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Poorly executed game with a lot of promise
on November 18, 2011
L.A. Noire follows the exploits of a WWII vet and now burgeoning cop Cole Phelps through 1940s Los Angeles. Rockstar has created a fantastically detailed overworld which bests its previous Grand Theft Auto series graphically and in its attention to detail. The game centers on sleuthing for clues and dramatic encounters that you have as you attempt to squeeze the truth out of witnesses and suspects and Rockstar has taken extraordinary measures in casting fantastic actors and using facial scanning software to create the most authentic and emotional interactions between characters which I've ever seen in a game.
Unfortunately, despite this incredibly promising platform, the game itself is pretty poorly executed. Though graphically beautiful, Rockstar seems to have done a slap job in porting and optimizing the game for the PC, and my fairly beefy PC frequently choked and stuttered to deliver consistent framerates even at modest settings. A couple of nearly barren rooms were so inexplicably shakey as to make moving about them difficult. It's possible that patches and updates in the future will address this, but who knows. Another big annoyance is the fact that you cannot skip cut-scenes. If you ever fail a portion of a mission you have to watch the cut-scene before your part which can be several minutes long. If it's a tough chase, you might end up having to watch the same scene seven or eight times.
The overworld is also surprisingly dull. Despite being an enormous recreation of 1940s Los Angeles, with incredible attention to architecture, pedestrians, automobiles and the signs and products of the time, there's hardly anything to actually do. Unlike the sort of anything-goes sandbox free-for-all which made the Grand Theft Auto series so popular, you really cannot do much more than walk, drive or sit outside of the locations of your current case. So while you can spend hours exploring the vast map, there's little incentive to do so. The game even penalizes you for driving recklessly. There are 40 small "street crime" side missions where you can chase down a thug, but there's little reward for doing so. With nothing to really discover driving between points on my mission, I ending up having my partner drive, which fortunately warps you to your destination immediately.
The gameplay is on rails. A case shifts between clue-finding and interviews with other people, with the occasional shoot-out or car/foot chase of a suspect. Clue-finding involves walking around a scene until a chime plays, clicking and then viewing the clue as characters comment on it. Interviewing requires you to determine if statements made by witnesses are either true, doubtful or a lie. Your interview choices with witnesses do have some bearing on how the case plays out and what evidence you can collect, but not nearly as much as the game wants you to believe. You as the player have so little control with the scene and story that you feel much more like you're watching a 1940s Law and Order episode. It's a bit like a story with some gameplay as opposed to a traditional videogame tied together with some cutscenes. You will spend about 90% of your play time watching characters interact and walking around rooms, trying to find the next clue.
The idea of a game driven by story more than gameplay isn't a completely terrible concept. The acting itself is fantastically captured and can be really dramatic at times, just as dramatic as if it were a live-cut scene with actors in the flesh as opposed to pixels. The problem is that the story itself is pretty mediocre. Every case is little more than a formulaic task of investigating the crime scene for clues, questioning witnesses for leads, investigating said leads for more information, chasing down suspects, making a suspect confess, case closed. What kept me playing through to the end was the overarching story, which ties together each of the cases. I finished sorely disappointed. For all the hours of game play, the protagonist isn't developed as anyone much deeper than a WWII vet hesitant to discuss his past and a cop with an upstanding sense of morality. Without giving away too much, this lack of development makes it difficult to understand certain decisions made by Cole and makes you feel distanced as a player. The ending is very anticlimactic and unsatisfying and there's no point in replaying old missions.
So while the game is very beautiful and the acting very good, I can't recommend buying L.A. Noire to anyone. I hope Rockstar incorporates the sort of face scanning and acting into their new games.