Rockstar is usually known for their work on popular sandbox games and for turning the genre into what it is with the Grand Theft Auto series. With LA Noire, Rockstar takes a backseat to Team Bondi in development, and they put out a title that doesn’t quite make good use of its fantastic setting, but is still a fun and incredibly well written game that explores the seedy underbelly of 1947 Los Angeles. With the use of a real city, real companies and real people of the time, it ends up being a very dark and morbid look at the time, and is very fitting for the noir genre.


Players are put into the shoes of Detective Cole Phelps, an ambitious but flawed cop who seems to view others from atop an ivory tower. He’s an excellent cop and moves up the ranks within the police department with astonishing speed, with players playing as a beat cop, then moving up to Traffic, Homicide, Vice and then Arson (and don’t worry, there’s a story reason for Cole moving to Arson that pays off in the long run). The tale tells various side stories and breaks up to give us a unique case unrelated to the plot at hand, but there is an overarching plot that starts to kick in about ¼ of the way through the game, once Cole has been through the tutorial segments. It’s not presented as well as it could be, cases in real life are often worked on simultaneously (which is a missed open world aspect), and we rarely see any glimpses of Cole or his partners outside of their jobs, but it does ensure the story moves forward, and considering the various subplots and distractions it was probably a good decision, but it’s still a missed opportunity to flesh out the world.


The gameplay that supplements the story is very polished, with quick gunplay you’ve come to expect from most shooters, weighty vehicles for chase sequences (or just driving around), and the occasional fist fight of follow sequence to shake things up. The real meat of the experience, and the things players will be doing the most, are the investigations and interrogations they’ll be conducting, which puts things at a slower pace than you might expect but allow it to offer a very novel experience. The focus on these aspects is furthered by the ranking system, which offers new suits to wear on occasion, but mainly doles out intuition points for the player to use when interrogating a suspect or investigating an area. Intuition points allow you to ask the community, highlight clues in the area, or remove a wrong answer, and the rarity of intuition points means that these don’t break the game but end up offering a little extra help for determining a tell or exploring a large area.

The motion capture work Team Bondi has done is fantastic, with the subtlest of emotions and tells shining through and allowing players to notice if someone is lying or telling the truth, and while it’s a bit exaggerated early on, it gets rather tough during later segments to make a good decision and often necessitated the use of Intuition Points the game offered to get an edge in deciding whether to doubt a suspect, believe them or accuse them of lying. The face work also does a fantastic job of fleshing out the cutscenes and characters and make the experience much more believable and fun to watch, seeing the faces recognized actors is an especially fun aspect of the game since before then we had to make do with likenesses attached to their voice, and now we see their face right on screen. The voice acting is also superb of course and it all fits together to draw a player into the tale, which makes up for any in game shortcomings and keeps the player invested through any repetition just to see how a case plays out.


The investigations themselves aren’t nearly as well done, a lot of it boils down to walking around an area and waiting for the controller to vibrate while listening to the music to tell whether or not you have found every clue in the area. It’s an odd balancing act, not everything in an area can be examined, likely because players would be picking up everything, but leaving only the main clues able to be examined would have made it too easy, so they take a middle ground approach that I’m not convinced is much better. Players can turn off the controller vibration for clues if they wish, but since nothing in the environment particularly stands out, it makes things much more difficult, especially with the camera the game uses that doesn’t really lend itself well to examining an area. Some clues are cleverly hidden or are tied to a puzzle that make them fun to work out, and they are often necessary to properly accuse a bad guy and make them fess up, but the system could have used some work, especially when I can think of a few games that did a pretty good job with clue finding and investigations.


The game’s action sequences are well paced and fun, though not particularly open ended or on par with other titles that choose to focus more on these elements. The gun combat is fun, and the game allows players to pick up enemy weapons, fine tune their aim, or even grab a shotgun from the back of their trunk for a shootout, while the cover system and AI all work ok. It’s nothing mindblowing, but nothing bad stands out from the experience aside from the ease of shootouts and the ability to skip action sequences altogether to focus on the investigative work, which is a nice touch for those interested more in the story and an entirely optional decision. What isn’t optional is the status of enemies at the end of a gunfight, try as I might I could never get enemies with guns drawn to drop them or subdue them without killing them, which is a shame and felt like an unfortunate way to move certain investigations forward by having key characters killed by you when it was impossible to save them to be processed and interrogated.

 The car chases in LA Noire are definitely more enjoyable, thanks to the streets and well-designed chase sequences, as well as some of the options players are allowed during a chase. While I could cut them of up ahead or have my partner try to shoot out the suspect or pursuer’s tires, I was particularly fond of coasting alongside an enemy car, then having them ram into a building or civilian car. Not something a good cop should do, but watching a car with a suspect inside flip over, or seeing two pursuers slump dead after a particularly nasty crash is a very satisfying resolution to some quick thinking. Some chase sequences on car or on foot aren’t always so open, which is especially notable when players early on are told they can fire a warning shot, and then often do not even have their gun out, or when cars magically speed up to avoid being totaled. I can understand the developers wanting players to not miss out on a scripted sequence for story purposes, but it seems like it could have been handled better.


The biggest complaints I can offer are mainly related to the open world and how underutilized it is. Though there are often titles like Mafia II that offer an open world without any reason for there to be an open world, LA Noire’s setting and time period make it especially disappointing. They offer a chance to find hidden film reels or look at landmarks, but those aren’t especially fun activities and there’s nothing you can do with the landmarks except maybe walk around admiring it, while the film reels are exceptionally well hidden. I couldn’t find a single film reel in the game, which speaks to both the vast size of the world, and the complete lack of support for exploration. I understand that this isn’t a sandbox title, but LA Noire felt restrictive in ways that it shouldn’t have been, but mostly it’s not so much a negative aspect as much as it is disappointing and gave a feeling of wasted potential. The biggest examples of feeling restricted would have to come within the set pieces, including a final moment that left me feeling conflicted and sad, but felt like a missed gameplay opportunity. Though I appreciate the cutscenes and work, as a game it seems LA Noire should have embraced a little more freedom and gameplay to go in different directions to tug on our emotions or immerse us into the experience more.


Overall, LA Noire ends up breaking some ground with some of its offerings in ways I wish other games would have tried, and it’s a very polished and very fun experience, but much like protagonist Cole Phelps, for all its hard work it’s still flawed in some very unfortunate ways. It isn’t a game for everyone, and anyone expecting an action packed Grand Theft Auto styled Rockstar title should look elsewhere, but for those who can appreciate unique gameplay or a great story, you should definitely check this game out. It’s certainly something different, and Team Bondi deserves credit for trying to break the mold.