LA Noire: “The Naked City” Review

Going in to The Naked City, one of two DLC packs available if you pre-ordered LA Noire (it’ll be available for the rest of you in a few weeks), I couldn’t help wondering if DLC for a game like this is even possible.

Ordinarily, robust plot-related DLC comes in two flavors: the add-on mission packs that can be inserted into the main game and played whenever, or DLC intended to continue the story after it’s official, canon ending. Both types tend to be added to games that are not linear. Of course, games with more formalized structure often have DLC packs that contain stand alone missions or multiplayer or what have you, but LA Noire is definitely not suited to multiplayer and it is also a… weird game. It’s certainly innovative, engrossing and full of things no game has ever attempted, which is why our review gave it 95/100.

LA Noire (XBox360 [Reviewed], PS3, PC)
Developer: Team Bondi
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: May 17, 2011
MSRP: $59.99

But while it succeeds spectacularly at creating a realistic, mostly faithful Los Angeles setting with a gripping story, it occupies an uncomfortable space between true open-world gaming and rigid linearity. The open world aspect of the game is kind of a crap shoot. It’s an enormous, beautifully rendered (and mostly faithful1) 1947 Los Angeles that has people rightly drooling. But for all that huge, perfectly recreated space there’s little to do. More importantly, the story is very straightforwardly linear, certainly more so than any open-world game I’ve played since maybe True Crime: Streets of LA. (Weird coincidence that.) You have a lot of freedom to move around the city as you like, but the cases you’ll work as Det. Cole Phelps happen in a set order, and there is a right and wrong way to complete each individual one.

This presents a somewhat unique challenge for LA Noire-related DLC. Cole Phelps’s story is specific and it ends rather decisively (in the sense that you don’t see the need it to continue, at least in this game). How do you go about inserting more into it? Team Bondi’s novel solution is the creation of new cases that are specific to each desk Cole Phelps works, inserted into the main story for each desk. This effectively increases the length of time Phelps will spend working a particular branch of the LAPD and depending on how you see it, either adds or pads the main story.

The Naked City (named after the classic 1949 noir film of the same name) picks up right after you solve The Set Up. While the events of Black Caesar (your first Vice Desk case) seem to have resolved a certain lingering drug related storyline, the aftershocks are still being felt, and in this case you’re called upon to investigate the suspicious death of a young model. All signs point to morphine abuse followed by drowning, a conclusion both your current and previous corrupt partners agree with. You’ll follow the usual template for Vice Desk cases – drive around, spy on people, watch as your Vice Desk partner says and does mean/corrupt things – in your quest to determine what happened to this young woman and how it may, or may not relate to a case you’ve already worked.

The question is, does it actually add anything to the experience of LA Noire? Mostly. At just 3 cases included on the vanilla disc, the Vice Desk is a much smaller segment of the game relative to the lengthy Homicide Desk story, or even the Traffic Desk. The cases are meaty and represent the point in the game at which Cole Phelps really does begin to get how things work in LA, but still feel brief. So in this sense, The Naked City adds considerably. It extends the length of your time working that desk and adds a bit more to the seedy atmosphere. It even manages to throw some supporting character development (via the news that your Traffic Desk partner has been promoted to Homicide and partnered with drunken mess Finbar Galloway), and gives the player more insight into Phelps by the way he defends both of his former partners against the derision of his new, corrupt-to-the-core Vice Desk partner.

It also adds a fun side quest involving the pursuit and apprehension of a pervy upskirt photographer. He’s so cartoonishly villainous you’ll forget to be annoyed by the incredibly lengthy car chase required to apprehend him. Plus, it features the all-important coughcoughCOUGH to cover up an unpleasant word. Kind of a charmingly bit of period weirdness that contrasts nicely to realistic constant swearing.

But as you guessed, The Naked City doesn’t actually change the main story significantly. Cole’s investigation doesn’t have larger repercussions. Which is a shame. There’s been a lot of kvetching amongst gamers about about the worth of DLC and the larger gripe is accurate. As best illustrated by this image, it feels like game developers are deliberate holding back from what could have been in the main game simply to bilk players out of more money. Fortunately, that isn’t the problem with LA Noire’s DLC, it’s just excellent, but superfluous. But that superfluousness exposes a missed opportunity.

The thing is, in the current generation Rockstar (and their subsidiaries) have really pushed the envelope in terms of what DLC can do and LA Noire would be the perfect opportunity to continue that trend. Imagine a true expansion pack much like GTA IV’s Episodes from Liberty City, a new set of cases/missions/whatever with a new character, set within the world Team Bondi so faithfully created, but concurrent or even pre/post the story of Cole Phelps. Team Bondi/Rockstar could even give GTA fans what they want and have the player assume the role of a criminal. Think Johnny Stompanato in The Ballad of Mickey Cohen and you get the idea.

This isn’t to say The Naked City isn’t worth your time. Sure, your experience won’t be lessened if you decide not to buy it when it becomes available for purchase in June, but it’s fun, challenging and absolutely up to the standards of of the basic game. And even if The Naked City is essentially tacked on and doesn’t add to your experience of resolving Phelp’s story, it at least gives you a reason to keep hanging around in 1947. Good enough for me, mark that I am, to download more of these cases as they become available.

The Naked City DLC will be available for download on PSN and XBLA in June.

Score: 90/100

1) The ‘Westlake Tar Pits’ my eye. Ugh.

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1 Comment on LA Noire: “The Naked City” Review


On May 27, 2011 at 4:14 am