Much like Rockstar Games was a pioneer of sorts to the open-world crime-based and western genres of video games, Rockstar and Team Bondi have once again ventured into uncharted territory: the detective genre. Sure, we’ve had some games that have dabbled in that category, but the sheer scope of what L.A. Noire hoped to accomplish was unprecedented.
After playing through the game, it’s safe to say that L.A. Noire is, in fact, a very special entry into Rockstar’s repertoire. Sure, the game is in many ways a spiritual successor to games like Heavy Rain and maybe even Shenmue, but really, Team Bondi and Rockstar Games are breaking new grounds technologically and conceptually with this ambitious effort.
You assume the role of Cole Phelps, a member of the Los Angeles Police Department that is widely known as a “war hero” for his efforts in World War II. Phelps is a strong character that relies on his intuition and interrogation skills to solve cases and, if the player effectively uses these skills, he does so very successfully. The story is told through a series of twenty cases that take place in the late 1940’s.
Each case is clearly self-contained, but there are pieces of a greater story linking them all together. These linking pieces are told through various methods, including front-page newspaper stories, character flashbacks, and scenes of the cases themselves. Without a doubt, the narrative is among the best in the video game industry and Brendan McNamara’s writing truly rivals that of any previously released game.
As you may have guessed from the title, Los Angeles plays a huge part of this game. Not only is it the setting for L.A. Noire, but at times it feels like a character of the game in and of itself. The way the other characters hustle about just feels organic and alive, and the city is vast to the point of absurdity. Unfortunately, the sheer size of the city isn’t quite utilized to the fullest, as exploration isn’t rewarded in this game and most missions will see players going from point A to point B without any straying from the path. One thing that is certainly impressive is considering how, despite the enormity of the environment, the loading times are blazing fast.
While the story and setting are great, the animation is spectacular to the point that it’s almost creepy. The faces, which were recorded using the actual actors with numerous high definition cameras, make every other video game face look stiff and lifeless by comparison. Faces are accurately represented, which is evident by the various familiar actors that you encounter throughout the 20 case campaign. Players that watch shows such as Mad Men, Heroes, or Dexter will likely recognize several actors in the game. All of the characters look amazingly accurate to the actor that portrays them to the point that it may be appropriate to say that this is the first time that a high degree of acting was a requirement to play characters in L.A. Noire.
In addition to the insanely detailed facial animations, the character models are incredibly detailed. Every character’s imperfections are visible, but not highlighted, just as they are in real life. The way characters react to you is incredibly realistic as well. For instance, as you walk past the secretary of the police department, she’ll stop what she’s doing to look up and smile at you in a very realistic manner. Very rarely does animation look forced or robotic, which alone is an artistic achievement.
All of this technologically advanced animation and motion capture would be for naught if the characters weren’t believable in the way they sound. Luckily, the voice acting is, hands down, the best that has ever been seen in a video game. While working your way through the over 20 hours of recorded dialog and voice acting, it’s very uncommon that you will find lines that come off awkwardly or in an unnatural manner.
The presentation and storyline pay appropriate homage to the film noir style of the 1940 and 50’s, even to the point where you can make the experience more authentic by enacting a mode that puts the game’s visuals in black and white. What it all boils down to is the fact that Team Bondi and Rockstar put an unprecedented amount of attention to detail into the visual and audio presentation of L.A. Noire, and that labor investment has certainly turned around and paid its fair share of dividends.