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L.A. Noire (PlayStation 3) artwork

L.A. Noire (PlayStation 3) review

"L.A. Noire is as ambitious as it is broken, presenting yet another game where you spend way too much time driving around a fantastically realised landscape while your passenger pleads with you to slow down, taking nothing but claustrophobic pre-planned routes that only showcases 10% of the game’s world with zero reason to stray outside the beaten path."

L.A. Noire asset

Some people don’t want to admit it, but L.A. Noire is a game that’s split a lot of opinion. I’ll fly my colours from the start in this review so that the vocal majority can go home early; it’s questionable to me it should even be called a game at all. I’d call that quite a big negative.

I’ve heard all the aggressive knee-jerk defences before. If you didn’t like the game, you’re not smart enough to grasp the plot, or you were expecting overblown GTA violence like shooting hookers in the face after deciding not to pay for your blowjob. Let’s address that: the plot isn’t exactly Immanuel Kant meets Humphrey Bogart and the underlying angle running parallel through the numerous investigations mainly stays undiscovered because it cheats. Masterminds appear without warning or clue and mock you for not discovering their wicked intentions earlier and turn out to be people you’ve met briefly in passing. The first Big Reveal has you cowering behind pews in a dilapidated church while a madman fires a gun at you and rants endlessly about how he outsmarted you all. Of course I didn’t connect him with the crime – I didn’t remember who he was, such was the brevity of his appearance. It doesn’t help that the vast majority of Cole Phelps’ detective skills is to pick up random shit and turn it slightly to the left.

That the game promised a real attempt to solve crimes was perhaps the biggest draw for me. I’m one of those nerdy kids who still claims Monkey Island is the best thing to happen to home PCs ever, and I still manage to wet myself with excitement every time someone promises to reinvent the genre. Noire hooks up with Phelps shortly after he returns from World War II as a simple patrolman on the streets of L.A., and follows his career highs and lows from there. Although the game continuously tells you that he’s the best damn detective the city has ever seen, he seems to solve crimes by glancing briefly at objects around a crime scene and then yelling at people.

One half of this works much better than the other. Collecting evidence is overly simplified pixel hunting where you run around a crime scene waiting for your pad to vibrate (though you can turn this option off and just pump the examine key like crazy should you prefer). Clues are usually already laid out for you to examine, be they suspicious foot prints, suspicious items or suspicious corpses. You can pick these items up and have Phelps rotate them until something he can already see clearly is slightly clearer. This records it as a genuine clue.

Usually, this takes a matter of minutes. It’s always worth being exhaustive as what seems like a clean cut case can always be blown up by a new discovery. Arrive at the scene of a hit and run, and you find the unfortunate victim quite dead. Root through his pockets and ask the coroner about the odd hole in his chest and you’ll be assured nothing is amiss. Go the extra mile and root around in some back alleys, and you might be fortunate enough to find a bloody knife hidden away in the shadows; go ahead – put two and two together. Your more experienced partner comes up with the mathematical answer of negative seven, and dismisses it as coincidence. Because people hide bloody knives all the time. Next to a corpse. With a gaping hole in his chest.

Likewise, attend the scene of a battered victim obviously bludgeoned to death on an isolated hill and you’ll find a golf putter hidden beneath a bush. Now, I’m not a member of the Hardy Boys or anything, but I’d find that a tad suspicious. It turns out to have no bearing on the case, but if I’m told someone’s skull was caved in with a blunt instrument and such an item was found, out of place and hidden, a few feet away, I’d think it was worthy of note.

Interrogating people works a lot better. The much-touted facial capturing Team Bondi spent months telling us rocks was worth every drop of hype it received, and you could find yourself spending a considerable amount of time staring out computer generated facsimiles of people while you try and decide if they’re lying to you or not. Questioning works by basically listening to a statement and then deciding if you buy it or not based on the person’s nervousness and your knowledge of the situation, so like Phoenix Wright plus several million more dollars investment. Picking the right responses can be tricky against certain people; career criminals don’t tend to give a lot away, but spooked shop workers who have just seen their employee’s brains splatter against the pavement tend to be a bit easier to read. You can choose to believe them and use that trust to coax more out, doubt them and lean on them for more, or outright accuse them of lying. Prompt for the latter, and you’ll need to back that claim up with evidence you’ve already amassed. Get these right, and you’ll perhaps glean new information or force a confession. You could spend ages deliberating on cases; fretting about the evidence trail or pondering the validity of statements. Here’s the kicker; it doesn’t matter a drop.

Fail a case. Go on; just for kicks. Send up the wrong man. Ask all the wrong questions and ignore as much evidence as you can. Miss the obvious stuff and the game won’t let you progress, but advance lazily and you can mess up it. You’ll know it if you charge the wrong guy; your superiors will also know it and they’ll chew you out, telling you you’re a disgrace to the uniform and that all your hype is a joke. They’ll threaten to rip the badge from your chest while your allotted partner shakes his head in undisguised shame and disgust. Then you start a new case, and all is forgotten in a second. You’re the golden boy again and you’ve never dropped a case – it must be true; random passers-by tell you. L.A. Noire will never punish your incompetence. If it did, it might derail the plot!

