Hanging over the bustling city streets of Rockstar Games’ latest open-world epic, L.A. Noire, you’ll find an innocuous banner that reads ‘Keep L.A. Safe: Drive Carefully’. Though easily disregarded as just another small piece of detail in a stunningly detailed world, it actually cuts to L.A. Noire’s core; it’s a statement of intent, a simple and clear declaration from Team Bondi that this isn’t Grand Theft Auto, that those looking for free-form, automobile focussed violence and chaos should move along . L.A. Noire, you see, is the anti-GTA; it’s a game about attempting to maintain a sense of order and focussed professionalism while confronting the often brutal realities of crime. The streets of 1947 L.A. are every bit as mean as those of GTA’s modern day New York, but playing as the LAPD’s golden boy, Cole Phelps, you’re sitting on the other side of the fence to Nico Bellic and co., a perspective from which the criminal underworld looks a whole lot uglier.
After its initial announcement in 2004, L.A. Noire long felt in danger of being snuffed out of existence; its long-hyped PlayStation 3 exclusivity slipped, years went by with nary a screenshot or gameplay detail surfacing. Add to this the weight of a thousand gangster movies, and it’s hard to envy the task that faced Team Bondi in delivering a title that lived up to its publisher’s heritage, that honoured and celebrated a literary and cinematic genre as much loved as hard boiled detective fiction, all the while attempting to forge something new with complex and untested technology. And all this was being attempted by a developer that had yet to release a game…
It’s fair to say then that Team Bondi set its sights reasonably high and, thankfully, this ambition has yielded an experience of rare quality – we can confidently say that L.A. Noire marks a watershed moment for videogames in a number of areas, and that it does so with an understated assuredness. With that being said, things do get off to a bit of wobbly start; it may well be a result of our GTA-conditioning, but its hard not to feel a little underwhelmed by an opening that makes L.A. Noire feel like a record-needle struggling to find its own groove.
Filling the shoes of rookie cop, Cole Phelps, you are introduced to a crime scene for the first time, conduct a small investigation, take part in a slightly meat-and-potatoes shoot-out, chase some bad guys and meet some predictably ill-mannered peers. Though these are all things straight out of detective fiction, going through the motions here initially feels a little humdrum. Things are exasperated by your introduction to the game’s interrogation mechanic – you listen to the suspect’s answers, and must decide if they’re lying, telling the truth or, if doubtful, attempt to probe a little further. For the former, you must have sufficient evidence to back up your claim, or risk failure. In this first encounter, failure sends you back to the beginning of the interview – something that proves to be extremely frustrating and, in fact, makes you fearful of the experience that lies ahead; is L.A. Noire genuinely going to drag you down a pre-describe route, punishing any deviation with a hasty rewind and resetting of events?
Fortunately, these early missteps are just that – a few faltering first steps as the title looks to head out into new territory. The interrogations quickly loosen up (though, gauging exactly how Phelps will enact your decisions is a problem throughout) and it becomes apparent that the frustration instilled by your first encounter is merely a result of Team Bondi somewhat clumsily coercing you into grasping some of the game’s fundamental mechanics. Similarly, the humdrum nature of early missions, rather than being cause for concern, is in fact indicative of a wonderful lightness of touch that runs throughout a game that slowly but surely submerses you into realities of life as an LAPD agent. Before long, that record-needle has stopped searching for a groove, and begun to work its way under your skin, and pulling yourself away from the fascinating world and cases presented in L.A. Noire can be prove to be increasingly difficult.
Have you downloaded the latest issue from GamerZines yet? Check it out here!