Back in 2011, L.A. Noire was a revelation. It captured the feel of 1940s Los Angeles in manner that was so convincing and immersive that it put many live-action TV shows and Hollywood movies to shame; centered around the earnest and driven detective Cole Phelps, the now-defunct Team Bondi's one and only masterpiece managed to combine snappy writing with engaging action to produce one of the most mature video games yet seen – mature not just because of its violence, nudity and gore, but of its slow-burn storytelling, impeccable attention to period detail and uncharacteristically accomplished acting, made possible by some groundbreaking facial animation technology. Despite being published by Grand Theft Auto owner Rockstar Games, L.A. Noire was not simply a 1940s version of that controversial series; it instead represented a spiritual successor to Sony's The Getaway, a 2002 PlayStation 2 release from the same director, Brendan McNamara. Team Bondi may have collapsed amid stories of overworked staff and questionable management, but the studio's sole magnum opus is getting a second shot on modern-day formats – including the Switch.
You begin the adventure as a humble beat cop, and the game's opening missions serve as a handy tutorial that guides you through the game's mechanics. These can be roughly broken down to three distinct sections: hunting for clues at crime scenes, chasing and subduing suspects either on foot or by car, and interrogation. In the first, you'll have to snoop around for vital pieces of evidence which not only give you additional leads to go on but also arm you with the facts you need to nail guilty parties during the interrogation phase. HD Rumble is employed to alert you to objects you can interact with, but not everything you can pick up and inspect is connected to the case at hand. Combing the environment for that vital clue can become laborious but you're always given a tight perimeter to explore and musical cues tell you when a crime scene or location has surrendered all of its secrets, allowing you to move onto the next phase of the investigation. Rockstar has made quite a song and dance about the new touchscreen-based interface included in the Switch port, but truth be told it's far easier to simply use the sticks and buttons. We also turned off the motion controls – enabled by default when playing docked – which replicate the movement of the camera, mapped to the right-hand analogue stick. It's nice touch, but strikes us as needless duplication.
Car chases happen often in the world of L.A. Noire and despite the Switch's lack of analogue triggers, they're exciting enough – even if the suspects you're chasing often slow down or drive erratically to the point where they're practically begging you to ram them off the road and make an arrest. Elsewhere, you're often expected to tail a suspect vehicle without alerting their attention – it's relatively tense but ultimately superficial as even weaving all over the road and ignoring red lights isn't enough to spook the suspect as long as you remain well behind. Driving around L.A. is one of the game's admittedly piecemeal attempts to offer freedom and it's genuinely stunning how well the city has been rendered and how much there is to explore, but like McNamara's aforementioned PS2 title The Getaway, the city feels bare and lifeless at times, giving you little incentive to explore its narrow streets and wide highways.
During some cases, suspects will crack under pressure and give flight on foot, so you'll need to direct ex-army man Phelps as he vaults over obstacles and clambers up drainpipes in the hope of bagging his man. These sections are exciting and give a neat change of pace to all the sleuthing, especially when they end in a confrontation; fist-fights involve slugging your enemy and dodging incoming blows, while shoot-outs are naturally riskier and require you to use cover effectively, as well as brandish different weapons such as shotguns and long-range rifles. Unfortunately, combat is too stiff to be genuinely thrilling and the gunplay is painfully awkward during some missions. Enemies make little attempt to move around and will simply remain rooted to the post in many cases, popping their heads up obediently so you can get a clean shot.
The third element of the game is perhaps the one which made the most impact back in 2011. L.A. Noire boasts some of the most convincing virtual actors yet seen in a video game – they've arguably never been bettered. The use of real actors (Mad Men's Aaron Staton plays Phelps, for example) means there's a more professional air to the whole production, but MotionScan – which uses 32 cameras to record a subject's face and turns that into 3D data – is perhaps the true star here; the faces of L.A. Noire's denizens are so realistic you can look for clues and visual reactions which help you determine their guilt, or if they're hiding some vital piece of information. The only downside to this incredible facial animation is that it makes the puppet-like traditional motion capture used on the characters' bodies look stiff and unconvincing in comparison.
Interrogations are peppered with moments where you can make a choice on how the conversation proceeds. In the 2011 original, these options were "Truth" (if you believed what you were being told), "Doubt" (if you felt the subject was withholding information) or "Lie" (if you felt sure enough that you could produce a piece of evidence to discredit what you were being told). These options were criticized at the time for not being specific enough – "Doubt" could result in Phelps making a sarcastic yet superfluous wisecrack at the suspect's expense or – at the other end of the scale – threatening to smash their head against the nearest brick wall, causing them to clam up completely and refuse to give you any more information. It was an imperfect system that often made picking the right response more a matter of blind luck than solid detective work.
