L.A. Noire (XBox 360)
Rockstar Games; Team Bondi, www.rockstargames.com
Innovative gameplay; incredibly realistic characters; huge attention to detail; fun
It’s taken seven years, multiple setbacks, tens of millions of dollars, a distributor switch from Sony to Rockstar and a very public spat between management and former employees, but L.A. Noire is finally on the shelves. But was all this wailing and gnashing of teeth worth it?
Set in 1947, L.A. Noire introduces us to LAPD police officer – and decorated WWII hero – Cole Phelps (the voice and visage of Mad Men’s Aaron Stanton), a clean-cut if somewhat damaged young man determined to make his way through the ranks. As he progresses through the Force, Cole confronts increasingly grisly crimes, while the moral ambiguity of his role deepens.
Cole’s world will be familiar to devotees of the hard-boiled detective genre, cribbing elements from writers like Elmore Leonard and Dashiell Hammett, James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential and Polanski’s Chinatown. But, instead of becoming a clever pastiche of conventions, the game is sprawling and detailed enough to stand on its own as something new.
While many elements of the game will be familiar to fans of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series, or Red Dead Redemption (and let’s face it, who isn’t), L.A. Noire is in no way formulaic.
While the game presents an open world a la GTA, where the player drives (and sometimes legs it) around a massive recreation of post-war Los Angeles, this isn’t a sandbox title. Instead, players are directed to follow up clues in a case-by-case structure, pausing occasionally to intervene in street crimes and bank robberies called in over the wireless.
Cases are solved by searching for clues at crime scenes and by interviewing suspects. The interrogation process is undoubtedly the most challenging element of L.A. Noire’s gameplay; suspects provide answers to questions that the player must accept, question, or outright reject. This is far more difficult than it seems; while occasionally you’ll be provided with evidence to disprove a suspect’s testimony, often you’ll need to rely on intuition.
And, unlike almost every other video game, it’ll significantly affect the outcome if your intuition proves wrong. Suspects will clam up if you wrongly accuse them of lying, or will pull the wool over your eyes if you don’t grill them hard enough. Knowing your actions have consequences adds a degree of tension to the game that’s sorely missing in other ‘adventure’ games where solving a problem constitutes completing a quicktime event.
Another laudable feature in L.A. Noire is the finesse that’s shown in handling small details. Enormous attention has been paid to intricate interiors, which manage to invoke a real atmosphere; the radio plays gen-u-ine jazz; and cases, obviously based on real-life crimes, are well researched in their period detail.
But where L.A. Noire makes a stellar advancement is in the performance of its characters. Gamers have, until now, been forced to ignore the weird, dead-eyed, poorly lip-synced automatons to enjoy a title. Not in L.A. Noire. Team Bondi pioneered a motion capture technology that allowed the studio to record real actor’s expressions from 360 degrees, then translate that performance into the world of the game. Cole and the massive supporting cast are the most realistic digital characters to ever populate a game – by a very long shot.
L.A. Noire is evidence of the fact video games are coming perilously close to matching the impact of cinema and television, while allowing the viewer to participate rather than merely watch. In that respect, L.A. Noire might very well be worth the trial Team Bondi’s developers – including those not included in the games final credits – were put through.