Games Review: L.A. Noire (Xbox One X, Switch, 2017): Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke

Rather than run two entirely separate reviews for L.A. Noire‘s brand new, remastered edition, we thought we’d combine them into a single piece and discuss the merits of each version in turn. The two we’ve chosen to review are the Nintendo Switch version of the game, and the Xbox One X Enhanced version.

L.A. Noire follows Cole Phelps, a World War II veteran and now beat cop in the Los Angeles Police Department circa 1947. Phelps is a machine of justice, driven to excel and go the extra mile on every case, no matter how far above his pay grade his actions may take him. Nobody likes an overachiever though, and as his work sees him catapulted to detective, Phelps is bounced from desk-to-desk — beginning in Traffic and climbing as high as Vice — as he outstrips his partners and they move him on.

For those who’ve played L.A. Noire before, you’ll know that there’s very little about the game that resembles the hard-boiled noir (that’s the correct spelling of the word, don’t @ me) police fiction from which it takes its name. Indeed, the game doesn’t actually become a noir story at all until its final moments, but I won’t go into that here in case you haven’t played it yet.

It’s also a sad reminder of what the Australian games industry has lost in the last decade. L.A. Noire was famously created by Sydney based developer Team Bondi. Work began on the game in 2004 with Sony Computer Entertainment on board to publish, but within two years the publishing rights had gone to Rockstar. One of the last AAA developers to make a go of it on Australian shores in the last decade, the combination of a see-saw economy, god-awful internet infrastructure and our far-flung location was no less kind to Team Bondi than any other. When their follow up project Whore of the Orient failed to gather steam, Team Bondi went into administration, sold most of their assets to film maker George Miller’s production company Kennedy Miller Mitchell, and closed their doors shortly after L.A. Noire‘s launch in 2011. Rockstar has been the sole owner of the L.A. Noire IP ever since.

Despite an internal dev cycle that could be described kindly as “rocky” and less kindly as “about as close to actual slavery as corporate law will allow,” L.A. Noire pushed boundaries, introducing a degree of facial motion capture that the industry to this day has struggled to match. The expressions of each character, crucial to get a read on a suspect during an interrogation, are even now nothing short of eye popping. They pull you in and even though its easier to see the seams now than it was then — there are moments when these expressive faces seem rather loosely attached to the front of a moving character model — they’re still capable of triggering an instant empathic response in the player. It’s far harder to be a typical video game hooligan when the person you are dealing with looks and emotes like a person instead of some digital homunculus approximating human expression.

It’s also worth noting that this updated version of L.A. Noire is for all intents and purposes, the same package as the Game of the Year edition that released in 2012. Along with all of the missions from game’s original campaign, it also includes every case that was released as DLC after launch. All of these cases are well worth checking out if you’ve never played them before, taking Phelps to some surprising new locations on desks you may have thought were completed already.

Both the Xbox One X and Switch versions of the game have seen some tweaks to the user interface during interrogations. Where the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game offered you three reasonably clear options — Truth for when you believed a perp, Lie for when they were lying to you and you had proof, and Doubt for when you thought they were lying to you but you couldn’t prove it.

These options have changed to Good Cop, Bad Cop and Accuse. Presumably this change is to better fit Phelps’ demeanour during interrogations. Choosing Lie/Bad Cop typically sees Phelps come down incredibly hard on the suspect, suddenly becoming enraged where his bedside manner was more understanding only moments ago. The trouble with this change is that it’s now less clear than before what Phelps is going to say or do. It’s a bit like when Bethesda changed Fallout 4‘s dialogue trees to emulate that of Mass Effect — you get an idea of what your character is going to say, and sometimes what they say is entirely different to what you actually selected. Good Cop, Bad Cop communicates something rather different to Truth and Lie. The previous menus were about what you were willing to accept as an answer from a suspect, the new ones are about how you want Phelps to behave. They are not the same thing, and because nothing has changed mechanically to reflect these UI updates, it creates confusion during what are the game’s most crucial sequences.

On the Xbox One X, the game has been given a minor boost in visuals overall. It now runs in native 4K and at a locked frame rate of 30fps, which seems odd given that it was born on the Xbox 360 and even at 4K, it shouldn’t be difficult to get it running at 60fps. It’s possible Rockstar simply wanted to preserve the filmic atmosphere of the game, but as it stands it doesn’t feel like L.A. Noire has any real desire to use the Xbox One X’s raw power to its advantage. Still, the game looks great and plays more fluidly than it ever has. On-foot chases that were a pain in the original now feel more precise and less like you’re sprinting across the entirety of Los Angeles because the perp is impossible to catch. The map of 40’s LA remains about as spot on as its possible to be and the many era-appropriate cars are still a treat to drive and discover.

On the Nintendo Switch, things are much the same. While the game sees an obvious and significant graphical step down on the Switch, it is a function of the system’s portable nature and it makes the game no less compelling. Indeed, the ability to take L.A. Noire with me anywhere I want is a gift so beautiful I can barely make sense of it. The game, as so many AAA console titles are, is indelibly linked to the experience of play on a TV. I literally played L.A. Noire on a train this week and that’s absolutely bonkers to me. If Rockstar can cram any of their other titles onto a Switch cart in the future, my free time is going to be in serious trouble. Portable Red Dead Redemption? Shut up and take my money.

L.A. Noire remains an arresting experience and an example of something truly different in AAA. It’s unafraid to take its time, it feels no shame in asking the player to sit up and pay attention, to focus on the details and really think about the evidence they have in hand. While it drapes itself in the trappings of the kind of Grand Theft Auto-inspired open world that Rockstar is known for, its really only as a way to ground the story in its very specific time and place. That it can remain such a singular experience so long after its original release is a testament to the thought and care that went into its design.

Rockstar’s in a sequel-themed frame of mind at present with Red Dead Redemption 2 launching some time in 2018 and Grand Theft Auto VI‘s embyronic form almost certainly exists somewhere within their walls. Given this, I live in hope that, eventually, Rockstar will give L.A. Noire the sequel it deserves.

Score: 8.5 out of 10
Highlights: Solving cases still a cerebral treat; Portability is fantastic
Lowlights: UI changes aren’t all for the best
Developer: Team Bondi (original), Rockstar Games (remaster)
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Available: Now

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch and Xbox One X.