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At long last Rockstar Games and Team Bondi's crime noir inspired epic is finally upon us...
Having made a name, not to mention countless fortunes, operating on the shadier side of the law, Rockstar Game's long awaited LA Noire finds the often controversial publisher toeing the straight and narrow in a 1940's crime noir inspired Los Angeles.
Gruesome murders, corruption and deceit stand in the way of Cole Phelps, a hero returning from World War II, as he works his way through the ranks of the LAPD and attempts to put the past behind him. Along the way Phelps has to piece together vital clues and discover the truth behind crimes that include a gruesome serial killer based on the notorious Black Dahlia murders to a dope ring that comes with the questionable motives of the police department.
Initially unveiled back in 2006, part of the reason behind LA Noire's lengthy development lies with its adoption of MotionScan technology and along with it the end of an era in video games: one where the rough edges required the continual need to suspend disbelief. It's no overstatement to claim such a moment is upon us, such is the effect that MotionScan brings to the game. With a rich cast that includes the likes of Mad Men's Aaron Staton, LA Noire joins a small list of games that are breaking down the boundaries previously erected around video games. It's not necessarily a case of photo-realism as we're still some time away from that, but more a case of the performance or more specifically the way in which MotionScan captures that and puts it into the game. Lifelike behaviour is crucial to Team Bondi's effort, and unlike some prior examples, LA Noire doesn't just manage to avoid the pitfalls of the Uncanny Valley but effortlessly leaps across the chasm and sets a new benchmark for all others to be judged. This combined with Rockstar's usual panache for creating strong characters leads to a game that sustains your interest in a manner more becoming of a good crime movie or a HBO series then merely just a video game.
The main component of the gameplay naturally lies in solving crimes, through unearthing evidence and interrogating witnesses before eventually building up enough of a case to put the suspect behind bars. It's during these sequences where LA Noire's MotionScan technology comes into it's own. With titles such as Heavy Rain and Mass Effect, video games are finally entering a dawn of the virtual actor, but it's safe to say that Team Bondi's effort establishes a whole new level. Determining whether a witness is holding out on the truth is often a case of using your detective skills to produce the incriminating evidence, but it's also about determining how they respond to questioning as a witness sitting on the truth will demonstrate certain tell-tale traits, whether it's an awkward facial twitch or looking to the ground uncomfortably. It's this level of belief and empathy towards the characters that makes the LA Noire experience, as without it the gameplay is surprisingly reminiscent of a relatively obscure 1991 FMV-laden game based on the antics of Sherlock Holmes. It's primarily a case of building up the evidence from the crime scene, discovering extra details from the evidence by using the thumb stick to find a sweet spot – similar to breaking a lock in Splinter Cell – in turn bringing further leads along with witnesses to interrogate.
Interrogation is the chance to choose questions from a list based on the evidence you've amounted. Each response from the witness allows you to choose whether to believe or doubt the interviewees' answer along with the ability to accuse them of lying – provided you've built up enough evidence to be certain that a witness is lying, otherwise a false accusation is often enough to bring an interview to a grinding halt and potentially end that route. Often a suspect will flee the scene, instigating an action scene whereby Phelps and his partner have to give chase either on-foot or in a vehicle. While these scenes offer thankful respite to the main gameplay, they do suffer from feeling slightly incongruous to the experience. It's not that they're necessarily poor - although combat, both melee and firearms, does feel understated - but the comparative quality is akin to any other open-world game, pulling you out of the experience slightly and reminding you that it is still a traditional video game at times. Equally for a game that offers such a refreshingly unique experience, LA Noire is prone to slipping into tired video game cliches at times. Sections that find Phelps navigating submerged gantries across the tar pits or working your way through a maze of furniture in a warehouse feel jarring (not to mention a little demeaning) given the otherwise engrossing nature of the main game. Something more comparable to the highly cinematic nature of the game would have been appreciated, but it's not a point that lessens the overall experience to any significant degree.
Despite it's open-world setting, LA Noire is quite unlike any free-roaming game that has come before it. In many ways, there's a question as to whether LA Noire even needs an open-world setting, given the costly demands associated with the genre and the otherwise incessant tempo and pacing of the game. There's a commanding sense of flow and pacing to the LA Noire experience that's somehow detracted by the general nature of playing an open world game. Whereas a gamers' mind is prone to wander in something like GTA where variety is a key requisite, LA Noire is a driven experience that is at its best when it's not being broken up. Fortunately the ability to elect your partner to drive is a means to keeping the pacing and ignoring the free-roaming structure. The choice is ultimately down to the player, but those seeking to squeeze every hour will find a considerable number of side missions that emphasise action, along with collectables such as hidden cars, famous locations, movie reels and newspapers. Although we generally found these detracting from the central experience, there is some merit to the newspapers which instigate a cut-scene that provides further backstory and hints towards where the game's central plot is heading.
With so many redeeming qualities perhaps the game's greatest strength is one of design. LA Noire's detective aspects could have quite easily become a case of choosing options from a list, exhausting all the options until a scene is finished. Instead Team Bondi has expertly toed the line, offering enough freedom to solve scenes with varying degrees of success yet at the same time managing to keep everything woven tightly enough to prevent it becoming a tangled mess. As a result, the margins of success in a case are considerable, with a speedy and decisive outcome warranting commendations from the chief, while sloppy detective skills will earn a strict lecture about where you fell short. As the game progresses towards the final Arson desk, the challenge of making sure the correct suspect is caught becomes noticeably harder. Damning evidence is trickier to find from a crime scene that has been burnt to the ground, and as a result the risk of accusing the wrong person becomes significantly greater. It's a shame that Team Bondi didn't have the courage to punish the player in such situations as the game seems to indicate. A stern ticking off from your superior typically finishes with the claim of hitting the streets to solve menial crimes as punishment. It would have been nice to earn some redemption by having to complete a number of the side street missions in this case (not to mention give them a greater purpose), but instead LA Noire pushes you on to the next case regardless and in turn throws up continuity errors such as being lambasted in a cut-scene before being whole-heartedly commended in the next.
One surprising element is the sheer breadth of LA Noire's primary storyline, which provides plenty of duration despite its fast tempo. With 21 primary case missions to solve, along with 40 side missions and countless collectables, LA Noire packs the breadth of content we've typically come to expect from a Rockstar Games title. Hopefully, Team Bondi will look into the possibility of releasing content cut from the game as the promise of two more desks will be an enticing DLC proposition.
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