Close to eight years ago a team of Australian game developers came together under the guidance of Brendan McNamara, a former creative director for Sony Computer Entertainment�s Soho studio and the man responsible for the story of The Getaway. Team Bondi, as it came to be called, began work on a title that did not see the light of day for many years, only being hinted in stock reports and offhand mentions. While Rockstar, Team Bondi�s publisher, was slaving away on a new game engine and two concepts that became 2008�s Grand Theft Auto IV and 2010�s Red Dead Redemption, waiting quietly in the wings was a game that, until last year, almost no one knew about: LA Noire.
After seven years though does Team Bondi�s freshman effort live up to the high expectations players have for a Rockstar title? Beware dear reader as the following review�s section regarding the story is filled to the brim with spoilers that normally wouldn�t be discussed but, in this particular case, it is a crucial topic of debate. Circumstantial Evidence
The Post-war years in the 1940s was a time in which the foundations of a great economic boom were laid in the United States. Returning soldiers from Europe and the Pacific came home to start families, buy houses, and experience the freedom they had fought for overseas. From these returning heroes came what was eventually called the Baby Boomer generation which grew up and subsequently both experienced and help lay the course for the social revolution of the 50s and 60s.
Post-war America however wasn�t one full of peace. Racial segregation was still in full swing and organized crime was almost as powerful as it was during the Prohibition era. Many returning soldiers found themselves unable to find work and so many more were having trouble coping with the horrors of war. In the war on crime Los Angeles was one of the frontline cities and, in a city filled with corruption, a hero was needed.
This call to arms was answered by Cole Phelps, a returning GI officer who fought in the Okinawa campaign, received the Silver Star and was shipped home early after being wounded in combat. LA Noire�s story begins in 1947 as Phelps earns his stripes as a patrolman. As Phelps continues to go the extra mile to help solve cases detectives normally would he eventually gets his chance and becomes a full detective.
From here Cole�s story follows a linear progression as he rises through the ranks, starting out at the Traffic Desk before moving on to Homicide, Vice, and then Arson. Each Desk consists of several cases that Cole and his partner are assigned to investigate. While the initial cases as a patrolman serve as a tutorial for the rest of the game, the Traffic Desk is the only desk in which the crimes committed are not inter-connected. While I won�t go into details regarding the plots of each case most involve a certain amount of premeditation that weaves an intricate tale of love, greed, or both. The Homicide, Vice, and Arson cases each have particularly interesting and nicely done stories, the Homicide Desk being noteworthy for making suppositions and a narrative for one of the most famous unsolved murder cases in US history.
The problems with the game�s narrative don�t begin with or particularly pertain to the stories of the cases you investigate so much as they concern themselves with our main character. As the title of the game should imply, a noir setting is mostly a character study about how one acts and develops overtime in reaction to the events of a story. While I don�t have much experience with the genre I believe I can say that many of the films that fit into the term �noir� meet this general definition. LA Noire, a game which seems to want to live up to this meaning, unfortunately doesn�t.
Throughout the course of the game you play as Cole as he and his partner, who is determined by the Desk he is assigned to, travel around the Los Angeles of 1947 in an effort to solve the mysterious crimes and deaths that seem to plague the city. Unlike Nico Bellic and John Marston before him though Cole Phelps�s character is not given the definition it deserves. Many implications are made with his character that does not reflect in his actions and demeanor in a believable way. For example, despite being married with two children and almost living the proverbial American Dream very little is mentioned about them. Only through cutscenes interspersed between cases that detail his efforts in World War II does one learn anything about his character beyond his stout, straight-forward business focus. The result is a character not far removed from the Joe Friday character from Dragnet.
Phelps� character really starts to take an incongruent turn during the Homicide Desk. After a six month jump forward (during which the deleted and possibly returning Burglary Desk takes place) Phelps joins Homicide and spends his evenings off the beat at a night club where he has become enamored with Elsa Lichtman, the main entertainer. To say that such a shift from a family man to that of a cheating husband in a standup character like Phelps is startling is putting the term lightly. Later on Cole�s adultery is discovered by the department (the details of who does so I won�t disclose) which costs him his marriage, his children, and his desk as he suspended and demoted.
