Review: L.A. Noire
"A city on the verge of greatness. A new type of city, based not on the man but on the automobile....Where every man can own his own home, and have room to breathe and not be overlooked by his neighbors....The city of dreams where Hollywood will shape the thoughts and desires of the entire planet....A city of undercurrents, where not everything is as it seems." -L.A. Noire, Opening Narration
Thus is the setup of L.A. Noire, the 1947 Hollywood crime drama and the newest feather in Rockstar Games' hat (best known for the Grand Theft Auto series, Bully, and Red Dead Redemption). And while Rockstar's previous games have all starred the bad-guy-who's-maybe-not-so-bad recklessly attacking anything that moves, L.A. Noire takes a new approach and puts you on the side of one of the few uncorrupted good cops in the LAPD.
As Detective Cole Phelps, a World War II Pacific theater veteran, you're tasked with cleaning up the streets of Hollywood, California at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant, “made in Japan” was a bad thing, and slapping around your wife was accepted. As the rising star on the force, you'll stop robberies, solve murders, and get to the bottom of various things, searching for clues and evidence and interrogating suspects along the way. Phelps believes in the law, in justice, and keeps a sharp eye out for anything that could lead to a rightful arrest. He's the kind of guy Rockstar's previous protagonists would want to run from -- or would want dead.
The game plays like a TV crime drama. Think Law & Order meets the tone and pace of Heavy Rain with the GTA engine with Mad Men-esque style (though that series takes place decades later) -- but even that's an imperfect comparison. L.A. Noire has more of a point-and-click adventure mentality where objects are examinable but not every object is important, and Showtime- level content -- like a series of full-frontal nude female victims laying dead and covered in writing, as well as bloody murder weapons, and language that will make you both laugh and blush at the same time. And all this is dressed up in the style of 40's cinema: each case is presented like the opening to a detective movie, with the case title in large block letters across the screen like an episode title as the screen fades from cinema black and white to color (if you have color turned on). That's right, L.A. Noire comes with the option to play the entire game in black and white, really making it feel like an old film (without the censorship or loud film reel noise).
I can only describe the gameplay as investigation-centric faux-open world. You can drive now-classic cars around the large map of Hollywood, taking in the near-accurate recreation of the town at the time, but you won't be going on rampages and doing insane stunts with your car and there isn't much to do besides seeing the sights. Your car is for driving from point A to B (and taking street crime calls over the police radio in between), chasing down perps, and having your partner shoot out tires during a car chase. There's the occasional fist fight and shootout, but these scenarios do not dominate the game.
Instead your focus will be searching crime scenes and other locations for clues, picking up items and rotating them in Phelps' hand to find anything that might pertain to the case. When an interactive object is in front of Phelps the controller will vibrate and the music will chime, though these hints can be turned off. However, because the interactive objects are rendered at the same quality as the rest of the environment, figuring out what Phelps can and cannot examine can become difficult without the hint option turned on. When all the clues in an area have been found the music will die down to cue you to move on (an option that can also be turned off).
Clues may illuminate new suspects, new locations, or new key items that need to be addressed in the case (a murder weapon, missing jewelry, etc.). If a location is revealed without an address Phelps can use any nearby phone to call the operator and jot down the address in his notebook, which acts as the central hub for the in-game menu system.
Phelps' notebook is viewed in first-person mode and keeps a detailed list and sketch of all people, clues, and locations involved in a case. As you interview witnesses, suspects, and other people of interest, you will keep in constant reference to your notebook, crossing off questions to ask and giving easy access to information on clues found.
As Phelps asks a question, the player must keep a close eye on how they answer, and after choosing between Truth, Doubt, or Lie, the person of interest will either open up more or shoo you off depending on how accurately you read them. Calling someone on a lie must be supported by evidence you've found, but misreading someone could leave you missing important evidence or even lead to arresting the wrong suspect. If the latter happens the game will still move on to the next case, but not before you're reprimanded by your wrath-of-God Irish captain and given a low score on your case results (out of five stars).
While the variation in cases keeps the slowish pace of the game fresh, the drawback is the difficulty -- it can be too easy or too tricky depending on your menu options, each in an imperfect way. With hints enabled you can easily find every clue, but with hints turned off you can easily miss important evidence if you don't button mash as you hug every wall and trash can in the environment, hoping Phelps will pick something up. You may encounter a suspect who's lying but can't call them on it because you're lacking evidence you should have found, and therefore lose access to information they would have given you otherwise. But with hints turned on you may breeze through these interviews, realizing that most times when a person of interest moves their eyes around they're either lying or holding back (“Doubt”). The "Intuition" system also eases things: as you interview people you gain experience for correctly calling them out, gaining hidden cars, new outfits, or Intuition points as you level up. These points allow you to eliminate one of your three choices in an interview, also eliminating half of the choices of evidence to present if “Lie” is still an option. You can also use an Intuition point to poll the game's community (as long as you're connected to the PSN or Xbox Live), similar to the “Ask the Audience” option in Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
After a few cases as an officer, Phelps is promoted to Detective, starting his work at the traffic desk. He'll move his way up the food chain through homicide, vice, and arson, working with a different partner at each desk. These promotions divide the game into sections, grouping the cases you'll solve by type and creating a mini-plot arc with each position Phelps holds. Shown between most of the cases are flashbacks of Phelps' time as an officer in the U.S. army, telling a story of its own.
While the story builds its characters well, the game plays mostly case-to-case. However, the shining star of the game is its MotionScan technology: the tech that allows each character to be played by a real life actor and move like their real life counterpart. Subtle facial flickers like the quick pop of an eyebrow or two quick tenses of a suspect's neck muscles can illuminate the difference between a person who's lying or merely upset. Shifty eyes, flinching eyelids, and pursed lips are very revealing in a police interview, and even if you've never digested the theory of micro-expressions the TV show Lie to Me revels in, L.A. Noire's realistic acting works on such a human level that anyone who's ever interacted with another living person will be able to read the character they're interviewing with as much success as they would a real person in real life.
Seeing this technology in action makes it easy to see why L.A. Noire is the first video game to ever be presented at the Tribeca Film Festival. These are real people doing real acting, recreated as a 1940's version of themselves. Stars from Mad Men, Heroes, The Closer, and many other recognizable actors appear throughout the game, and as if you are watching a movie or TV series you'll want to stop to look them up on IMDB because you'll recognize them as real people.
It's hard to imagine Rockstar not continuing to push realistic acting in future games, and they've spoiled us with this release. There has been an increase in realistic movements and detail between Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption, and now L.A. Noire, and they've put pressure on themselves to maintain or continue to improve that level of realism.
With 21 story cases, 40 quick street crimes to intervene with, DLC cases, and other miscellaneous things to find, L.A. Noire will give you just enough time with the game without burning you out or losing your interest. However, its replayability seems low unless you plan to go back to try to find every clue, ace every case with five stars, ace every interview, and find every Hollywood landmark, hidden newspaper, and car model. Once you've solved a case the mystery is solved, and replaying it will lose its flair. Regardless, it's an experience worth playing all the way through at least once -- not only to marvel in the realistic acting, but to challenge your problem-solving skills in an engaging way, ensuring the innocent are exonerated and the guilty are punished by the heavy hand of the law.