L.A Noire


Written by Chris Price
23 Monday 23rd May 2011

L.A. Noire is an exercise in illusion. Touted by pundits as a revolutionary step in gaming, Rockstar’s Australian developers Team Bondi real success is in making one of the most successful game genres relevant for a new generation of consoles. On an interactive level, L.A. Noire is little more than a re-invention of the classic PC point-and-click adventures; The Secret of Monkey Island with added grit and extra Fedora.  At its heart, it’s a relentless interactive detective novel. One with just about enough interaction to convince you you’re in charge of the story.

Familiar action sections, distilled from the GTA series, have benefited from a late 1940’s Americana film noir makeover. Team Bondi have meticulously reconstructed the Los Angeles of 1947, bringing it back to life from actual photographs, blueprints, and public records. Investigations are delivered in serialised fashion – individual crimes, with an overarching storyline hinted to through newspapers, and recurring characters, which become more entwined as your investigations continue. Clues are gleaned from interaction and crime scenes (essentially walking around pressing ‘X’) and then employed during interrogation sections (using clues to disprove or collaborate suspects statements) which employ the fabled facial recognition technology to add ‘more-human’ mannerisms to each character, to enable you to spot who’s lying, and who’s telling  the truth.

So how does LA Noire’s revolutionary c-note function? Its inconsistencies belie a technique in its infancy - almost every woman seems to suffer from a severe nine o’ clock shadow - but more often than not it hits the spot delivering a new level of character expression. So from a technical level, Team Bondi certainly deserve a chilled quartet of tinnies for their work.

Its integration within the game is slightly less effective; with no benchmark for truth and lies (telltale Hollywood mannerisms, or real-world ones?) my experience with interrogations was largely arbitrary, and regularly incorrect (maybe I’m just not cut out to be a cop?). But L.A. Noire always offers a safety net in an effort to continue the game dynamic. The use of your ‘Intuition’ points will speed clue discovery, or remove incorrect lines of questioning. Ultimately a failed interrogation will lead to a car tail or a convenient coroner’s lead to continue the story. Suffice to say, while impressive they prove largely inconsequential to your progression – and, at worse – fragmented and pointless.

But through interrogations, you will discover L.A. Noire’s dark heart; a supremely clichéd, but (the majority of time) gripping noir crime thriller. It’s titular veneration of the 1940’s film noir style which saw the transposition of protagonists from super-sleuths to hard-bitten antihero with a career of questionable moral decisions. Utilising more creative elements of cinema, such as high contrast black and white, shadows and pronounced camera movement . The real experiences of displaced World War II veterans, returning to an unfamiliar American society. Rapidly developing industries, changing gender roles, and the lure of fame and stardom during Hollywood’s ‘golden age’. Cole Phelps‘ position as the war hero with a moral compass plays well against a backdrop of America's postwar disillusionment and both the mental and fiscal corruption in L.A. 

It’s a mature game – sedentary in pace, requiring mental investment and a keen eye for those extra successes. Case strands including race hate, child abuse, and rape, and investigations involving full frontal nudity are delivered in an unsensational manner - and are all the more powerful for it, evoking a degree of respect for each investigation.  Even the flagrant swearing (which emphasized GTA4’s desire to appeal to an adolescent audience) has been muted, opting for authentic cusses of the time.

Most impressively though, as L.A. Noire develops, so does Cole, and his attitude to the world around him – something sorely lacking from Red Dead Redemption star John Marston’s outing in the previous Rockstar title. The sense of progression is palpable. When you start, you’ll be analysing every clue you come across, while the seasoned detective will go straight for strands of evidence needed to apprehend a suspect. To me, it feels when L.A Noire holds back, it wants you to exercise your grey matter – whether misdirected questions in interrogations are more often than not the result of a weak link in the chain of questioning are open to interpretation, but the game engine actively allowing you to read and respond puts a mature level of belief in the player rarely exhibited.

With its reliance on story and setting, you’ll have to be a fan of the era to really fully appreciate L.A. Noire, but comparisons will inevitably be drawn to Heavy Rain with its emphasis on emotional interpretation rather than twitch reflexes. With the emphasis so heavily placed on scripting, Team Bondi have advanced videogaming one more step towards film, and being the first videogame to feature at Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Film Festival this year only further emphasizes this. The partnership between the narrative and the interaction might not be seamless, but serves to remind us not only how important scripting once was, and will again be in gaming but  with over 20 hours of dialogue the increased reliance on actors. L.A. Noire is very much that of a debut pilot episode; a few wrinkles need ironing, but it’s aim is true and all the tools are present. After 20 hours in Cole Phelps’seedy LA underbelly, you’ll be left wanting more.

L.A. Noire is out now for PS3 and Xbox 360.

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