When Rockstar Games announced L.A. Noire nearly six years ago, many assumed it would be Grand Theft Auto set in the forties--with all of the rampant mayhem and sociopathic behaviour that implies. As details started leaking out, however, it became clear that L.A. Noire wasn't just going to be another action-oriented sandbox game with a new coat of paint. With an emphasis on solving cases using patience and wits rather than a Tommy Gun, and a revolutionary new facial animation technology powering its cutscenes and interrogations, this period epic looked like it had the potential to break new ground as an investigative mystery. Still, the cynics among us, myself included, assumed that the publisher would ultimately buckle under market pressure and choose to play it safe.
In an industry where adventure games have been relegated to backwater niche status, Rockstar and Australian developer Team Bondi have delivered what is essentially the most expensive and most expansive adventure game ever made. It does sprinkle some gunfights and car chases throughout its twenty-plus hour running time, but even these aren't mandatory, and L.A. Noire is at heart a game about hunting down clues, chasing leads, and extracting the truth from witnesses and suspects in tense interrogations.
Players take the role of police officer Cole Phelps, a returning war hero with a Stanford degree and a heart of gold; an honest cop in a den of corruption, determined to make the city a safer place. The LAPD, besieged by scandals and a rising crime rate, is looking for a fresh public face to put on display, and Phelps fits the bill perfectly. You'll follow Phelps as he rises from beat cop to detective, covering several different "desks", including Homicide and Vice. Each feels like its own mini-narrative, with its own police station, partner, car, and style of investigation. The game has 21 cases in all, divided up among the different desks and undertaken in a linear order. While each case is an individual investigation, it's not long before details from earlier crimes start to inform and influence later cases.
As you progress, you'll gain experience points from performing successful interrogations, surviving gunfights, and apprehending suspects. When you gain a level, you unlock new outfits for Cole, hidden vehicles strewn throughout the city, and intuition points, which can be spent to give you an edge during investigations. You can use a point to display the locations of clues on the minimap, or you can spend one to remove a wrong answer from an interrogation. One clever use of the game’s online capabilities is the option to spend a point to display the percentages of other players across the globe who selected a given answer during the investigation, similar to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire's "Ask the Audience."
The over-arching storyline is smartly-written and engrossing throughout, tying together the seemingly separate subplots in a satisfying and suitably twisting fashion. The plot hits all the expected notes of great hard-boiled noir--murder, betrayal, secrets, femme fatales, crooked cops, smooth-talking gangsters--but does so in interesting and refreshing ways. L.A. Noire consistently evokes the spirit of its inspirations while forging its own unique identity. This is not The Maltese Falcon: The Game, and Cole is not your typical Humphrey Bogart gumshoe. No noir mystery would be complete without characters who aren't what they seem, but it takes an especially deft hand to make that character development feel real. Cole's personal arc is especially involving and often surprising, forming an emotional backbone for all of the seediness and grit you'll encounter on the streets of Los Angeles.
But let's back up: just what kind of game is L.A. Noire? The short answer is, it's a little bit of everything. The game smoothly transitions from open-world driving game to slow-paced exploration and investigation to action-packed shootouts and chases. Cases generally start at the station, where your superior fills you in on the details and sends you out to the field. You walk outside and are greeted with a massive, freely-explorable, historically accurate recreation of 1947 Los Angeles. Selecting a destination from your notebook (a repository of all persons of interest, clues, and locations), you drive around the city with your current partner in tow. Here the game most closely resembles its Grand Theft Auto ancestors, from the interface to the feel of the cars, but upon arriving at your destination, you'll begin scouring crime scenes for clues and interrogating witnesses.
The clue-finding and exploration portions are pure adventure gaming, albeit through a modern lens reminiscent of last year's Heavy Rain. While the game controls like a third-person shooter, with the left stick moving Cole and the right stick aiming the camera, you won't spend much time blasting away gangsters; rather, the vast majority of the game involves slowly picking through locations for items of interest. The game nudges you in the right direction by chiming and vibrating the controller when you are near an item that can be investigated. Pressing the action button swoops the camera in over Cole's shoulder, allowing you to choose nearby items to inspect. During inspection, you can turn the object around in Cole's hands using the left stick to look for clues. Once you've found something of note--the name of a bar, a serial number, a fingerprint--the clue is automatically added to Cole's notebook and can then be used as material during interrogations.
The interrogations (in and out of the formal interrogation rooms) are perhaps the game's most interesting sequences. Whether it's a bystander, a material witness, or a full-blown suspect, everyone you talk to seems to have something to hide. Choosing a line of inquiry from Cole's notebook, you'll throw questions and allegations at your “opponent”, all while judging the honesty of their statements against their body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and the evidence you've collected. Once they've responded, you get to choose whether you believe them, doubt them, or call them out on a lie (with evidence to back it up) in a process reminiscent of the Phoenix Wright games. Other than a few instances where the line between “doubt” and “lie” options is frustratingly blurry, or the few times when Cole's reaction is not what you expected, this system makes for a tense and engrossing game of cat-and-mouse. People walking through the room as I played the game were wont to chime in with their backseat psychologist's opinions: “Look at him squirm, he's totally lying.” “Yeah, but where's the proof?” “I don't know, this guy has military training, maybe he's just that good at lying.”
These kinds of observations are made possible by the game's innovative facial animation technology. Actors were filmed by a special rig of 32 cameras, the feeds from which were then mapped onto 3D character models. The result is a clarity of performance that is unrivaled by any other game. Every wrinkle of the forehead, every curl of the lip, every nervous glance is visible. And the game doesn’t just have great animation—it has great performances. Aaron Stanton, better known as Ken Cosgrove of TV's Mad Men shines as Cole, bringing a humanity to the character's goody-two-shoes idealism. The rest of the cast ranges from good to amazing, with bit characters just as fleshed-out as the larger roles. Standout performances include Fringe's John Noble as housing mogul Leland Monroe, Southland's Michael McGrady as Homicide detective Rusty Galloway, ER's Gil McKinney as claims inspector Jack Kelso, and Erika Heynatz as the German nightclub singer Elsa Lichtmann. You'll recognize a number of other television and film character actors sprinkled throughout the game as well. And I do mean recognize—the game truly captures each actor's performance; I'm not being hyperbolic when I say that I frequently forgot I was watching computer animation.
The rest of the game's production values are top notch as well. The graphics capture the retro-modern feel of the Los Angeles post-war boom, with only occasional pop-in in the distance or detail textures that fail to load immediately. The game scales well, with both the massive outdoor areas and intimate indoor settings full of detail. Walk up to a random pawn shop on a street corner and you'll see jewelry and guns on display inside. Drive past a diner and you'll see people coming and going, sitting down to meals, and ordering. Everywhere you go, the colors are rich, the palette carefully chosen to balance the grim nature of detective work with the brilliant flashiness of Hollywood--that is, if you choose to play the game in color. That's right, the entire game can be played in classy black-and-white for the truly noir-obsessed. It looks great both ways. My only complaints with the visuals are minor: while the facial animation is consistently astounding, bodies are noticeably less expressive, and while this is rarely a problem, it can occasionally be distracting. Also, for a game based on a film genre that took place almost exclusively at night, there is very little in the way of moody, moonlit nighttime gameplay. Most of the game takes place in the overbearing sunlight of daytime California.Continued on the next page...