Aside from the odd handheld adventure, Rockstar’s been taking an extended break from its flagship Grand Theft Auto seriese to take its influential sandbox approach to gaming to new territories. Last year’s Western-based Red Dead Redemption and Sydney-based Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire (which Rockstar have published) are good examples of the company attempting to break out of their comfort zone, and whilst the latter may still hold some of the conventions that’ve made this gaming powerhouse so successful, it’s a step into a bold new world in many ways.
Players assume the role of Cole Phelps, a returning WW2 ‘hero’ working the beat on the streets of 1940s Los Angeles. He’s the sort of determined, uncompromising character that we’ve seen before; he doesn’t earn many friends but he earns the praise he gets. After impressing his superiors with his investigating and interrogation skills, he gets promoted to a detective, and subsequently plunges deeper into L.A.’s seemingly bottomless cesspit of corruption, murder and greed. It might not be the most original concept in the world, and you can spot Cole’s eventual fall from grace a mile off, but he’s an engaging enough leading man for his trials and tribulations to be an engrossing experience, even if he isn’t the most likeable guy.
(This is actually one of the more cheery crime scenes.)
Whilst there’s been enough coverage focusing on what L.A. Noire does differently, it’s worth noting that it isn’t a million miles away from anything in the GTA series. How can it be? It’s a Rockstar game. The difference here is that you’re on the right side of the law for once. You can’t go around running over pedestrians, smashing into cars and causing mayhem (well, you can, but it won’t do you any favours). There’s still a healthy emphasis on driving and gunplay, which forms the crux of a lot of Rockstar games, but the biggest difference here is that most of your time here will be taken up by investigating. This involves rocking up at a crime scene, searching for clues, questioning witnesses and putting clues together to get your guy (or gal). The real hook behind this game are the interrogations, however. Your clues will give you a basis upon which to grill your suspects, and every time you ask them a question, you’ll be forced to use a combination of intuition, body language and fact to discern whether they’re telling the truth, stretching it or if their arses are aflame. This is only enhanced with the fantastic facial animations on offer. Rockstar have been promoting their MotionScan technology for a while, and finally getting to see it in action is well worth it. This isn’t simple motion capture; each actor involved in the game had their lines recorded by over thirty cameras trained on their faces. It’s stunning to see detail on this level, and it opens the door to judge many more games on the performances of their actors, not their voices. These aspects are something that simply haven’t been seen in gaming before, and it’s an intriguing, rewarding side to L.A. Noire’s presentation that gets more absorbing as the game progresses.
The cases themselves get progressively more detailed and elaborate, but you’ll still find yourself doing the same things; driving from place to place, searching for clues, maybe having a scrap, interrogating and perhaps having a shootout before you’ll finish each mission. Sure, these aspects of gameplay can be somewhat monotonous, but during the Homicide missions, for instance, the thread tying each case together is so brutally engrossing that you’ll truly want to press forward. If you really don’t want to rush through everything, then you can busy yourself with forty street crime side missions, automobile collecting and discovering the landmarks of this massive, realistic slice of L.A.
That’s part of the games problem, however. The setting may be lovingly rendered and bursting with activity, but there’s not nearly enough to do to justify its size. It’s unnecessarily huge for a game that almost fools you into thinking that it has sandbox potential, but in reality, there’s no reason why this city had to be so large when, outside of the main story, what you’re offered has surprisingly little substance.
That places a touch too much emphasis on the game’s story. Not that it doesn’t progress with each rank you earn and every new set of cases that come your way; one of L.A. Noire’s plus points is pairing you up with a new partner each time you’re promoted and letting you see different areas of the city with each new investigation, which definitely helps to keep things fresh. Adding flashbacks to Phelps’ time in the war, his experiences with various soldiers and the way in which those men tie into the story was a good move, but some of the key relationships you’ll come across whilst in control of Phelps, particularly his partners, feel somewhat underdeveloped, detracting from the power of the plot’s biggest moments. Bit of a case of the sum of the whole being greater than the parts, unfortunately.
L.A. Noire is flawed, no doubt. Driving and shootouts have never felt so run of the mill, and they’re certainly scaled back here, but thankfully, there’s enough focus on the game’s plus points that it doesn’t totally hamper your enjoyment. L.A. Noire is something new, something a bit different and it gets that right. Mostly.