We loved Rockstar's last "period" outing, the wild-west based Red Dead Redemption, which ended up being the first Rockstar game we've ever actually played for more than a couple of hours. So when we heard about L.A. Noire, the film noir-influenced 40s detective simulator, we couldn't wait to give it a go.
L.A. Noire places you in the stylish trilby of Cole Phelps, a decorated war hero with a grim past who joins the LAPD after being discharged from the United States Military Corps so he can continue to bring peace to the streets. He starts off as a lowly officer with ideas above his station, and these unauthorised investigations serve as a simple introduction to the world of the LAPD.
At a crime scene even the most unsuspecting of objects can be vital to the investigation. Cast your eagle eyes over everything if you want to succeed.
Your first case sees Phelps investigating the murder of Scooter Peyton, a "negro male" delivery boy (being set in 40s America, the language matches the atmosphere and culture of the time). The detectives assigned to the case quickly decide that the investigation isn't worth their time, writing the victim off as a lowlife who got what was coming to him, leaving the enquiry open for the young and hungry Phelps and his partner.
Police Lingo 101
As you drive through Los Angeles, you'll be alerted to a variety of street crimes taking place. Here's a handy guide for translating some of the police radio jargon, so you can be better prepared for the crims when you get there:
211 - Robbery
240 - Assault
288 - Lewd Conduct
417 - Armed Suspect
484 - Theft
Code 2 - As soon as possible
Code 4 - No further police required
Throughout the course of the game, the majority of investigations play out in a similar way. First, you're presented with the scene of the crime to walk around, pressing A to look at anything that takes your fancy. Cole will pick up and investigate almost everything in the area if you ask him to, but there are only a few objects that are relevant to the case at hand. Once you've found everything that you need, a handy musical jingle chimes to inform you that it's time to move on. If you're having difficulty finding all the clues you need to, a handy tap of the left bumper allows you to spend an "intuition point". These points are earned by completing investigations, interviews and call-outs, and can be spent on hints to help guide your way. Spending an intuition point during an investigation highlights all the clues on your mini map in the bottom left of the screen, so you can find everything you need to with ease.
With all the clues found (in this case the murder weapon, a Smith and Wesson revolver), it's time to move on, but rather than just loading the next place, you actually get to drive there yourself, round a period authentic Los Angeles. As all guns are registered to their owners, your first port-of-call is a local gun shop, through which you can trace the murder weapon back to it's owner and call in at his home to make the arrest. Later cases become much trickier to solve, with the slippery criminals in question covering their tracks so deeply that you need to use every police trick at your disposal to uncover the truth. One of your earlier cases starts off as a hit-and-run incident, with you even getting as far as arresting the driver involved before a phone call from the coroner reporting puncture wounds on the victim turns it into a full-scale murder inquiry (the murder weapon can actually be found at the scene the first time you investigate, but Phelps writes it off as being irrelevant to the case at hand).
The main focus of L.A. Noire is the interrogations. Whether you're trying to get a straight answer from an apprehensive eyewitness or attempting to glean a confession from the number one suspect, these see you asking a series of questions, and deciding whether the answer you're given is actually true or not. You're given three options with which to decide - Truth, Lie, or Doubt. Truth is self explanatory, and pressing this button means you think the statement they've given is true and no further questions on that subject need be asked. Doubt is used when the suspect seems they know more than they're letting on, but there's no solid evidence either way, and when it's obvious they're trying to hide something, you can use Lie to present them with evidence that you know what they're up to. It's a lot trickier than it sounds, as if you present the wrong evidence or choose the wrong option you'll miss out on valuable leads, making your life a lot harder. In an official interrogation (in the police station), a wrong accusation can result in the suspect refusing to talk to you, causing you to fail the mission. We've become accustomed to the Phoenix Wright
style of investigating, where you're given five "lives" as you trawl through the witnesses statement to point out issues with it, so the one-strike-and-you're-out system of L.A. Noire comes as quite a shock to the system.
Phelps and his partner frequently resort to the good cop/bad cop routine as they try and get a suspect to confess to their crimes - "It's the gas chamber for you, boy!"
