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PlayStation 3 Review: L.A. Noire

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After the sprawling heights that Rockstar’s unexpected success Red Dead Redemption soared to in 2010, one would think that it would be next-to-impossible for them to bring us something as eagerly-epic the following year in 2011. Indeed, many video game developers — much like authors and filmmakers — seem to unintentionally employ an alternating hit and miss strategy. But this is Rockstar we’re talking about: even when their games aren’t all that great (e.g. Bully), they still tend to be enjoyable.

With L.A. Noire, the video game company’s latest offering, we appear to have another winner on our hands. Well, it’s a hit according to some of us, at least — there are an awful lot of folks out there that haven’t been able to fully appreciate this game because it actually requires you to think.

That’s right, I said “think.” L.A. Noire isn’t your usual game fare. There are no helicopter joyrides over the skyscrapers of Liberty City to be found here. No zombies to kill. In fact, you’re not entitled to sporadically kill random people on the streets at all: hell, it’s extremely difficult to kill anyone period — unless it’s part of your assignment. Part of this is due to the fact that you are playing a cop; and, unlike the occasional home videos that cause riots to burst in certain metropolitan areas of Southern California, cops are supposed to be the good guys.

Note how I said “supposed to,” though. Like all of the film noir classics and pulp novels that L.A. Noire undoubtedly takes its cue from, corruption is to be found on both sides of the law. Your character, Cole Phelps (brought to life via an animated version of Mad Men’s own Aaron Staton), starts out as a beat cop on the streets of Los Angeles in post-WWII Los Angeles. Due to Cole’s keen observational skills and stern honesty, he rises quickly in the ranks, and you get a chance to work in the Traffic, Homicide and Vice departments as the game progresses, before concluding in Arson.

Throughout the whole game, there is an underlying subplot involving Phelps in his WWII days (as well as the men he served with) that finally comes to fruition towards the end. Bits and pieces of this particular puzzle are presented periodically in the form of newspapers lying around or flashbacks that are presented as cutaway sequences.

Whether it’s a routine missing person or a string of harrowing murders committed by the Black Dahlia, Mr. Phelps (does anybody else want to do a Bob Johnson impersonation when they hear that name, or is it just me?) has to use his grey matter in order to determine who is behind the crime. The inspection of crime scenes, apartments and a few fresh (not to mention grisly-lookin’) corpses spawn clues, which are triggered by a vibrating sensation from your controller.

Don’t think for one minute that you’ll find them all via this electronic quivering, though: it’s very easy to miss certain clues, and you don’t necessarily need to find ‘em all in order to close your case. Sometimes your partners (or other people) will help you out if you’ve overlooked something. You may even alter the way the entire chapter plays out if you miss a piece of information, but the game always sets you back on your feet; it’s your detecting skills that will determine how well you rate with your superiors (and, more importantly, the game’s scoring system).

Another line of inspection that is of vital importance in L.A. Noire is the ability to interview suspects and witnesses. And, thanks to a very talented supporting cast of real actors, these civilians have a variable range of facial expressions. Are they lying? Being honest? Maybe they’re uncertain about their statements; maybe you’re uncertain about their statements — it’s up to you to judge by pressing a button while you’re interviewing these city dwellers. But choose to accuse or trust with carefulness, as wrongful blame will result in less-obliging individuals.

Oh, and before I forget: you’ll want to buy the soundtrack for this game. Just sayin’ it now, kids.

If some of you are thinking that L.A. Noire is a lot like those old Police Quest computer games, I suppose it’s safe to say it is. One might even consider it to be a modern-day successor of it. Some of you might scream out “sacrilege” over me even thinking that, but, if you look closely enough, you might just see it for yourself. The major difference, of course, is that L.A. Noire is a truly excellent game: one that delivers in terms of its animation, gameplay and character performances.

Anyone that’s ever lived in Los Angeles will also appreciate how truly remarkable — not to mention accurate — the game’s map of L.A. is here. A good buddy of mine was able to visit his old apartment was (or should I say “would eventually be?”) when he picked up the game. The reason behind this is that Team Bondi — the real brains behind the game itself — used fifty years’ worth of aerial photographs by Robert Spence in order to create the impressive layout we see in the final product. Certain liberties have been taken for the sake of story, however: take, for example, the inclusion of D.W. Griffith’s massive set from Intolerance — which was actually torn down in 1919.

Several other historical landmarks — thirty altogether — are also available in the game. The discovery of these will cause the famous attractions to be added to the game’s map, and are essential if one wants to achieve a 100% completion. Other items that are hidden throughout the game’s remarkable 8 square miles worth of information include concealed film canisters, rare vintage vehicles (which you can drive around in; only don’t try to chase any bad guys down in the Stout Scarab — you’ll be sorry you did!) and also badges that were included with some editions of the game (and are also available as downloadable content).

There are so many facets that Team Bondi and Rockstar put into L.A. Noire that ultimately result in it being a kick-ass game. Would I advise others to buy it? Wholeheartedly. Will it alienate some (would-be) players that are hoping for another Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption? Yes, it very well could: this is a game that relies on its players to use their wits rather than use their guns. And it’s that very reason that make it a keeper in my opinion.

In short: L.A. Noire is just as good as Red Dead Redemption was, but for entirely different reasons.

Highly recommended.

L.A. Noire is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood and Gore, Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs, Violence. This game can also be found on: Xbox, PC.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.