All you ever stand to lose is a few stars on a meaningless case rating.

This isn’t a progression of a genre; it’s de-evolution. In 1996’s Broken Sword mistakes led to dead ends or even death, and still managed to advocate a much more gripping tale than Noire’s able to advance. If you were stupid or lazy, then you got a Game Over screen you knew you deserved. It gave gravity to the proceedings, and this is something Noire lacks completely. It’s obsessed with telling Cole Phelps’ tale, and woe betide any obstacle that gets in the way. Bondi built a fantastic virtual replica of 1940’s L.A., then gives you no reason to visit even a fraction of it, keeping you penned into to linear, secluded areas in an effort to reign total focus in on Cole’s odyssey. Side missions are present, but can be all comfortably beaten in a matter of minutes and work seemingly at odds with the main plot at times. Still somewhat shaken by the war, Cole is nevertheless driven by a strong moral code, rightfully wanting to unleash justice without the heavy-handed approach his more experienced colleagues subscribe to. Then he’s ploughing bullets into the spine of purse thieves simply because the game gives you no other solution to halt something akin to a slight misdemeanour when put side by side with the game’s main cases.

Noire‘s huge list of voice actors all do a wonderful job on the artistic direction of the entire title’s cast, but the game becomes tangled and muddy. It punishes you if you show the same level of cynicism as Phelps when other detectives ignore ‘the bigger picture’ and asks you to take pride in a completed investigation you already know has led to the wrong conviction. It’s doubly insulting that if you do this because the plot requires to, you get a hearty slap on the back and you’re hailed as the best. If you do this out of incompetence, you’re told you suck. Then you’re, once again, hailed as the best anyway.

L.A. Noire is as ambitious as it is broken, presenting yet another game where you spend way too much time driving around a fantastically realised landscape while your passenger pleads with you to slow down, taking nothing but claustrophobic pre-planned routes that only showcases 10% of the game’s world with zero reason to stray outside the beaten path. It promises you a thinking man’s game, but then rigidly scripts things so heavily that any satisfaction you might gleam by piecing together clues is buried under the ever advancing plot, lurching and rolling towards you like the end of days. It’s just as well it’s not an awful story because there’s nothing you can do but watch it, even if that means that, unlike most other games out there, you can never truly be a part of it.

Evolution is supposed to help us rise out of the mud. Not have us roll around in it all day and be told it‘s the future.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (August 13, 2011)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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asherdeus posted August 13, 2011:

Really great analysis of the game and its faults. This review really moves along at a great pace and succinctly articulates the game's failings with great clarity. I really liked where you went with your case analysis and the inability to fail - the "Press X to Win" aspect of LA Noire. You really nailed on the point and it's not one that I've really seen a whole lot of other writers, myself included, run with. I thought you did a nice job with that and your thoughts on the idiocy of your partners worked well with a discussion of clue analysis. But I offer this: considering how inept your partners are, is it really much of a surprise that the city praises Phelps? Even on a bad day he's certainly more effective than random asshole homicide partner or random douche bag arson partner, who can't connect a bloody knife to a stabbing.

It's really too bad that LA Noire wasn't a better experience and the more and more I talk to people, it's apparent that the bigger sites dropped the ball when the threw constant 8s, 9s, and 10s at it. It's also very interesting to me that Team Bondi seems to have earned an industry black-list. You'd think with the sales totals and critical response that companies would be lining up to scoop them up, but even Rockstar is done with them. It's very sad because there is something undeniably special in LA Noire, and even The Getaway. It just doesn't seem like the studio is managed particularly well. I recently read a review of the game by Tom Bissell, a writer I really admire, on the game, that changed my stance - or perhaps, thought process as far as how I consider the game - slightly, and I think about the game slightly more positively than I when I playing it. It's a long read at four pages and there are probably four articles pushed together into one here, but it's worth a look.

Anyway, long post short - great review, Gary.
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pickhut posted August 13, 2011:

They’ll threaten to rip the badge from your chest while your allotted partner shakes his head in undisguised shame and disgust. Then you start a new case, and all is forgotten in a second.

You have no idea how bummed I was when I "failed" a case and this happened. I was being chewed out for being incompetent, then the same person that was screaming down my throat was giving me a shit-eating grin when the next case started.

I love how you mock the clue-finding parts of the game, too. It really is hilarious how the game makes it appear Cole is a godsend when he's just kinda staring at stuff at random. I'm still amazed so many of the big sites gave the game high ratings. I know, I know... but still.