It's during these interviews that you notice just how much time Rockstar have spent on their face-scanning technology, as each character in the game is performed by a genuine actor, with every subtle facial movement reproduced in game. It's well known that a person's body language can often give them away when they're telling a fib, so you'll need to keep an eye on how a suspect says their statement, along with listening to what they're saying. We're fairly sure that the money ran out midway through recording all these different actors though, as we've encountered the not very inconspicuous Bob Clendenin (frequent star of Scrubs and Cougar Town) as four completely different people. Twice he was drunk, once we watched him get shot, and the last time we saw him we ended up hijacking his car and then accidentally running him over with it. He doesn't have it too good in these games.
Your intuition points can also be used to give you a lifeline in these interview sections, although they aren't quite as obviously helpful as they are during the investigation period. You're given two options to chose from, both of which are similar to lifelines from Who Wants to be a Millionaire? One of them removes a single wrong choice, leaving you with a 50/50 chance of guessing the right response, while the other shows you how often other players have selected each of the options, letting you place your faith in the rest of the L.A. Noire-playing public. Unfortunately, though, if you're not playing while connected to the internet (a free account will do on the 360), this option won't be available, leaving you with only the 50/50 option to narrow things down - something of an oversight you'd have thought they'd have a fall-back for.
Lose one of these fisticuff brawls three times or more and you're given the opportunity to skip straight past it.
There are a number of other features in L.A. Noire that have been included to try and make it easier for newcomers to get the hang of. If you're having trouble reading the mini-map and figuring out where to go, pressing X as you approach a junction on the road will give you an audible sat-nav "Make a right" style prompt from your partner, allowing you to keep your eyes firmly on the road ahead. For those people who are totally incapable of driving (as one of our writers, Sarah, claims to be), holding Y while standing next to a vehicle will make your partner get in and drive you, effectively teleporting you straight to the correct location, and allowing you to miss out on any rather costly vehicle accidents. At the end of each mission, you're given a star rating which is influenced by how well you've performed in the detective sections, and how much damage you've caused to the city of LA while getting from place to place, so if you're after the best score it's wise to trust someone else with the car - and the lives of everyone on the pavement. They've tried to make the combat sections as easy as possible, too, so along with the remarkably helpful auto-aim that automatically points your gun almost directly at the nearest roughneck, any fisticuffs, gunfight, or chase sequence you fail more than three times can then be skipped straight over, letting you to resume your investigation after the tricky section without being penalised. All this means that it should be possible for anyone to start playing the game, and see the story through to it's conclusion.
As Phelps' reputation as an Ace Detective builds, he gets promoted through the ranks, from his first detective job on the Traffic desk, investigating hit and run incidents, DUIs and the like, through to the Vice desk, the more "glamorous" division of the LAPD, where the focus on narcotics sees him investigating Hollywood's seedy underbelly, rubbing shoulders with some of the more damaged celebrities of the area.
It's not all work and no play on the Vice desk, but after the match there's a conspiracy to solve.
The Homicide desk sees you investigating a series of grisly murders influenced by the Elizabeth Short case of real-life 1947 Los Angeles.
While serving on the Homicide desk, Phelps has to investigate a number of "copy-cat" killings influenced by the Black Dahlia murder (a real-life unsolved murder from the Los Angeles area), where criminals imitate the style of a well-known murderer to try and send the police down the wrong branch of investigation. Much like the Black Dahlia case the victims are all women who are found severely bloodied, mutilated, battered, and occasionally completely naked. It's a decidedly grim look at the kind of thing real detectives have to face in their day to day life, where it isn't all snazzy hats and running over Bob Clendenin. There are a number of rather uncomfortable moments during the story (for more information, see the parental perspective), and while (for the most part) they never seem unnecessary or overblown, the realism of it does makes it quite unsettling.
L.A. Noire is one of those games that doesn't quite compare with anything else out there at the moment, and with the number of ways that it's tried to make itself as accessible as possible (with the intuition points in investigations and interrogations and the ability to skip most driving section) most people should be able to cope with it, making it one of those games that everyone should at least try (even if it is just to run over a number of popular actors). With an authentic recreation of 40s Hollywood, combined with some inventive police work that makes you use your brain, rather than your trigger finger, LA Noire comes highly recommended.