The main problem to be had with this is that it just doesn�t come across in a plausible fashion. Had the six month period between the Traffic and Homicide desks been detailed and exposed his falling in love with Elsa I would feel more for the character and understand his actions. However, since that large span of time is missing from the game (again, currently) not enough is learned by the player to allow it to be reasonable. As the story develops from this point though a strong implication is made in Cole�s behavior that, in my opinion, would have lead to a more plausible scenario of him faking his love and intentionally getting demoted in order to prove the existence of the conspiracy that ties together the second half of the game.
From the beginning of the Arson desk to the end the game it seems that Phelp�s character has been thrown to the wolves and this is made in no more apparent a fashion than when Cole is locked out of an investigation and a new main protagonist is introduced: Jack Kelso, a former comrade-in-arms of Cole�s and his most bitter, distanced friend. From here Kelso begins his own investigation into the conspiracy which eventually brings together both he and Cole to round out the game�s ending. During the three cases Kelso experiences it seems like he receives more character development than Phelps does in his eighteen. It is almost as if, three quarters of the way through development, Team Bondi decided that they�d had enough with the Phelps character and decided to start anew. Bad move, Bondi, bad move.
The development of Cole Phelps� character throughout the course of LA Noire just seems to be a missed opportunity for exploring a character that deserves more than a blunt role in the story, especially since the morality and focus of the character is set in stone and cannot be altered by the player. One can only hope that the inevitable DLC for the game actually expands on Cole Phelps or, in a more ideal scenario, retcons much of the plot but I feel this is unlikely to happen. Hopefully Team Bondi will learn from this mistake with their sophomore effort. The Big Heat
Detective games of a triple-A caliber are few and far between these days as the genre has been relegated to licensed properties and smaller, less funded developers. It is saddening to think that a genre of games once so popular have fallen by the wayside but LA Noire helps to fill in this gap in a badly needed way, especially considering that the last game to have a strong detective element was Condemned 2. In light of this welcoming addition though we are presented with an unusually difficult challenge, one that pertains to one of the games most prominent features.
Gameplay in LA Noire can be summed up to three distinctive types of play: investigation, action sequences, and interrogation. Each case you begin involves receiving the assignment from your watch officer upon which you must drive down to the crime scene. Upon arrival you need to routinely check with the medical examiner and search the area (and body) for clues to what happened. Given the size of some crime scenes it can be a bit difficult at first to locate all the pieces of evidence but the game by default alerts you where a clue is as well as when all of them have been cataloged. From the facts gathered you are sent to your next location where you must obtain more information to formulate a theory.
LA Noire�s action sequences usually devolve into either chases (be it on foot or car) or into direct combat. Chase sequences in the game play out much like you�d expect they would and, in the former case, can be ended by a scripted event of a fistfight. Chases can also be ended prematurely if the you can catch up to the suspect and tackle him or if you can keep a targeting reticule on them for a long enough time for Cole to fire a warning shot from his weapon. Should your suspect turn violent you either engage them in hand-to-hand combat or are sucked into a gunfight. In either case, veteran GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption players will feel right at home as the cover system and gunplay are virtually the same.
The most talked about aspect of LA Noire though has to be the interrogation sequences littered like confetti throughout the course of the story. During each case you can expect to talk with several people and question them about aspects of a crime and the player is forced to determine if what they have to say is either true, false, or if they are holding back information. Choosing the correct answer lands the player experience points whereas the wrong one can lead to the dismissal of crucial pieces of information if not outright causing the character responsible for the crime to get away scot free. Thanks to the game�s superb facial animations you can really tell whether a person is telling the truth or not but the determination of whether a suspect is telling a lie or is simply holding back information can be a very daunting task. It is herein that the Noire�s primary gameplay problem comes into focus.
