L.A. Noire is unusual in that what makes it so good are the things that most games shy away from – either through a lack of confidence or a belief that such things are unnecessary and get in the way of the gameplay.
Story, character, setting, a specific direction, a sense of history, these are the things that make L.A. Noire special. Sure, there are other games that attempt these elements, but very few to the extent that is witnessed here.
As far as game stories go, the journey of Cole Phelps is right up there. With a pace (and storyline) akin to a James Ellroy novel, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that you’re being pulled along and that, no matter which route you take, you’re always going to end up in the same place. In other games this can kill the sense of intrigue and adventure, but here you don’t mind the fact that the story is on rails.
That’s because the writing is excellent and interesting in a variety of ways thanks to the multiple themes, sub-plots and growth of the primary characters. Things start out as a search for the werewolf killer, but ultimately this is a story about the history of Cole Phelps – how his previous actions have made him the man he is today, and how they have affected those around him.
If you didn’t believe a game could work as a character study, you will now.
Phelps’ story plays out in a world of such incredible detail and history-as-we-want-to-remember-it decadence as to better those of GTAIV and Red Dead Redemption. 1947 was a place of stardom and wealth but also crime and a strict class structure, the tenderness in which the game wraps all of this into a cohesive package without feeling clichéd or overdone is a commendable achievement.
The story takes you through the entire spectrum of the age’s society, providing just enough insight to tempt your curiosity into some extracurricular study on the period after the credits roll. If you’ve any knowledge of Hollywoodland, the ‘Golden Age’ of American movies and/or noir ideals then you’re going to find a lot to sink your teeth into here. If you’re less familiar, your interest will certainly be sparked.
Noire’s gameplay is nothing to scoff at either, so long as you enjoy dialogue, crime scene investigation and the odd spot of (optional) driving. Almost like a point and click adventure, your interaction with the world and its populace is defined by searching for clues and then using what you’ve found to leverage information from anyone and everyone you can.
The much lauded facial animation plays a key part in working out whether or not you’re on the right track, but in all honestly once you’ve worked out what to look for the signs are pretty obvious. Like I said before though, you don’t mind that things are worked out for you because the events are so compelling.
Some might (and have) argued that this is a game that would have been improved by handing more control to the player, but to take such a stance is to misunderstood (or dismiss) what the game is about. This is an interactive story that just so happens to take the form of a videogame.
Perhaps L.A. Noire’s greatest achievement rests in demonstrating that such an approach works in a full, 3D open-world. It’s telling that the game’s weakest moments come when it moves away from its narrative in a bid to include popular elements such as gunfights and car chases. Then again, remove those bits and you’d be left with an experience that many would barely recognise as a videogame.
Is that a bad thing? Or, is our understanding of what a videogame is too narrow?