Detective Cole Phelps is a hard man to like. Initially, there seems something a little off, but as the story unfolds and we get more insight into the man underneath the trilby, it becomes increasingly clear that this isn't the kind of guy that you'd take out for drinks after work. Despite the fact that he's a bit of a cold fish, Phelps is a fascinating character, and one of the more nuanced and interesting personalities we've come across over the years. He's a deeply flawed man, moralistic on the one hand, irredeemable on the other, but always mesmerising.
Similarly mesmerising is the game that he headlines: L.A. Noire. (The now defunct) Team Bondi's open-world action-adventure explores avenues not often ventured down in the world of gaming, and this is truly an experience for grownups, with challenging characters and a dark storyline that reveals some twisted crimes along the way. Now, six years after its initial release, this crime-fighting thriller is back, this time with new controls on Nintendo Switch, and with updated visuals on PS4 and Xbox One. But in a year that has delivered some truly exceptional games, is it a cold case worth revisiting?
The answer might come with caveats, but ultimately we'd say "yes", L.A. Noire still holds up after all these years. For the most part. At the time of its initial launch the game's unique selling point, beyond the setting and story, was the use of high-quality motion capture and the way that it was implemented during interrogations and interviews. Now, in 2017, the quality of that work, with some well-written and beautifully acted scenes, means that the game stands up relatively well. Importantly, it still has something to say.
Cole's story arc takes him through several departments in the L.A. Police. After a brilliant tutorial-driven opening, Cole is promoted to the rank of detective and begins his journey in earnest. There are multiple narrative strands that interweave to paint a vivid picture of the era, with cutscenes exploring both Cole's past in the military during the war and characters relating to the wider plot, as well as the dialogue that takes place during the course of the story as it builds to its exciting crescendo.
It's masterfully done, and L.A. Noire is undoubtedly one of the standout games to launch during the last console generation. While you might not necessarily say it was one of the best, perhaps due to the surprising number of flaws you'll find if you look too closely, this is still a title that does things very differently, and there really isn't anything quite like it out there, neither before or since.
The game mixes up investigation and clue hunting with interrogation scenes where players have to use a combination of their own intuition and subtle tells from the characters they meet to inform their questioning. The action all takes place in post-war LA and, for the most part, the mood has been brilliantly captured thanks to an excellent soundtrack, keenly observed architecture, and the designs of the vehicles and citizens who inhabit it. Whether you're just cruising around and exploring the world, or tackling the side-quests that pop up while you play, it makes for an immersive experience. Throw in the odd chase sequence and a fair few gunfights on top of all the detective work, and you've got a varied adventure that tries lots of different things.
The main issue with L.A. Noire is that, when it comes to gameplay, it's a jack of all trades but a master of none. Nearly everything that it does has been bettered elsewhere (hardly a surprise given the time has passed since its initial launch), and if you break it down to its constituent parts, it doesn't quite stack up. The chase sequences and combat can be finicky and even unsatisfying, some of the interrogations can be very hard to predict thanks to the vagueness of their design, and the world it's all set in can feel a little lifeless at times. However, L.A. Noire is greater than the sum of its parts, and when you consider it as a whole, it's hard not to be won over by its undeniable swagger and sense of style.
The interrogations that are the game's biggest strength are, perversely, also the source of our biggest frustrations. It can be really hard to gauge what Phelps might say at any given time. The old dialogue options have been replaced by "Good Cop", "Bad Cop", and "Accuse", which works better than the originals, but this setup still isn't nuanced enough to consistently satisfy. Still, we never felt the urge to go back and replay conversations, because even when we felt like we'd got it wrong, the outcomes still gave you something to think about and the story continued to flow nicely.
But what about the restoration itself? L.A. Noire runs in 4K with HDR support on both PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X, whereas regular Xbox One and PS4 owners will have to settle for 1080p. Both versions contain updated textures, improved lighting, and additional cinematic camera angles during cutscenes, but regardless of console, it's all handled with a steady 30 FPS. That's a real shame for those who consider a higher, more dynamic frame-rate a must for purchasing these remasters, and it's hard to understand why owners of the X and the Pro couldn't have been given the choice between 4K and 60 FPS.
It does look decent though, and this restoration does mean that the game can be experienced on a new console, and without it necessarily feeling outdated. In other words, the graphical upgrade gets the job done, but without being inherently impressive. It's not a remake, and despite upgraded texture work, it's easy to spot which era the game was conceived in. That's why the game's unique facial animation technology is so crucial, as it has survived the test of time, and provides variation to each characterful performance. Thanks to the seamless integration of the original's post-launch DLC cases into the main campaign, it's also now a complete experience.
The Switch version of the game includes all of the same content, but it also comes with a couple of features that set it apart. Using the gyroscopic controls offered by the Joy-Cons, players can examine evidence, using the HD rumble as a guide for when to zoom in for a closer look. It's a welcome addition, as is the touchscreen functionality which also lets you interact with objects and access the map in double-quick time, but ultimately neither control method is as accessible as using the standard controls to perform the same functions (with the exception of the map, perhaps).
Of course, playing in handheld mode is a big attraction, and the relative brevity of each case makes this the ideal open-world adventure to play in short bursts, which makes it surprisingly well suited to gaming on the go, although beware, any screen glare from light around you can and will obscure the details on screen, which isn't ideal in a game that's all about noticing the little details. That said, L.A. Noire looks at its best when played in handheld mode at 720p, and the small screen does wonders for the visuals. Play it on the big screen in 1080p, however, and Team Bondi's crime thriller really does start to show its age. Even worse, when there are frame-rate dips - and there are plenty, especially during chaotic moments and when entering buildings - it's much more noticeable on a 40-inch television.
L.A. Noire does so many interesting things with narrative and fuses a range of mechanics together to create a consistently engaging experience, with the script writing and motion capture performances of the cast still standing among the best in the business. The setting is a real winner too, and fans of noir fiction will surely get a kick out of Team Bondi's depiction of this iconic period of American history. Often, when it comes to open world games, the story takes a backseat to the setting itself, but here they work together in tandem to deliver a thoroughly unique experience. Despite its numerous flaws, we're still very much in love with this unique open-world adventure, and while it might not be the most impressive remaster we've ever played, we'd still heartily recommend it to people looking for a game that's not afraid to play things a little differently.
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