once again, making the movements of the player and the NPCs seem very natural and fluid, but what this game does better than any game I’ve ever seen is facial animation. They actually had to utilize an entirely new technology called Motion Scan to achieve it, and the results are nothing short of awe inspiring. Lip synch is literally perfect, to the point that a lip reader would have no problem following the dialog. Facial tweaks and shifty eyes are captured so well that they are actually essential to gameplay, as you’ll see. The quality of the capture varies from person to person, with a few minor characters not quite getting the attention of the main cast, but every last person you encounter (reported over 400) is recorded using the same system, causing this game to tap dance on both sides of the uncanny valley, moving back and forth between creepily real and really creepy. It is the closest I’ve seen anything come to a photorealistic representation of human expression. I can only hope that this technology catches on.
Players of the other GTA-style Rockstar titles will not be on familiar territory with LA Noire. For one, you are unambiguously on the side of the law, so while you are fully capable of rampaging through town, gunning people down and ramping cars off of bridges, doing so won’t get you any closer to completion. The realistic vehicle physics of GTA IV means that the massive town cars that populate the roads handle like the boats they are. Gunplay is also similar to its predecessors, but you aren’t meant to do much of it, so don’t anticipate packing an arsenal. Your revolver will typically be your only weapon, until you can get your hands on whatever your enemies are using. A degree of auto-aim, and the very steady hands of your character (at trained soldier) means that you shouldn’t have any trouble picking off the bad guys. Violence doesn’t always come in the form of a shootout, however. Sometimes you need to put up your dukes and make use of a very simple punch/dodge/grapple system, which is only really problematic if you forget what buttons do what, which given the rarity of fist fights (if you are doing your job right) isn’t unlikely.
The meat of the gameplay involves the investigation of crimes, and this comes in two forms. One is the gathering of physical evidence. Because of the massive amount of detail put into the game, this can be pretty harrowing, but there are many clever methods used to guide you toward the objects of interest. Aside from audio cues, which I’ll discuss in the sound section, the controller vibrates when you approach an interactive object. This could have been handled slightly better, since the animation system is realistic enough to require you to slow down and stop before investigating, which can take you out of the sphere of interactivity, thus requiring a weird little hokey pokey before it will let you pick up the object, but mostly that only becomes an issue if you are moving too quickly. Once you have an item in hand, you can manipulate it to try to reveal any evidence that isn’t immediately obvious. While the clue is facing the camera, you’ll get a rumble and a slight zoom, that increases as you correct the orientation enough to get a good look. Sometimes this will reveal a logo, a label, a spot of blood or an injury. Other objects can be opened, flipped over, or unfolded. In order to prevent you from agonizing over the cigarrette butt you find in the trash, items that are of no interest are quickly declared such by Phelps himself. This happens so quickly, in fact, that it can actually be a bit of a turn off for some players. I’m the player, let ME decide if it is relevant. Once an item is determined to be a clue, it is entered into your notepad, which serves as the all purpose menu system. It lists people of interest, clues, and locations, allowing you to select or review them as appropriate.
In order to round out the gameplay and to really showcase their new facial animation system, fully half of the investigation tends to be in the form of interviews and interrogations. The questions you ask are based upon the clues you’ve discovered, either by hunting around or by talking to other people. The answers are unskippable, and for good reason. The actual words that they are saying don’t matter nearly as much as the way in which they are saying them. Ever see that show, Lie To Me? Well, unfortunately it was canceled, because if it stuck around long enough to earn a game, this would be it. You need to watch the faces of the suspects and witness closely both during and after an answer is given, and judge the confidence of the answer. Did they answer openly and without hesitation? Did they look you in the eye throughout? Then they aren’t nervous, which means that they are either telling the truth or absolutely certain you can’t prove they aren’t. Conversely, shifty glances aside and fidgeting could mean that they are trying to hide something, or it could mean that they are simply nervous about being interviewed. It is devilishly difficult to get the hang of at times, but really rewarding when you choose correctly. One of your interviews is with a young girl, the mother of whom has just been murdered, and you delivered the news. I challenge you to determine if someone in that state of mind is keeping secrets or just on the verge of tears.
Once you’ve heard an answer and spend some time staring down the interviewee, it is time to make a choice. You can either believe them, doubt them, or accuse them of lying. Beware, though. You can’t accuse someone of a lie unless you have evidence that proves the are. Getting a question wrong might deprive you of valuable information, or it could even lead to a sudden end to the interrogation.
