Behind the Wheel
Driving is better in L.A. Noire than it was in Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s not as clunky, but there’s still problems when you hit the road.
A good feature in L.A. Noire is the ability to ask your partner for driving directions instead of constantly pausing the game and checking the map. Your partner will tell you, “Take a left at the next intersection” or wherever you need to go.
You can also make your partner drive to any designated location by holding down the triangle button near the car. This isn’t just restricted to story locations. Your partner will drive to any place you mark on the map. A quick loading screen appears and then you’re at the scene. This eliminates one of the most bothersome aspects of Rockstar Games; driving for what seems like hours and hours to the next mission or desired area.
Phelps can demand any car on the street and the NPC will hand it over. You can collect cars around the city. There’s 95 in total. A lot of the vehicles look so similar that unless you’re a rabid fan of cars you won’t be sure if you’ve collected it or not. It’s completely pointless to go out of your way to collect cars. There’s no police garage to pick up a car you want to drive at any time. There’s no collection list in any of the game’s menus. You won’t need to unlock cars to help you track down suspects more effectively. Besides unlocking a Trophy or Achievement, there’s really no reason to collect vehicles.
There’s no point in stirring up mayhem behind the wheel on the streets because you get graded on the amount of damage you do during cases.
The game has a weird damage system for driving. You can drive through a street pole but can’t ram down a picket fence. The environmental damage isn’t consistent and is pretty frustrating. Things you should be able to run down such as a chain-link fence feel like you smashed into a brick wall. This becomes bothersome during car chases.
Driving sequences are another problem. L.A. Noire implements a lot of car chases. After a while the chases are no longer enjoyable and seem like a chore. The chases are aggravating because you’re trying to not cause massive amounts of damage but it’s nearly impossible with the way the enemy AI drives. A lot of times the car you’re chasing basically warps to make a turn while you crash into a wall attempting the same thing. Your partner will attempt to shoot out the car’s tires but the suspect will always somehow drives away faster than you can.
The NPC AI on the streets is moronic. They’ll often run in front of your car when you’re pursuing a suspect. Driving in tight alleyways is horrible because of the bizarre environmental damage. It felt counterproductive to have so many car chases in the game when you’re getting evaluated on the amount of damage you cause.
At first the Street Crime side missions seem like a good idea. However after finishing a handful of them they quickly lose all appeal. Each desk has its own set of Street Crimes. There’s 40 total in the game. Completing a Street Crime earns 15XP. You only get called for a Street Crime while driving in some iteration of a police car. When you appear at the mission, a quick cut-scene will play about the situation.
It takes longer to drive to the actual crime than it does to complete it. Most of the street crimes can be completed in 30 seconds. Some can be finished even faster than that. When you get to the Vice desk, a lot of the Street Crimes are on the other side of the city. Thankfully your partner can drive you to the location.
A lot of the missions involve chasing down and killing the suspect, rather than taking them in for questioning. Cole is supposed to be Mr. Nice Guy, the honest cop, yet he mercilessly kills suspects during these missions. There’s a few funny cases, but most of them aren’t that interesting. Characters from previous story cases sometimes appear in the Street Crimes. The same cops often make an appearance too. The missions aren’t consistent though. For example, the cop that was shot dead during the last mission’s cut-scene is somehow alive for the next Street Crime.
All the Street Crimes feel tacked on. The missions are way too simple and barely have any legs to them. It would have been fine if they weren’t included in the game at all. One possibility would have been to just condense all the crimes into a handful of original cases for the main storyline. It would have also made sense to tie them to the story, where you need to complete Street Crimes if you “fail” a case according to your superior.
Work the Beat
The first chapter of L.A. Noire begins by showing you the ropes of police work. After the first desk you’re promoted to the detective role. Each case has its own theme and strong points. With each desk comes a new partner for Phelps. There’s 21 cases overall and it never felt like they dragged on. You can replay any case from the main menu. It also tells you which cases have a newspaper and if you collected it or not.
When a case is over, you get graded out of five stars. The game takes into account how many questions you got right, total clues found and the damage you did around the city. If you run over a civilian with your car, you’re severally penalized for that transgression.
During cases you can’t save and quit anytime you want. While this was implemented so people don’t “cheat” on a case and replay it after learning the right choices, it does get annoying when you need to stop playing. When you resume the game, sometimes you’ll have to do more than just watch a cut-scene but replay an action sequence or do an entire interview over.
