As players prepare to lead Detective Cole Phelps through the seedy underbelly of 1940's Los Angeles, game reviewers have already cracked the case of L.A. Noire's worthiness wide open.
When Rockstar Games isn't busy pushing out award-winning entries in its wildly successful Grand Theft Auto franchise, the studio likes to explore settings that aren't normally considered video game friendly. They conquered the Old West in last year's Red Dead Redemption. The set players loose in a private school in the 2006 hit Bully. Now they tackle yet another odd setting in L.A. Noire, placing players in the role of an up-and-coming police officer tasked with solving crimes in 1947 Los Angeles, a setting usually reserved for crime novels, point-and-click adventure games, and movies.
Can a police procedural break the adventure game mold and make it in the big leagues? The assembled video game critics seem to think so.
L.A. Noire's writer-director, Brendan McNamara, was one of the first to follow Rockstar North's trailblazing Grand Theft Auto III with his 2002 crime caper for Sony, The Getaway. Now under his inspiration's wing, he's succeeded in creating one of the more distinctive variations on the evergreen GTAIII template. L.A. Noire resembles a cross between GTA, Ace Attorney and Heavy Rain – and it's almost as interesting as that makes it sound.
Using a brand new technology called MotionScan, L.A. Noire delivers pure performances from a talented group of actors. Every wrinkle, twitch, downward glance, grimace, and hard swallow is from an actor playing a part, not an animator manipulating things from behind the scenes. It's a striking, sometimes unnerving effect certain to help push video games closer to true cinematic experiences. It's easy to fall into old video game habits like checking your phone while listening to a line of dialogue, but you're setting yourself up for failure. The actors' tells are in their faces, their posture, their eyes – rarely is it revealed in what they say. This is where L.A. Noire shines. The interrogations are like lengthy dialogue scenes you'd see in an RPG — but they're captivating. This is the core of L.A. Noire and that core is very good.
As a detective, your work investigating crime scenes is often about the smallest details, and the richness of these details in L.A. Noire makes rummaging around grisly crime scenes and perusing the personal effects of victims a compelling process. The homes of murder victims feel lived in as a result of pictures on the walls, notes pinned on refrigerators, and clothing tossed on the floor and forgotten. Pick up an official document while rummaging through some files and you'll see that it looks genuine right down to the fine print. This attention to detail makes the often unsavory business of being a detective deeply absorbing. On top of this, the period fashions, actual automobiles, and music of the era—along with a score that evokes the style of some of the great composers of film noir—weave an intoxicating spell that's sure to stir the heart of anyone with a fondness for 1940's style.
It's the fact that L.A. Noire's interrogations rely so heavily on natural intuition that really makes the whole thing work. As humans, we know how to read faces, and that's what L.A. Noire exploits. To be able to have a player thing, "Okay, I can tell this guy is lying, but do I have proof?" is what this game is all about, and the fact that it works so well is truly, truly jaw dropping. There's nothing about the game's internal algorithms that determine your success in this arena. It's all about how good you are, as a human being, at knowing when someone's being straight with you, and when they're trying to be sneaky. I can think of no other game that has exploited a player's own innate mental faculties so deftly.
Cole's investigations are peppered with forgiving but enjoyable gun battles marred only by crazy button placement. (Run and shoot on the same button? For shame.) Phelps also stops perps in some less lethal ways, both on foot and with some surprisingly thrilling car chases. If you like, you can take some unassigned cases (typically some sort of crime in progress) that pop up on the police radio as you pursue the main story cases. You're rewarded with experience (also doled out for a well-executed interview) that can earn you additional suits, new cars and "intuition" that can make the game's gut checks a little easier. The experience system is kind of half-hearted, a clear attempt to create the illusion of the depth Rockstar games are famous for, but the bursts of action are their own rewards.
While L.A. Noire may not appeal to everyone, those that are charmed by its mean streets will likely love every second of it. It's a bold, cinematic step forward in a genre that's dying for innovation, and its implementation of the MotionScan technology is truly a game-changer. It took me about 19-20 hours to clear Noire's campaign (a few of those hours were admittedly spent replaying previously cleared cases and chasing down street crimes), but I'm anxious to re-open Phelps' case files at the next available opportunity. Above all else, L.A. Noire is something new, and something that I believe this generation sorely needs. And that's just fantastic.
I'm detecting another winner from Rockstar. L.A. Noire is available Tuesday May 17 for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.