More often than not you�ll find that a question that is asked doesn�t really yield itself to doubt/lie scenario. In order to back up an accusation of lying to the police Cole must prove this with pieces of evidence discovered throughout the course of the investigation. Unfortunately though, unless you�ve been paying exorbitantly close attention to the details of the case or happen to have outside knowledge of the case in question it still can be hard to see where to lead the conversation. Usually the safest bet is to insinuate a lie when you know the interviewee is not telling the truth, find out what is exchanged and, if what Phelps or the suspect�s line doesn�t match up with the evidence you�ve collected thus far, you choose the doubt option. Even with this strategy it still can be tough to actually determine which the correct response is.
Several cases throughout the course of the game leave you with two viable suspects instead of one. In these scenarios it is acceptable to charge either suspect of the crime in question but therein lay a couple moral quandaries. Choosing the perceived wrong suspect can lead to a lower overall case score as well as a thorough butt chewing by your boss so you have to choose wisely. In this regard though you almost always have to choose the politically correct suspect even when the facts of the case dictate otherwise. One such example later in the game involved multiple crime scenes though only one actually involved fatalities. Two likely suspects were brought in and each, by way of examining the evidence, were by all accounts guilty of their respected crimes. However, given that you can only charge one suspect and not both you have to choose which one goes to jail and which one goes free. I found it particularly frustrating that I couldn�t charge each person individually as they both deserved to be punished. Hopefully charges can be brought to multiple suspects should another Noire title arrive in the future but I�m not crossing my fingers. Angels with Filthy Souls
One of the more thought-provoking aspects of LA Noire is in the game�s overall design. Contrary to what the game is publically perceived to be, especially since it is a title published by Rockstar, it isn�t actually a sandbox game. If a term had to be applied to it I would say that LA Noire is instead an open world game with a directed narrative rather than a go anywhere, do anything title like Grand Theft Auto.
The reason why this term is more applicable to LA Noire than sandbox is because of the game�s overall gameplay structure. Rather than progressing in real time and at your own pace Noire instead has no downtime between cases and automatically begins the next one as soon as you exit the case results screen. Between visiting crime scenes and various sites where you have to talk to witnesses and suspects you can pretty much go all around Los Angeles doing almost anything you want aside from actually opening fire on civilians. Other than this there is no real moment in the game�s story in which you are left to your own devices. The only way to actually do so is to select the option from the main menu which is disappointing because 1940s Los Angeles offers an excellent chance to explore a period in our history that deserves more than a small spotlight between World War II and the Korean War.
This is especially confusing given the large amount of exploration available. Los Angeles was beautifully recreated in the growing and wonderful trend of period pieces showing us the past in a way that wasn�t accessible to many people before. The game features thirty major landmarks to explore such as the iconic central library building, McArthur Park (renamed for the famous general while in the middle of the war) and even the La Brea tar pits. The streets of the largest city on the West Coast are amazing in accuracy and Team Bondi should be praised like no other before it for their meticulous recreation that truly makes me feel like I�m experiencing what it really was like.
Ubisoft, you are on notice: you are no longer the kings of the period recreation. Sunset Boulevard
LA Noire is a game that is more than just a game: it is an experience. Rockstar titles have always been known for pushing the boundaries on what a video game could (or should) be like and Team Bondi�s efforts continue this important legacy. While the story of Cole Phelps ends in a way that is neither satisfying nor expected what we do receive is a great introduction into how a small, young team of developers could make us reconsider where games stand when it comes to detail and recreation. The game has a bright future ahead of it if Team Bondi can deliver on the rumored return of entire desks and more story-based downloadable content then we could see the rise of one of the next great franchises.
Oh, and Team Bondi: a request. If you decide to make a spiritual sequel please set it in Chicago during Prohibition. The mobster angle has been explored to death in this regard but I want to see it from a good guy�s perspective.
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