Name: LA Noire
Genre: Third-Person Sandbox Adventure
Platform: PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360
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Played from the perspective of the law-makers rather than the law-breakers, Rockstar’s latest epic is a far cry from the destructive hi-jinks of the Grand Theft Auto series. But is LA Noire a “hardboiled thriller”, or more like a hardboiled egg?
Despite potentially warranting its own entirely new genre classification, LA Noire initially seems very familiar. Using a sandbox setting from which to springboard its more complex game mechanics, LA Noire offers up a lovingly detailed recreation of LA, circa 1947, for you to explore. Nailing the architecture, the fashions, the music and the wiseguy speech patterns to a tee, you’re more or less free to explore the city in its entirety, jumping in cars, bombing it down Sunset Boulevard at breakneck speeds and hunting down collectables hidden across the vast map.
So far, so Grand Theft Auto.
But that of course, is only half the story, for LA Noire is a very different beast altogether. As an LAPD detective, the action here is played out by the strong arm of the law, rather than that of the lowlifes that usually take centre stage in Rockstar’s games. Our protagonist, war veteran Cole Phelps, therefore has a very different agenda, and by extension a very different set of tasks to carry out compared to GTA IV’s Niko Belic or Red Dead Redemption’s John Marsten. While certainly you’ll still need to settle a fair few disagreements with a pistol, the majority of the game requires your patience and that you exercise your brains whilst you do some good old-fashioned detective work.
Split into more than 20 episodic missions, or “cases” if you prefer, you’ll have to trawl crime scenes for clues, interrogate witnesses and finally accuse a suspect based on the evidence you’ve gathered. Each of these elements takes the shape of different gameplay mechanics, some familiar, some technologically ground-breaking.
For instance, investigating a crime scene will feel instantly familiar to any fans of old school point-and-click adventure games, albeit played from a fully 3D, third-person perspective. Think “Broken Sword” as written by Raymond Chandler; a hit-and-run victim lies mangled in the road, examining his pockets reveals his wallet, a name, address, and a motive for his murder in the shape of a life insurance policy. Though clearly hit by a car, searching a nearby trash can finds a bloodied butchers knife, which may be a vital clue or a red-herring. Noting all the details in your journal, you’ll feel like a real-life copper, slowly piecing together elements of often gruesome mysteries. The investigation then moves on to LA Noire’s showpiece; the interrogation mode.
With all the clues gathered, you approach witnesses and potential suspects, posing questions based on the evidence gathered in your notebook. But this is not simply a matter of picking from branching dialogue trees. LA Noire was in development for more than seven years, and here’s where you’ll clearly see why. The game employs a new facial mapping technology called MotionScan, able to recreate human faces more accurately than in any game you’ve played before. With lifelike expressions, gulping Adam’s apples and stretching muscles visible beneath digital flesh, it’s a level of realism gamers have until now never encountered. As a result, you’ll instantly recognise Cole Phelps to be Mad Men’s Aaron Staton. It’s unnervingly realistic and adds a genuine cinematic weight to both cutscenes and witness questioning. Dialogue and the actors’ and actresses’ facial performances therefore become not merely key to plot development, but also to the success of your investigations. With every facial muscle accurately mapped, missing a subtle tick or twitch during an interrogation could be the difference between reprimanding a criminal or letting a lying murderer walk free.
Or at least that should be the case. While a visual and cinematic delight, the interrogation modes can also sadly be wildly frustrating. For starters, it’s all but impossible to fail a case; though you can fail a mission by not catching a fleeing suspect or by being shot, criminals never go unpunished, no matter how poor your questioning, due to your quick-witted partner guiding you back onto the right path once a suspect has wriggled out of a sticky spot. Though your end of case report score may be lower than if you’d forced a confession from a suspect, you’ll eventually get the culprit regardless, meaning you always feel as if you’re being guided through the adventure rather than actively shaping it.
More frustrating is the way in which Phelps questions suspects. Despite constructing a mind-bogglingly complex facial mapping system, you only ever have three responses to witnesses’ and suspects’ statements; Truth, Doubt and Lie. It totally undermines the subtlety of the stellar performances on show, and prevents you from really pushing the theories that otherwise seem plainly obvious. Likewise, it’s often difficult to tell which part of the sometimes-lengthy statements that Phelps considers truthful, doubtful or a full-on lie, and it’s a pain to be penalised at moments when this isn’t clear. At any time you can use an Intuition Point, earned by successful investigations, to guide you to the right accusations (or alternatively to find every hidden clue in a crime scene), but this power-up seems only an admission of the system’s failings rather than a vital tool.
If this sounds harsh, it should only do so when in comparison to the excellence exhibited elsewhere. Interrogations are by no means broken, just not as polished as the superb visuals used to portray them. It can still be fun to grill a squirming murder suspect, and truly exhilarating when on a roll of well executed questioning. It’s just a shame that too often it’ll feel like the system leaves you shooting questions in the dark rather than from a sleuth-like flash of inspiration.
It’s not without its faults, and the interrogation procedure in particular is sure to infuriate as much as it will captivate, but you can’t help feeling that the bar has been raised dramatically by LA Noire, at least in terms of presentation. We’d find it hard to sit through an RPG full of waxy-faced characters phoning in their dialogue after witnessing the wonders of the MotionScan tech. Also, the core free-roaming elements are easily a match for the likes of GTA, in a world perhaps even more lovingly realised than that of Liberty City. It doesn’t quite match the heady heights of expectation surrounding it, but LA Noire remains a damn fine game, with a blueprint that will undoubtedly spawn a masterpiece follow-up and countless imitators in the years to come.