2004 seems so long ago. Back then, gaming releases ending in t; were the music games of choice, and my PS2 disc drive was run ragged by the first Katamari Damacy. It was back then that the concept of a game called "L. A. Noire" was first revealed. Announced as a Sony exclusive, the game would be so groundbreaking and extensive that it would not see the light of day until at least 2007, when Sony's next generation console would be out on the market.
(It should be noted at this point that Duke Nukem Forever was approximately 9 years into its development life.)
7 years later, and much has changed. My gaming loyalty has shifted from Sony to Microsoft (though I admit the PS3 makes for a great 20 pound paperweight that sounds like a jet engine when it plays a Bluray,) the Karaoke and Dance Dance Revolution franchises still exist, though with little fanfare compared to where they were, and well, the little engine called L. A. Noire is no longer Sony exclusive. On May 17th, after numerous delays and promises of a whole new gaming experience, it was released for the PS3 and the Xbox 360. Sony really could have used this previously exclusive title to their favor had it been kept that way given the recent controversy around the PS Network, however, it just wasn't meant to be. Those seeking consistency, however, can take solace in the fact that Duke Nukem Forever still hasn't been released.
Before the game landed on shelves, Noire had a tall order to fill, with numerous pre-emptive tags accompanying it, amongst them "Game of the Year" and "One of the most beautiful gaming experiences of all time." The game even debuted as a cinematic at the Tribeca Film Festival, treated like any other film release. With a cast of many accomplished voice actors, and tremendous research and detail applied (some 100,000 photographs of Los Angeles' skyline alone went into the inspiration of this game,) this game was groomed to be something special. Rockstar has chosen to supplant you, the gamer, into 1947 Los Angeles. Ask any pop culture buff about what happened in LA in 1947, and they will tell you without hesitation that it's the year of arguably the most popular unsolved death of the 20th century - The Black Dahlia. In 1947, a young woman named Elizabeth Short was murdered and her body left out for public display. She was dubbed "The Black Dahlia" and for the last 65 years, the murder has remained unsolved, with numerous movies, books and documentaries established for the purpose of sharing facts with the hope that one day, things would be solved. It seems all too coincidental that the game would be situated in 1947, and not have elements of Short's murder in a crime-based game.
Something you will notice right away when you purchase the game is that its heavier than usual. For those who have not followed the release, you may think it just comes with a extra thick instruction manual right? Wrong. The extra weight is around the fact that the game comes shipped on THREE DISCS. If you have the hard drive space, install it, and then get cracking on the experience.
The opening cinematic takes you through a high level overview of 1947 Los Angeles - A city of opportunity and elegence bent on helping people live out their American dream. I recommend watching it in full to grasp the kind of setting the game will put you through before it sends you into your first murder investigation. You find at the beginning of the game that you're no more than an entry level patrolman left to the whim of the senior detectives, entrusted to find a murder weapon. This mission is get you used to the type of game you are playing -- much different than previous Rockstar outings. While you still do have the ability to drive a vehicle, you don't have a lot of the liberties you had in, say, the GTA games. This game won't allow you to just run out in the streets and fire endlessly at civilians. This game supports the same "open sandbox" type of style that Mafia II employed - You have a world to roam freely, however, you can only do so while in a mission. GPS Devices also did not exist in 1947, so if you need directions to your checkpoint, you are left to your partner's knowledge of the city and its layout if you don't wish to continue looking at the map every couple blocks. This is extremely helpful because the city's map is massive. Every bit as large as GTA IV and then some. Get ready for a city that will take hours to see, hours to explore and even more time to accustom yourself to.
