It’s unfortunate, really, that games like L.A. Noire come around so infrequently, considering how well received they tend to be when they do. What kind of game am I talking about? Smart, cerebral games that force the player not to think; not just about individual puzzles, but also about the bigger picture. L.A. Noire offers a very mature story split into conventional but challenging computer game chunks (in this case, individual cases) but it also asks the player to remember names and faces from all stages of the game in order to tell a much bigger story.
For those who love L.A. Noire (myself included) the game can be considered something of a flawed masterpiece. Players take on the role of a straight laced and deliberately hard to like Police Officer named Cole Phelps, as he works his way through crimes ranging from the pettiest of thefts to the most brutal of murders. Ultimately, Cole’s perseverance (you may call it dedication) becomes his greatest fault and the bigger players in LA’s criminal underworld begin to pay attention, bringing him closer and closer to mortal danger.
Of course, this isn’t really news to anyone. L.A. Noire was originally released in the middle of 2011, which makes it more than six years old. What makes it relevant today is the fact that it has just been released for the Nintendo Switch, a console that continues to defy popular opinion by featuring games that no one ever thought would be technically possible on a handheld system. I played and completed L.A. Noire on the Xbox 360 when it originally came out and if there’s one thing I can say for sure, Rockstar’s most underrated game has aged rather well and makes the transition onto Switch with relative ease.
There are clearly two main ways to play any Switch game and you might think that L.A. Noire would be better when docked, however just asZelda: Breath of the Wild suffered from frame rate issues when rendered at 1080p on the big screen but played beautifully on the Switch itself, so too does Brendan McNamarra’s crime epic. Playing on your TV is roughly as appealing as it was when the game was first released, but you will notice some stuttering if you pan the camera rapidly, whilst pop up becomes noticeable as well.
These issues are not at all apparent when playing L.A. Noire on the move however, which is certainly great news for me because I use the Switch as a predominantly mobile device. On the smaller screen, L.A. Noire looks as crisp and clean as you could hope, ensuring that none of the intricate detail in crime scenes and particularly during interrogations is lost. Frame drop is almost non-existent in this mode and whilst scenery does fade in at distance, it is so much less noticeable on a smaller screen.
Playing L.A. Noire in handheld mode (assuming you are using a pair of docked Joy-Cons) is a bit fiddlier to control than when docked using a Pro Controller, with aiming posing a particular challenge. I have a vague recollection that shooting sequences were quite hard in the original game, but not so much now despite my sluggish aim speed, so I wonder if the developers have tuned the game accordingly. Another difficult gameplay feature of the original were the chase sequences, which often required players to give chase almost flawlessly despite the usual slightly treacly controls that all open world games seem to share. In the Switch version, these also seemed easier, but it could just be the benefit of muscle memory returning.
For those who don’t know the original, L.A. Noire is, as I mentioned earlier, a sequential collection of cases that knit together neatly into a dark and compelling tale of corruption that effects even the brightest of Los Angeles emerging stars. The Switch version features all of the DLC missions that were previously offered as individual pre-order bonuses from leading retailers, so whilst it is the most content heavy version you’ll play, it also starts more slowly than the original release would likely have, because you’ll have more “bread and butter” cases to work through.
That said, the portable Switch lends itself to shorter bursts of independent gameplay, and the cases themselves are almost always interesting and enjoyable. Most involve a mixture of the core gameplay elements which include exploring LA (which is recreated in exceptional detail and on a large, believable scale) between cases and then searching for evidence, questioning witnesses and then getting involved in chases and shootouts. Catch a suspect alive and you’ll need to interrogate him or her, which leads to L.A. Noire’s most famous (and arguably still unique) party trick.
During interrogations, players have the option to play good cop or bad cop and to accuse witnesses or suspects of lying. Determining the right course of action after each statement is supposed to be based on the facial expressions and behaviour of the subject, but despite any refinement done in the last six years, it remains a tricky business. Every statement has only one correct answer and often, you won’t have enough information about when the subject is being honest (or not) to make an informed decision. Making an accusation and playing bad cop often feel very close as well, with some obvious evidence failing to yield the right outcome when accusing suspects when a bad cop response would have done the job.
All that said, it’s still an interesting and innovative way to drive the narrative forwards and close out each individual case and the game includes several hint systems that players can spend an experience based currency called intuition on. Whilst there are some ups and downs among these gameplay loops, they are varied enough that you’ll never be bored for too long. If you do want a change of pace, you can simply pick up some of the many and varied street patrol car missions that are called in periodically as you drive, of which there are twenty.
For an open world game that’s now six years old, L.A. Noire delivers a tight, relevant and enjoyable experience even today, and especially on Switch. It offers over thirty hours of gameplay between cases and patrol car missions, each of which is interesting in an individual way and as part of the bigger picture, which is in itself a proper grown up story of sex, greed, corruption and vice. L.A. Noire’s vision of Los Angeles is not only large and well realised, but it’s also vibrant and feels as if it is populated by some real personalities – both good and bad. In my opinion, L.A. Noire is very nearly a must have for anyone who owns a Switch, with only a cautionary note for parents who might consider buying it for children – this is definitely NOT for kids!
- Review by Matthew Smail