L.A. Noire's not like most games. Sure, there are car chases, gunfights, and a point-tally to judge the quality of your police justice, but it's a slow-paced, meditative experience. The focus isn't on how good you are at scoring headshots with a pistol but instead your ability to read a suspect's face and determine if he or she is telling the truth, holding something back, or flat out lying.
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.
You're a detective, so you're going to scour crime scenes searching for clues. And when you question witnesses, you have to think less like a gamer and more like a sleuth. It's not easy. In fact, it's often a real challenge to judge the trustworthiness of a witness' statement. The line between "doubt" and "lie" is very narrow. Though L.A. Noire's hero, Cole Phelps, is regarded as one of the best case men ever, I still managed to falsely accuse dozens of suspects, doubt witnesses who were actually forthcoming, and use the wrong clues to try and catch killers in lies.
After every question, selected from Phelps' trusty notebook, you get a response from the suspect. Then you must choose to believe, doubt, or accuse them of lying. Get it right and you can open them up and get more clues. Get it wrong, and they offer less. The better you do over the course of a case, the more you'll understand the suspect's motivations. The worse you do, the tougher it is to get at the truth, but there's no possibility of failure in any conversation. L.A. Noire won't abruptly end if you fail to catch a killer's lie or miss an important clue. The bad guy only gets away if it's pre-determined in the story. The only game over screen comes from dying or allowing a fleeing suspect to escape. This makes you less of a real detective and more of a page turner, destined to always reach the next chapter so long as you make a choice -- any choice.
L.A. Noire isn't all about badgering people, though. This is still an open-world game. You're free to deviate from a case, explore faithfully recreated 1947 Los Angeles, and tackle more action-oriented missions. No, you can't run wild like in Grand Theft Auto (you're a cop, accept it), but there are some other things to do. Forty "unassigned cases" come in as calls on the radio. These aren't random; they're single-scene missions where you'll stop a bank robbery, chase down a bat-wielding lunatic, or shadow a crook to his hideout.
A few other distractions can be had -- finding all of the famous L.A. locations and discovering more than a dozen hidden cars -- which earn you points towards leveling up your rank. New ranks mean new clothes, hidden car locations, and intuition points (which can be spent to reveal clues and narrow choices when interrogating a suspect). This is the "game" portion of L.A. Noire, the part built for those who aren't ready to release their old needs as gamers. And maybe Rockstar is struggling to release that same hold. I like going about town, but L.A. Noire would have been stronger with greater focus on the experience and less concern for including traditional game elements.
Each time I start getting immersed in the world, I'm reminded "you're playing a game" with unnecessary text popping up on the screen or a score tallying my lie-detecting ability.
There are moments when L.A. Noire comes together brilliantly, when the threads from multiple cases lead to a darker ringleader. But more often, things are perhaps too true to real police work – repetitive, redundant, and unsurprising. Despite having 21 cases, some of which can take more than an hour to complete, L.A. Noire drags at times because it recycles the same drama.
Ten cases in, I knew what to expect. I come to a crime scene and search for some clues that then open one or two new locations in L.A. to investigate. From there, I know I'll end up chasing someone on foot through the back-alleys of the city or through the streets in my car. All this leads to a final interview with a suspect in the police station interview room, where even screwing up completely still leads to an arrest. I might think the guy's innocent, but except on rare occasions, I'm just going through the motions and have no control over the end result.
When L.A. Noire breaks free from the formula, it can be stunning. A great example comes at the end of Phelps' time on the Homicide desk, when you are freed from the usual case work and instead have to solve riddles that lead you to landmarks across Los Angeles. The end of the homicide desk is refreshing, startling, different, and necessary to hold interest in what is generally a series of the same song and dance.
Even with its redundancies, L.A. Noire is still entertaining. Normally, I'd say a game like this has "great voice acting," but with its amazing new technology, L.A. Noire has great performances. It's more than just the voice – it's the mannerisms, the way someone's mouth thins after telling a lie, the unease of a wrongdoer being grilled in the box. There have been games with graphics far superior to L.A. Noire's, with a level of fidelity that makes the world seem more real than what's outside your door. But I've never seen an Adam's apples move when people talk or throat muscles tense when someone almost says too much. It's fascinating to watch a sort of hybrid between an action game and an episode of Law & Order.
With that gift of having detailed, human faces, Rockstar and developer Team Bondi have the vehicle to deliver an incredibly emotional and engaging story. L.A. Noire falls short, though. Despite great performances, some killer dialogue, and one of my favorite game soundtracks in years, L.A. Noire left me cold. Cole Phelps begins as a paragon of the LAPD, but his true past is eventually revealed. Whether hero or pariah, I just never liked him that much because his story is told at times haphazardly.
There's an omniscient narrator in the early missions of L.A. Noire who disappears halfway through and never returns. Cole has a wife he almost never talks about until the plot needs a complication to Phelps' pristine image. There's a confounding "twist" with three cases left that changes the focus of the story and left me scratching my head.
L.A. Noire has issues, but it's also a bold and unique take on games as entertainment. The core gameplay mechanics work -- no issues with driving, chasing perps across town, taking cover, shooting people, figuring out what to do next, or understanding how to interrogate a suspect. The various elements never come together at the same time to create something spectacular, but there are a lot of good things going on. Some will love L.A. Noire for being different and others are going to find the slower pace a deal-breaker.
I struggle with L.A. Noire, because at times I love it, yet it has some notable flaws. As a noir fan, I find moments that really get me grinning. There are certain cases that draw me in and side characters who eat up the scene. But it never adds up -- amazing pieces that don’t quite amount to an incredible game. At the same time, no one’s ever played a game like this before. And unless there’s a sequel, I doubt anyone will again for some time. Credit Rockstar for taking a huge risk, and for succeeding in many areas.
L.A. Noire may not reach the emotional heights of a game like Heavy Rain, but it’s something everyone must try out. It reaches high and almost succeeds as a brilliant new type of video game narrative.
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