L.A. Noire review (PS3)

It's been in development for what feels like forever, but the eagerly awaited L.A. Noire has finally arrived and proved that the wait was very much worth it as Rockstar has delivered one of the most outright unique and revolutionary gaming experiences to date.

Set in a faithfully recreated post-war Los Angeles circa 1947, L.A. Noire immerses players in the dark underbelly of the City of Angels as they take control of World War Two hero turned lawman Cole Phelps and work their way through a number of high profile cases that involve drugs rings, arson and grisly murders.

Players rise through the ranks as they solve cases, starting off as a beat cop on the crime-infested streets before being promoted to detective, where Phelps works four desks – Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson – as he does his bit to make Hollywoodland a safer place. Each of the desks have their fair share of unsettling stories featuring a multitude of shady characters. Along the way, Phelps encounters unstable killers and child molesters and is forced to partner-up with lazy veterans and dirty cops. This digital Los Angeles comes across like its own little world and it's brimming with bold and often unsettling inhabitants.

Getting stuck into each of the cases is made easy thanks to the implementation of the incredible Depth Analysis MotionScan technology – which has fully captured the facial expressions of the actors and literally put them directly into the game – as well as the strength of the script. They each begin with an apt title over a cut-scene, enforcing the game as a rather episodic pleasure, like a good television series. To quote Steve Boxer of The Guardian, L.A. Noire feels like a couple of seasons of a top US drama. If HBO made a film noir-style TV show, in essence this would be it, all the way to the remarkable performances of the cast.

Yes, it may sound like I'm reviewing a movie, but more than any other game out there, this one truly blurs the lines between video game and cinema. Perhaps Rockstar should mail out Roger Ebert a PS3 and a copy of the game and finally be done with it, eh?

So, it's an aesthetic triumph and the storytelling is as full of grit and violence as it is consistently compelling, but what are the detriments of L.A. Noire? Two of the most prominent lie in case-solving. Digging around crime scenes for evidence and examining your finds closely is at first thoroughly intriguing, but as the process begins to repeat itself after the first couple of cases, it quickly grows tiresome and formulaic. There just isn't enough variation between them. It's utterly thrilling to begin proceedings by looking over a corpse, collecting evidence and trying to establish a motive, before chasing after suspects down the street, running them off the road and gunning them down in a fire-fight, but after the first few times the spark is extinguished. This is the problem: it's the gameplay that suffers dramatically in comparison to the writing and attention to detail. An overarching tale tightly ties the game together despite the separate storylines of the majority of the 21 cases, but it doesn't half sag in the middle when the repetition starts to dry things up.

The second major flaw is actually a product of the MotionScan tech. It's relied upon to the point where – stunningly enough – you have to analyse the faces of those you are questioning to see if they are telling the truth or not. Taking notice of whether or not a character's eyes glance away from you or if they give a little smirk, for instance, will often give you the idea of their honesty. But precisely how often they give themselves away like this is a major hindrance to the game. Armed with three options – Truth, Doubt and Lie – you must decide which is best to use in order to extract the answers you want to hear. The downside is that those exact three words are terribly misleading and can result in extremely aggravating and all-too-easy mistakes that can potentially ruin your entire case. It's not about being a master psychologist or god-like at the game, it's simply a system with a brilliant idea that doesn't seem to have been thought out as well as it should have been.

The script is one of L.A. Noire's most striking elements. It's the best that I've ever come across in any video game. The dialogue is an absolute pleasure to listen to and is just one of the many reasons why this title feels so incredibly authentic. It's certainly Rockstar's most cinematic game so far. Where they channelled the likes of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola in the Grand Theft Auto franchise and Sergio Leone in Red Dead Redemption, their work with Australian-based developer Team Bondai has forged a movie-like gaming experience like no other. L.A. Noire is charged through with inspiration from countless film noirs and pulp fiction, right down to the littlest details, and if you're a fan of either, you'll have a lot of fun picking out all the references, from theatres with The Big Sleep on the marquee to the crooked and crumbling set of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance.

While it doesn't have the lasting appeal of the aforementioned games through the limitations of the open-world environment (a dead-end conclusion to the story despite extras like finding hidden cars and discovering collectables), it most definitely leaves a lasting impression. For all intents and purposes, L.A. Noire is a flawed masterpiece.

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SECOND OPINION | Nathan Hardisty
★★★ L.A. Noire is a weird, weird game. Its mechanics work wonderfully at times but then fall on their feet. The much touted interrogation sequences are breathtaking but then once in a while you end up accusing a grieving widow of murdering her husband. There’s dissonance at large here in what you’re trying to say and this would’ve been quickly remedied with a Mass Effect-style dialogue choice wheel with actual lines or previews of what you're going to say. It’d certainly tighten-up the vague ‘Truth’, ‘Doubt’ and ‘Lie’ options.

The game is paced well but sometimes falls into tedium when it comes to the flow of the actual game. The interrogations work well but the searching of crime scenes, interrogations, suspect chases and shoot-out formulas get old pretty quickly. Most of the characters are forgettable and the facial recognition technology can’t hold up when the script is so poor at times. This is a game story told mostly through cut-scenes, which shows how much Rockstar truly care about pushing the envelope of interactivity.

The shooting feels fine if a little weird when the sprint/shoot functions are mapped to the same trigger. The running and general movement controls have weight to them one minute and then far less the next, but the dialogue system works. Mostly. As mentioned, it’s revolutionary and brilliant and all that jazz but when it becomes this vague wall of dissonance between the player and Cole Phelps then it can get rather annoying.

It’s an interesting, unique title and likely to shape the industry in terms of technology. There is greatness here, if a little sedated by a few age-old mistakes.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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