Rockstar has altered these responses to "Good Cop", "Bad Cop" and "Accuse" in this new version of the game. While this does help a little – the difference between a "Good" and "Bad" response is self-explanatory – the system is still too vague to be totally satisfying, and it would have made more sense to offer the player the chance to see beforehand what Phelps would say in each situation. Interrogations are quite hard to read and often switch from pleasantries to outright accusations and back again in a heartbeat, leading to a rather unrealistic conversational structure. You can spend intuition points – earned when you level up by performing successful duties – to eliminate one wrong response, but there's no escaping the fact that L.A. Noire's clever dialogue system does sometimes stumble over itself.
It's possible to trip the game's narrative up at points too, often without even trying. For example, during one case it becomes clear that the suspect's partner has been having an affair – the clue is a photograph signed by his mistress. However, we were able to open up this line of questioning with the man's wife before discovering the photo – we spoke to her before we'd thoroughly inspected every room in the house. Later in the game, we visited a key location in the case and spoke to a chief suspect, yet a few minutes later another detective bumped into us and gave this suspect – and his location – as a potential lead; Phelps' canned response suggests it's all entirely new information. L.A. Noire's ambition is commendable however, and it's a sign of how grand a piece of storytelling it is that these moments occasionally happen; for the most part, each case flows logically and there's a satisfying arc to the investigation – even if it's impossible to really "fail" in each case. When you get multiple questions wrong it rarely leads to a dead end – the result is that you receive a lesser score at the conclusion of the case. Failed action scenes, however, can be replayed. For all of their issues and linearity, L.A. Noire's investigative sequences are rarely anything less than enjoyable; like Capcom's Ace Attorney series, it's impossible not to feel a twinge of satisfaction each and every time you corner a suspect with irrefutable evidence or make them trip over their story to reveal the actual truth.
As you work your way through L.A.'s underbelly Phelps rises through the ranks and gains a degree of notoriety and fame, with bystanders commenting admirably on his admirable record under their breath as you walk around the streets. Each case you take on seems unconnected, and the only thread you have to hold onto is a series of flashbacks from Phelps' time in the army, as well as a series of vignettes which play out as you pick up newspapers. However, as you solve more and more crimes a pattern begins to emerge – perhaps too slowly for some players – that changes the direction of the narrative and sets the scene for a surprisingly emotional conclusion and a brief change of protagonist. Even so, it's a shame that more freedom isn't given to the player to strike out on their own; while L.A. feels like an expansive and realistic city, the scope for interaction is limited solely to where the designers want you to be; even when you're entering buildings, it's only possible to open doors with gold handles – a visual mechanic which simultaneously reduces player frustration in picking the right path but also serves to highlight just how narrow a corridor you're being funnelled down. Creating a game world with a compelling narrative that also gives the player total agency is perhaps beyond the skill of current game designers and technology, but it doesn't make L.A. Noire's linearity any less disappointing.
From a technical standpoint, L.A. Noire on Switch is utterly remarkable. Sure, it's not a new game but to be able to play it on the move with no real loss in visual fidelity is amazing. Even in handheld mode the game's 720p graphics are impressive, but play docked and you'll appreciate the full effect of 1080p sharpness. This isn't an entirely flawless port, however; there are a few moments – in both modes – when the frame rate plunges and Phelps appears to be moving in slow-motion. These usually occur when you're on foot and striding through a particularly detail-rich area – like one of L.A.'s immaculately-rendered streets, lined with skyscrapers, traffic and pedestrians. It's not a deal breaker by any means, and while it might lack the visual finery seen in the PS4 and Xbox One editions, L.A. Noire on Switch still looks amazing – and the fact that you can play it anywhere is remarkable.
L.A. Noire's troubled development resulted in accusations of poor management at Team Bondi, the fallout of which was enough to effectively sink the studio. Despite its troubled history, it's heartening that players are being given the chance to revisit Los Angeles on the Nintendo Switch. While the game's myriad faults remain and the revised interrogation system fumbles its chance to fix one of the most egregious part of the game, the great acting, stunning atmosphere and amazing facial animation all combine to make this a detective adventure that's worth experiencing, despite its rough edges. L.A. Noire wasn't a faultless game back in 2011 and that hasn't changed in 2017, yet it somehow manages to be more than the sum of its parts. We suspect it will be regarded as a pioneering classic for the next few years regardless; few games treat the player to such a grown-up and mature experience as this, and that's important for the video game industry as a whole.