Reviewed on Xbox 360, also available on PS3
Los Angeles, 1947. Neon marquees ply a shabby, desultory sort of fame over rain-slicked boulevards, jazz clubs, and Chevrolet dealers. Where smoking cigarettes is still a classy fashion statement and the abuse of women is a man’s manly prerogative.
You’re Cole Phelps, a decorated and – perhaps inevitably – somewhat troubled veteran of World War II’s Pacific campaign, now a rookie cop in the LAPD, and almost certainly soon to be caught up in an unpredictable, convoluted, and somewhat bewildering series of plot devices, culminating in an equally unpredictable, convoluted, and somewhat bewildering denouement possibly (probably) involving dramatic lighting, cynicism, and fedoras. That’s how this hardboiled stuff works.
L.A. Noire is an extraordinary game. There’s nothing else quite like it just now, but if you go back one or two generations to Sierra’s Police Quest and Laura Bow games, you’d find a pretty close match. Basically, if you’re looking for another Grand Theft Auto, you’re definitely looking in the wrong place – this is a sophisticated, smart game that demands a fastidious, clever, and frequently circumspect approach. Think Cluedo, but much more complicated.
While it’s ostensibly a kind of sandbox game – and maintains this pretence with an unnecessarily large world, bad driving, some random, rather drab side missions, and a bunch of collectible junk, all of which can be safely ignored unless you’re absolutely determined to claim 20+ hours of play time – L.A. Noire is actually very much on rails. The narrative unfolds as a series of cases, and has you moving up (and, maybe, down) the ranks and departments of the LAPD, solving crime and busting bad guys.
Much of the game involves collecting bits of evidence, questioning witnesses and suspects, and working out how everything is connected. A bit like stalking your ex on Facebook then, but with more serial murders and pyromaniacs. The collecting bits of evidence part is straightforward enough – you’ll spend a lot of time gumshoeing around crime scenes and waiting on the telltale controller rumble to point out anything worth inspecting, and making a note of it for later.
It’s the questioning witnesses and suspects part that really makes this game, though, and was also largely responsible for its numerous delays. Team Bondi put a lot of development time and cash into its MotionScan tech, and simply enough, you’ve never seen anything even remotely like it in any game before, ever – ever.
Captured by an array of 32 cameras, every actor’s performance is recreated in a likeness approaching almost uncanny realism, and the upshot of all this expensive technology – back in the game – is that every nervous blink, every smirk, every conspicuous or even inconspicuous avoidance of direct eye contact is taking place right in front of you. Assuming you’re good at this sort of thing, you’ll be able to determine if the subject is lying or being honest and wavering somewhere in that murky moral space in between. If you’re crap at it, just pretend you’re in the SAPS and get on with the job, anyway.
Interrogation is a whole game in itself, and a very precarious one at that. You’ll proceed by either accepting the subject’s statement as truth, prodding them for additional information, or accusing them of lying and backing it up with evidence that contradicts their lie. Things can (and will) go wrong, but the game moves on regardless – which seems quite inconsequential, perhaps, until you realise you’ve packed some guy off to the gas chamber because of your own grossly incompetent detective work.
Putting it all together however, the edges don’t always quite fit. The plot takes one or two clumsy, even inscrutable turns, and slogging it around crime scenes, dusting for often irrelevant clues, becomes decidedly tedious towards the end of the game. The gunplay, while in mercifully very short supply, is just horrible, and some of the occasional action sequences are poorly conceived and frustrating.
In some ways, L.A. Noire reminds me of the first Assassin’s Creed – a heap of great concepts and a very fine game on its own terms, but one that, more than anything else, sets the stage for a superlative sequel. For the moment, though, it’s still very much worth playing.
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