A cool aspect is you can check out the Social Club and see how people got stumped on a certain suspect and case. While some suspects do pose a challenge throughout, nothing is extremely difficult.
As good as the investigations are, you can’t fail them. You could perform horribly and still manage to get to the next case. Missing lots of evidence? Completely botched several lines of questioning? Doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. There’s no repercussion for screwing up a case. You still advance to the next one even with a terrible ranking.
If you charge the “wrong” suspect (the wrong one according to the game), you get a verbal lashing from your superior. No mention of your failing is brought up during the next case though. It’s as if it didn’t even happen. You don’t get demoted. You don’t have to do Street Crimes to get back in good graces with your boss. Your boss somehow has Alzheimer’s and forgets he was about to fire you five minutes beforehand.
A problem I had with the game’s dialogue is that characters constantly reference older cases, suspects and people but it’s hard to remember exactly who they all are during the course of a game as long as L.A. Noire. With a storyline spanning 21 cases, it would have been nice if the game offered up a reminder here and there of who these people are.
After several cases you get the idea of both the evidence gathering and questioning scenarios. L.A. Noire follows the same pattern. You hit the crime scene, gather evidence, and go do some questioning. When you go to question a suspect they almost always run away, and you have to chase them down. It seemed like a majority of people you go to question run away.
Some might find this sequence repetitive and boring, but thankfully L.A. Noire keeps the investigations and story fresh. Chasing down people does finally get tiresome the last few hours of the game but the story keeps the player motivated.
L.A. Noire limits what you’re able to do. When chasing down a suspect on foot, even if you’re literally right behind them, the game won’t allow you to make the capture. For example, when climbing a pole or a ladder and you’re an inch away from the suspect, they’ll kick you a few times and you fall to the ground. There’s no option to grab their leg to capture them. The same goes for car chases. The game wants the chase to reach a certain point before you’re able to stop them.
When you chase down a suspect and capture them, the cut-scene with Phelps and the suspect is back at the original starting part. This is completely ridiculous. Why would Phelps and his partner drag the suspect all the way back to where the chase began? Why not call for backup and arrest the suspect where they were stopped?
You also can’t draw your weapon at will. When the game says “subdue” a suspect, that word takes on an entirely different meaning depending on the situation. Often (especially during Street Crimes) you have to kill a suspect rather than taking them in for questioning. You can’t shoot someone in the leg or arm to stop them. If you shoot them they die. You can’t fire a warning shot when you want. You can’t tackle somebody when you want. The game chooses when you can or can’t do these actions.
There was one story case in particular where a suspect exits his car and begins firing at you after you chased him down. This suspect would have provided crucial information for the big case being put together by Phelps. Even if you shoot them in the leg in order to stop them, they still die. It made absolutely no sense to kill the suspect when having him alive was the obvious better scenario. During one cut-scene, a suspect is subdued for questioning by being shot in the leg. Why can’t this be done in the actual game?
These head-scratching inconsistencies become more noticeable as L.A. Noire continues on and make the game more linear than it needs to be.
That Ole Devil Called Love
Music is an important part of every cultural era. L.A. Noire’s music transports to that time period and adds authenticity to the game. The radio plays hits from Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, The Ink Spots, Louis Armstrong, Tex Williams, Gene Krupa, Louis Jordan, Dinah Washington and other giants from the era. The voices are recognizable, the sounds engrained in the American fabric.
The song selection nicely fits with the game’s story. A good portion of the songs seemed to be about failed love and relationships. “Stone Cold Dead In The Market (He Had It Coming),” a duet featuring Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, is eerie to listen to when you’re playing the Homicide cases. Some of the lyrics say, “Last night I went out drinking, When I came home I gave her a beating. So she catched up the rolling pin and went to work on my head until she bashed it in.”
L.A. Noire also features a handful of original songs made specifically for the game. The score “(I Always Kill) The Things That I Love” sung by one of the main characters is a great song and fits right in with the game’s song selection.
There’s even news reports, radio programs and advertisements either from the era, or doing a damn good job of replicating them. Unfortunately you can’t change the songs on the radio. Any time you enter a new car the same song as the previous car is playing. I guess every single person in 1947 Los Angeles listened to the same station at all times.
A Man of Action
Cole Phelps isn’t a very likeable character, which is why he works so well. Quite frankly he’s a hypocrite. There’s a lot of depth to his character though. He tries to portray himself as an angel, but he isn’t. NPCs regularly comment on Phelps, saying things like, “That’s the guy. I heard he’s an honest cop. There’s an oxymoron for you.” His partners and the police force often accuse him of playing politics and being a “choir boy.” Phelps is a by-the-numbers type of guy even when it’s clearly the wrong path to follow.
