This is part of my Steam Challenge Series (the full list is here).
Grand Theft Auto is the series that RockStar is best known for, and despite changes to the bells and whistles, they all share the same basic gameplay foundations. A sprawling world, huge amounts of off-the-rails activities to discover, a main story that you can complete at your own pace while tooling around as much as you want. L.A. Noire is, at first glance, another chapter in that great tradition, but it soon becomes clear that RockStar have done something a bit different with this one.
L.A. Noire is very much a RockStar game – the attention to detail, the freedom of being able to roam at will, the immersion of being in a living city. What makes this game different, however, is the focus on the storytelling. You play as Cole Phelps, a young detective just back from Japan after the end of WWII. As he makes his way up through the ranks of the LAPD, and is assigned to various departments, he finds himself involved in a tale of corruption and murder.
The main focus of the gameplay is the case investigations. You visit crime scenes, search for and inspect clues, gather evidence, question witnesses and suspects, and eventually make an arrest. Every NPC is motion-captured, with particular attention paid to facial expressions and subtle body language to help you decide just how truthful your interviewee is being. As a police procedural, L.A. Noire is really, really good.
My main gripe – although it didn’t seem to affect my pace through the game – was with the questioning system. Every conversation has break points where the NPC says something and you have a choice on how to respond, depending on what you think they are telling you: Truth (believe them), doubt, or lie. The problem is, you don’t know exactly what Cole is going to say in those situations, and a lot of the time doubting them ends up accusing them of lying, or withholding information. It feels janky. Often it ends the conversation, since they clam up and won’t respond any more, which means you fail the questioning and can lead to you failing the case.
I think RockStar padded the game somewhat in the middle, too. There was a stretch of three or four cases where nothing seemed to be happening story-wise, and you were just doing the same things over and over. Once I got over that hump, my interest picked up again and the last third of the game was really good.
I’m not sure the writing was all that great, though. Dialogue was pretty spot on, but story-wise, it wasn’t all that satisfying. Most of it was predictable and there were a lot of loose ends that I don’t think were sufficiently explored. It felt like there was a much larger scope initially but the game got scaled back partway through.
I loved the premise of L.A. Noire, and the traditional RockStar strengths were what made the game enjoyable. The attempt at a more linear, story-based game was not as successful as it could have been, though.