The game's use of darker imagery and a seedy contrast sets you immediately into the type of grimy underworld the darkened streets of a large city can be after dark. During the first mission in which you must scour an alley for a murder weapon, you are introduced to the game's soundtrack, along with how it affects your gameplay. The music will rise and fall as you near clues, or find new leads. The music itself is done such that it keeps your intuition sharp, and keeps you on the edge of your seat waiting for that next clue. The environment is not static either. If you accidentally bump into a garbage can or a palette of crates, you will interact with them, and guaranteed you will unintentionaly scare yourself once or twice. Your controller will also interact with the music, vibrating when a clue is near and available for you to interact with. The purpose of this mission is to get you used to the way the music, clue-finding, and hand to hand combat system works, as you well have to fight a suspect in this mission.
At this point, I should add True Crime (actual crime, not the video game series) buffs may be appalled at the fact that the detectives initially handle crucial crime scene pieces barehanded as I was, however, it's all in perspective -- This truly was a different time lacking the technologies we have now.
Rockstar has also listened to those of you who complained about the fact that driving was too tedious and non-essential to your game. You have the option of driving to the scenes yourself, or for those times you have a willing partner, you can climb into the passenger's seat and be chauffered to the next checkpoint. You also do not have to watch the drive unless it is plot crucial, as you will simply be fast forwarded to the next point. Rockstar has also accommodated for those discussions that always happen while you're driving - As a passenger, you do have to sit in on the conversation before you are jumped to the next scene. Be aware, however, that there are achievements for driving different cars, as well as miles driven, so if you care about those things, allowing yourself to be taken places will delay and hinder your ability to get them.
I'd recommend playing the first 4 missions in one sitting before you decide to chop things up, as each is an introductory stepping stone into everything this game has to offer. We've already discussed the first mission and its purpose above, and once you complete that one, you move onto a bank robbery and learn how the gunfire engine works. If you've played one of these games, you've played them all. Left trigger aims, right trigger fires and B reloads. You're then whisked into the third mission, which is simply chasing a bail jumper and learning how the climbing and running system works before you have another fight. Lastly, the last introductory mission is one where you tie all of these elements in with perhaps the most game-defining piece, and something so innovative that it can change the entire face of your missions: The interrogation.
What Rockstar has done with recording dialogue is they have not only captured voices, but faces as well. More than 30 cameras were used to capture all character faces throughout, and once you bring this fact into what you see, you begin to see the immense detail in all sprite facial movements. When you interview characters, you are expected to analyze facial expressions and deduce whether they are lying (you must provide proof,) whether they are telling the truth or whether you doubt their statement, but don't know one way or the other (or cannot provide proof.) Successfully completing interviews will reward you with in-game XP and "intuition" points which you can use to find clues while in future interrogations or crime scenes. Anyway, once you pass this mission, you get promoted and are sent on to the remaining 17 larger scale missions. This introductory sit-down should take around an hour or so.
While the main game unfolds around you, there are two side cinematic inclusions that bear absolutely no relevance to the starting plot, but are given to you such that you're led to believe they must have some purpose later on. The first is a series of videos in between missions. Phelps is seen in his younger days working through his paces as a US Marine (you're told later that he was given a silver star in World War II for killing more than 40 Japanese soldiers) and his relationship with a character named Jack Kelso, whose current relationship with you is undisclosed. The second is found through 13 newspapers you can find at different crime scene investigations. Finding a paper headline will shift you to a video piece centering around psychologist Dr. Harlan Fontaine and his professional relationship with a student and his friend in need of therapy. Again, their relevance to the present is not discussed, but through these subtle reminders every mission or two, you are still to keep it all at the forefront of your mind. As you continue to progress through the game, you will begin to see an agonizing and startling reminder of what the city of Angels was capable of 65 years ago, and what our city's police forces continue to see in their day to day lives.
Lastly are side missions. As with all Rockstar games, these exist too, but are completely optional. If you don't care about optional side missions, you don't have to do them, and they don't have bearing on the game. Similar to the vigilante pieces from GTA IV, whether or not you do them is completely up to you. These are all done in the form of dispatch calls. As you are driving to various parts of your current mission, you will hear an APB over the radio, and the game will ask whether you wish to react to or ignore the bulletin. There are a lot of these, and these will keep you busy for hours on end along with the regular plot line. Tie all of this together, and yes, you've definitely got a solid game of the year candidate.