Since interrogation can be so tricky, there are two aspects of the game that help you out. One is that there is almost always enough physical evidence to find the culprit. The second, which can also be helpful in the search for physical evidence, is the “Intuition” system. You can keep up to 5 intuition points in reserve, and depending on when you use them is what the effect is. They could take a poll of other players of the game to see what they selected, or they could remove one of the incorrect answers during an interrogation. During an accusation, they can indicate the proper evidence to prove a lie, and during an investigation of an area, it will identify all valid clues. It is a handy way to get out of a tough puzzle. Your partner also works as a subtle hint system, offering indicators of what to do next if you ask, and lingering near interesting items during investigations. He’s also handy in that asking him to drive is this game’s equivalent of trip skipping. Don’t do it every time, though. You’ll occasionally get a call on the radio for a random street crime that you can solve if you happen to be the one at the wheel.
There is actually a remarkable amount of realism to the game and its setting. Being set in the 1940s means that there are no cell phones or man-portable radios, so all contact with the police station is done via phones, in-car radios, and call boxes. Since this predates GPS, your directions are given by your partner. Pressing the appropriate button prompts him to tell you what turn to take at the next intersection. Using violence or driving your car onto a crime scene, thus contaminating it, fails the case. Fortunately, it is very forgiving with the action scenes, allowing you to redo them if you, say, get a hostage killed. Screw up an interrogation, though, and you are out of luck.
Here and there you run into bizarrely out of place minigames. In order to find out where a given victim spent the night, you need to solve a sort of rubik’s globe puzzle. A more satisfying one involves the seemingly arbitrary decision to install a water heater, but doing so actually yields a useful clue that would not have been obvious otherwise. The most glaring issue is that the game seems absolutely dedicated to reminding you that there are all sorts of things you can do by forcing them on you. Half of the people you accuse end up running away, leading to one notable chase scene where Cole, a young, able bodied war veteran, is chasing a chubby middle aged man as he dives across rooftops and slides down gutters. Apparently parkour was big in LA after the second world war.
Despite the concern that a game like this will be good only for a single playthrough, there is evidence of replay value scattered throughout. Aside from collectible newspapers that uncover a twisted bit of backstory, the case closed screen grades you and gives a hint about how the case could have come about differently if you’d handled it better, indicating you’d left so-and-so unquestioned or that you may have waited too long to check a certain location. Neat stuff.
The sound in the game is good, with the voicework/acting being absolutely top notch for the most part. Any songs you hear are period appropriate, and the score is appropriately tense. More importantly, the sound is used to excellent effect as feedback. While investigating a crime scene distinctive music plays. If you find every relevant piece of evidence, the music goes away (with an audio cue that sounds more than a bit like the discovery noise from Legend of Zelda.) This makes it dirt simple to at least know if it is worth continuing the search. Subtle cues when you pass an object of interest indicate whether or not you’ve analyzed it thoroughly. Likewise, during interrogations a correct choice or incorrect one is quickly associated with a specific audio sting. They achieve through clever use of audio quite a few things that otherwise would have had to be done with on-screen indicators. By shifting that job to sound, the screen remains uncluttered, and the immersion is unbroken.
LA Noire follows the career of Cole Phelps, a WWII vet who enters the LAPD after the war. He’s driven and dedicated, and thus ascends the ladder quickly. The cases you deal with frequently brush with real world events. Most notable is the strong presence of the Black Dahlia murder. The events of the game take place following this famous murder, and in what is no doubt something police of the time would have really had to deal with, you are forced to solve a number of copycat murders, always wondering if this one might actually be the work of the original killer, nicknamed “The Werewolf.”
The characters are well developed and interesting, ranging from potentially corrupt fellow officers to mentally unbalanced perpetrators. Two of my favorites come along during the homicide section of the game; your Chief and your partner Rusty. Rusty is a thrice divorced, surly alcoholic, and your chief is an eloquent Irish paragon of justice who seems to be able to quote bible verse at the drop of a hat and is occasionally more interested in justice than law.
I was a big fan of the fact that your unrealistically fast path to the top of the department’s ranks, a necessity of game design to keep gameplay fresh, is handled in-game by growing resentment of you as the department’s golden boy. It worked well.
LA Noire is a slow, systematic game that takes patience and skill. It is definitely not for everyone. If you played the GTA games specifically to unlock the mini-gun or harrier and go on a rampage, this game isn’t for you. If you’ve ever wanted to try crime fighting in the days before DNA and epithelials, give it a try. Even if none of this appeals to you, at least take the time to look up some video of the facial animation. I continue to be impressed.
9.2 / 10: An expertly polished, well acted, and astoundingly animated game that will challenge your inner investigator.