L.A. Noire (Switch) Review
I’d be beating a dead horse if I made some humdrum comment about how a game from Rockstar Games is on the Nintendo Switch so I won’t. Even though I just did. Ugh. Of all of Rockstar’s games, I do think L.A. Noire is an unexpected choice. Back in the day, I presumed it to be a Grand Theft Auto set in the 40s in the golden era of Los Angeles given Rockstar’s pedigree. Instead, what we got was something slightly more interesting, if not different. Several years on, playing the game through again on the Switch, I’m reminded that games like L.A. Noire are ever so slightly misunderstood, though aren’t without faults. The truth of the matter is – the Switch version is an incredibly competent port of a game that not everybody will adore.
L.A. Noire takes place in Los Angeles in 1947. Cole Phelps, a decorated veteran of the Pacific Campaign of World War II, returns to the city to spend more time with his family and begins work as a patrol officer for the LAPD. L.A. Noire essentially follows Cole and his journey through the department, as he works up the ranks as an esteemed detective while also struggling to come to grips with the pressures that his promotion brings to both his work and personal life. In short, it’s a period procedural cop drama distilled down into video game form though it feels a bit classier than the stuff you’d watch on CBS or Channel 10. Only a bit.
The game itself can best be described as an elaborate adventure game dressed up to look like an open world action-adventure game like Grand Theft Auto. As Phelps, you’ll work your way up through the different desks of the LAPD while investigating a variety of crimes in 1940s LA. Traffic, Homicide, Vice, and Arson are the desks you’ll progress through – and while the crimes themselves generally have their own self-contained stories there are some overarching elements that come into play much later in the game that wraps everything up quite nicely.
Each case has you and a partner character travelling through the streets of LA to observe and examine a crime scene, do some interviews and come up with a suspect to arrest. It’s a standard formula that’s spiced up every now and then with some chase scenes or gunfights, which themselves feel rather pedestrian. When you’re not investigating, however, you’ll have free roam of LA. This is one of the few things that makes L.A. Noire a bit of an awkward cousin to Rockstars other franchises. There’s not much you can really do here beyond sightseeing which really makes me wonder why an open world was included at all.
I’d argue L.A. Noire’s strongest and weakest component is the interrogations, which have been ever so slightly retooled for this re-release. In every investigation, Cole will have to interrogate members of the public about crimes. If you played L.A. Noire in 2011, you would have been able to respond to eyewitnesses or suspects with Believe, Doubt or Lie. In the original game, this lead Cole to have some dramatically wild mood swings as he’d console a widow but then in the same minute accuse her of lying about a murder, which just felt awkward and jarring at times.
In the Switch version, Cole now has the option to respond as a “Good Cop”, “Bad Cop” or accuse the witness of lying. It’s a minor change but the effects are anything but, as it contextualises Cole’s approach to interrogation in a very different way. He doesn’t feel like he’s personally reacting that way, but rather playing a role as his job necessitates. It sounds like a petty thing to fuss over, but it is a small change with a great effect.
The crux of L.A. Noire’s gameplay is about reading your witness and reacting appropriately, and to achieve such a feat the game employs a novel facial animation technology called MotionScan. MotionScan films actors faces from multiple angles to give a “realistic” image of a speaking person for use in games. Once again, however, this is one of the best and worst things about the game. The idea behind the concept is that the realism in facial expressions means that Cole as a detective can look at a witness to work out whether they’re lying through subtle cues like shifting of the eyes or furrowing of the brow.
In execution, this system is only as strong as the actors playing the parts and barring five or so major roles most of the supporting cast are almost cartoonish in the way they behave. Nobody actually lies in real life the way that the people lie in L.A. Noire and it can be jarring when the game presents it and I’m meant to believe this is how people behave and pretend that it’s hard to discern whether they’re lying or not. It’s like they want to get caught!
The Switch version has a nice little suite of features that separate it from versions available on other consoles. When playing handheld, the touchscreen can be used to direct Cole to items of interest to mimic the genre of games that L.A. Noire borrows so liberally from. You can also use the touchscreen to rotate the camera as well. The Joy-Con themselves can be tilted to control the camera, to examine items that Cole picks up in crime scenes or to aim weapons in battle. They’re intuitive control options that I used much more than I thought I would.
One thing is for certain though, and that’s the tone and the atmosphere is spot on. While the open world lacks the vibrancy or liveliness of Rockstar’s other games like Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption, what is presented here feels incredibly authentic. The sound design is meticulously crafted to evoke the same feelings you’d feel watching a movie from the 40s, the locales just ooze a charisma that inspires nostalgia and the characters interact in a way that people simply don’t anymore. Despite any issues with the technology behind it or the way the game itself plays, make no mistakes, L.A. Noire feel authentic artistically.
Technically, the port runs rather well too, looking just as good (if not better) than the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game that were released so long ago. Obviously, the Switch version does not benefit from the 4K visual enhancements that other consoles do. But given this game wasn’t even built for it in the first place, the Switch feels like a right fit for L.A. Noire, with its self-contained case-by-case progression working for players both out in the field or at home.
L.A. Noire for the Switch is a masterclass in third party support – the full experience you can get everywhere else without any compromises. Every feature, every gameplay beat, and every mode is included here just as you’d find it on any other console. It may come across as a little bit too pricey for those who have played it before – and quite frankly it is – but for those who haven’t L.A. Noire has a lot of content to sink your teeth into.
Despite this, L.A. Noire isn’t perfect and the issues it had in 2011 largely remain here in 2017. The open world is a visually stunning and authentic rendition of the city of angels and yet feels ultimately pointless. The MotionScan facial technology is a great idea but marred by some shoddy performances.
The bottom line, however, is that if you play L.A. Noire on Switch then you’re playing the same game everyone else is on other consoles. And that’s how it should be.
Rating: 4 / 5
- Authentic Atmosphere
- Feature Complete Port (And Then Some)
- Intriguing Stories
- Slow Pacing Midway Through
- Some Hammy Acting
- Pointless Open World