Graphics: 7/10. For all I've said about the mastery of the facial expression and interrogation systems, the graphics in this game really aren't that much of a step up from, say, GTA IV, and because so much resource is used up by the faces (even in the cinematics,) all of the other graphics have been sacrificed in return. Character movements are often choppy, and backgrounds look out of place in contrast. Corners have obviously been cut for the 360 release, though I'm not sure what could have been done to improve things since a system's only capable of so much, really. You know those early green screen era Hollywood movies that were remastered in high definition years later, and suddenly you could see the green screen effect, and almost a graphical separation between the background and foreground you wouldn't previously have noticed? This game is full of that. Unfortunate as it is, it becomes very noticeable, and perhaps this isn't Team Bondi and Rockstar's fault. Perhaps this is finally the year and time that the age and limitations of the 360 begin to show. It's not worth dwelling on this point long term, however, and as you'll see (if you haven't already,) this is far from a deterring point for this game.
Sound: 9.5/10. Every little sound bite of this game makes you feel like you're trapped in an old episode of Dick Tracy without the hideously deformed villains and campy yellow raincoat. The ominous jazz music interlays, the dialogue, the whole soundtrack, really. Sound capturing sounds like every discussion is happening in your living room next to you. Every gunshot rings out with clarity. This was done so spot on that if you close your eyes for a few minutes and listen in to what's happening around you, you'll swear you were hearing something authentic from 1947 itself rather than a 2011 video game kicking back to those times.
Control: 8.5/10. The controls in this game are extremely easy to get the hang of -- almost TOO easy. Once you've played a Rockstar game with controls mapped to almost all buttons, you're expecting to have to press buttons to climb, jump over objects, or open doors, which are done automatically here by just walking toward them. Gun controls are as simple as you could expect them to be. The only thing that keeps this from being a perfect score really is the driving mechanics. Driving a vehicle from the 1940s isn't supposed to be as feather touch as the game makes it out to be. The vehicles handle too lightly given how much they weighed, and the roads give you that same "stick of butter" feeling from past Rockstar games which makes for an awkward driving experience. Given that driving is always such a huge part of these games (if you choose to do it this time around, that is,) I wish they would have spent a bit more time to make this part of the game a bit more rea 10/10. Let's face it. I can complain about the driving experience, and the often entry-level graphics, but it doesn't make it this a make or break as to whether you should be picking up this game. You can easily be chauffeured if the driving is that annoying, and well, graphics should never make or break a game unless it severely hinders your ability to play, which this absolutely does not. Every facet of the gameplay experience just works.
Sometimes you forget how different the world was back then. With no easy way of researching information, you have to call the switchboard operators for 411s. Newspapers are crucial to day to day life, and there's no professional sports to tie the city together in any form or fashion. The Dodgers didn't arrive until the late 1950s, and the Angels, Kings and Lakers didn't show up until the 60s. LA truly was a city left to its own peril, and if this game doesn't leave you with perhaps a little sense of relief that you didn't grow up in those times, I don't know what will. This is a gamer's game, and not just that - This is the type of game that serves to bring fans of yesteryear in with it. If you were looking for a good police-style game voided by the loss of the Police Quest franchise for example, this is it. Few games so plot rich will grip you until you realize you've just spent the better part of your day engaged in its clutches. For all gents and dames, LA Noire is a bit of James Ellroy's LA Quarter, a bit Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon, a bit of clever film-making and a lot of Rockstar's tremendous ability to connect you to who you are playing and why you are doing it.
While the 360 version will not be remembered as a graphic masterpiece, the game should continue to be lauded for what it truly is - An innovative stepping stone into the next generation of strategic gaming. They say in the gaming industry that once you have given, you cannot take back. Well, a little gaming studio in Australia has given us a facial recognition system that will prove to be this game's longest lasting contribution to video gaming and lays down the gauntlet for all future challengers.