Entertaining read, Emp.
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jerec posted August 13, 2011:

I am interested in playing this, since despite the flaws I can see how it could be worth playing. I doubt I'll have to wait long for this to end up in the bargain bins.
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fleinn posted August 14, 2011:

"Although the game continuously tells you that he’s the best damn detective the city has ever seen, he seems to solve crimes by glancing briefly at objects around a crime scene and then yelling at people."

:D heheee awesome. there's a "patrolmen" on top there that probably is supposed to be singular. And maybe there's a way to avoid repeating the point in the quote..? It's such a good line - if you used the previous paragraph to prepare for it instead of giving it away, it would be extremely good :)

Love the review, by the way. It's technically a bit long, I guess, and some of it repeats - but it's easy to read through it.
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Masters posted August 15, 2011:

Wonderful review, Gary.

It wins based on this line alone:

Now, I’m not a member of the Hardy Boys or anything, but I’d find that a tad suspicious.

Just because the Hardy Boys rule.

You've got "gleam" for "glean" in the penultimate paragraph, btw.

Anyhow: kudos.
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EmP posted August 15, 2011:

Thanks, Ash. I’d been hearing thing about how awful Bondi apparently was to work for, but am still surprised Rockstar would cut ties with such a proven cash cow.

The whole partner thing was annoying because it could have been explained with a bit of clever writing. The homicide partner was clearly just after the easiest result, and vice was corrupt. The other two, partners I vastly preferred, seemed to have their intelligence turned on and off as the plot required, and that was a big shame. It was just one of so many things that seemed to conspire against any real sense of immersion Noire clearly wanted to advance.

Thanks for the kind words from everyone else. I’ve made a few alterations based on your appreciated feedback.
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shotgunnova posted August 24, 2011:

Good review. The one thing I liked about the game's storytelling was the military flashbacks showing Cole pre-policeman, and how his unit's always riding his case for being that stereotypical martinet type. His interactions with his old buddy (that accountant, Jack, I think) were always fun to watch. I understand the tutorial-like procedural stuff in the beginning, but the game could've been a lot better if they'd put the spotlight on his past exploits/trials instead of keeping it so episodic. [As a fan of cop shows, I can tolerate it to a degree; I'd definitely understand if someone was put off completely because of it, though.]

Other things I enjoyed doing:

- Driving to a scene and ignoring the dispatch's calls for assistance
- Blowing up that bratty cop's new car in a head-on collision (XD)
- Shooting as many fleeing suspects as possible

I never figured out how to get the partner to drive to crime scenes, either, so that affected my enjoyment. But yeah, the part about the game shepherding the player through 10% of the world was spot-on -- it'd take a seven-nation army to make me replay that crap. the end, small-scale LA and facial muscles didn't mean squat.

[EDIT] - Despite all that^, I'd agree that there's something special about Noire, and it kinda sucks that Bondi's appears to have hit a rough patch with Rockstar. With the right amount of time sunk into a script, a sequel could be amazing.
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EmP posted August 25, 2011:

Stop liking games I don't. Last warning.

You could make your partner driver by holding on to the enter car button, and it saves hours upon hours. I wish I was exagerating.

Nice to see you're not vanished anyway, Shotty.
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Nightfire posted November 21, 2016:

Hahaha... Wow. A very thorough takedown of a game that was universally overrated.

Y'know, I fell under this game's spell too. In fact, I probably would have given it a high rating if I had written a review for it, but I admit that this is entirely because I'm a sucker for a good story. L.A. Noire has a good story (which you fully acknowledge). However, it obviously would have fared far better as an HBO series or something rather than a video game.

It's interesting that you praised the facial animations. Ironically, I thought this was one of the game's letdowns. They were technically impressive, obviously, but my gripe with this simply relates to direction. At a certain point, after flubbing the difference between "Lie" and "Doubt", or at certain times even with "Truth", I realized that I was having trouble spotting the liars not because I was an imperceptive idiot, but because some of the motion capture actors simply happened to be better at pretending to lie than others. When I was questioning a good actor I could generally figure it out, whereas unimportant side characters tended to just read their lines blankly and I more or less had to guess.

Thankfully, I grabbed this title about a year after it was released when its price had dropped considerably and it was on sale on top of that. I think I nabbed it for $5. I have to say I got my money's worth for that price!

Anyway, sorry to resurrect this thread. I just saw that EmP trashed L.A. Noire in the random review box on the front page and had to comment. Nice read!
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EmP posted November 22, 2016:

In hindsight, perhaps I gave the facial animations too much credit. I ran on the belief that some people were purposefully harder to read than others - for example, a career criminal was harder to read than some unlucky Joe you'd just dragged off the street for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I figured the next game would prove or disprove this, but, of course, Bondi folded and no one's really made a game like L.A Noire ever again. Which I don't think the industry has missed a great deal.

Thanks for bringing this one up. I remember really liking this review back in the day and it kicking up a bit of Internet hate, which is always fun.

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