L.A. Noire has a lot of slimy antagonists. Greed and selfishness seeps through their words and actions. In contrast to them Phelps looks like a saint. However Phelps has more in common with the sinners of L.A. than he’d like to admit. Phelps is a family man but sometimes puts his own desires ahead of theirs. Revelations of his Marine history play throughout the game that make you question his integrity and character.
During one scene, Phelps snaps on one of his partners. This particular partner’s actions had built up to this confrontation throughout the game. The scene is incredible because of the Motion Scan technology. Phelps’ intensity is so realistic and unlike anything seen in games before. This makes you want to get behind Phelps and his frustrations, but then you realize he’s the cause of all of them.
There’s a certain intelligence to Phelps that separates him from other characters. For example, Phelps has a deep understanding of the Japanese and why the were fighting in WWII, rather than the simplistic and empty reasoning put forth by the other Marines.
However some of Phelps’ progression doesn’t make sense and isn’t flushed out well enough. Unfortunately to reveal one particular example would give away a major plot twist, but when it happens you might also be confused with Phelps’ actions.
Another inconsistency is that Phelps is fighting corruption to clean up Los Angeles, yet he didn’t once need a warrant to search a person’s home or business. Often Phelps and his partner would bust into the home when no one was there and sniff around. The suspect’s routinely mentioned they have rights, and wondered if the detectives have a warrant for their search. If they questioned Phelps’ authority to do so, his partner would physically threaten them. This is in sharp contrast to Phelps’ crusade to clean up the corruption in Los Angeles.
Phelps’ journey is integral to L.A. Noire’s story. As the game’s narrator states, “There’s no sitting on the fence. You need to choose sides.” Choosing sides isn’t easy and innocent people will get struck in the crossfire.
Many people often have a rosy-eyed vision of the past. They believe the world was a better place during the previous generations. The world was supposedly safer and people had a greater sense of morals. The violence of the crimes and actions of those pursuing power in L.A. Noire don’t mesh with the stereotypical image of the American life presented as reality during the middle of the 20th century. The ’40s were a time of great social and political turmoil in the United States and throughout the world. L.A. Noire portrays some of these problems.
Various groups like Jews, blacks and Hispanics are insulted by suspects and those on the police force. One man takes the discrimination against him for being Jewish out on an unfortunate individual. A German singer is ridiculed for her heritage and dark past. Some of your partners are racist, although Phelps never divulges into those actions and dialogue.
Political corruption is one of the central points of L.A. Noire’s story, which is still a sad problem in the country more than sixty years later. The vice desk deals with the rise of heroin use and America’s drug war, which is still being fought and hotly debated today.
L.A. Noire also portrays the frailty of the American Dream. One antagonist says, “Gentleman, we’re here to sell the American Dream, and Hollywood is our greatest advertiser.” The United States had just become a world superpower. The materialistic era was quickly approaching. People were told that happiness was found in a nice home and new car. Those seeking power and wealth take advantage of that to further their own selfish desires. They sell the American Dream for cheap, and that’s the quality people get in return.
The Marines defended the country’s freedoms overseas but come back home only to find life isn’t what they expected it be after the war. They can either face a life of crime, or as one Marine put it, go back to being a dish washer. One NPC on the street even said, “I survived the war for this?” While their bravery is initially celebrated, their contributions are quickly forgotten once they get back to their everyday lives.
The “Reds” are a hated enemy for many in L.A. Noire. Cops and other characters routinely mention them with disgust and antagonism. One Street Crime has Phelps and his partner chasing down a suspected Communist and arresting him. It seems laughable nowadays, but in 1947 communism was considered the greatest threat to society.
There’s also pedophilia with men who “like them young.” Some men have sexual relationships with teenage girls, often in return for promises of material wealth or a thriving acting career. I can’t recall too many games where this was shown in a realistic and serious manner. From the creep scoping out the local high school to the elite of the city, L.A. Noire is honest with its portrayal of this tension.
L.A. Noire is set in a different world. From the yes sirs and no ma’ams to everyone wearing classy clothes, in some ways it’s almost unrecognizable from our own today. During one story revelation, a person is charged with a crime that people would laugh at now for being a law. It’s still a serious offense today, but it’s interesting to see how much things have changed socially and how some things have stayed the same.