As Detective Cole Phelps approaches a burned-out house, county coroner Mal Carruthers stands on what remains of the front porch. “You guys better take a look at this; I hope you have strong stomachs,” Carruthers says. Phelps steps through the front door and turns into the living room…then he sees it: the charred remains of a family, all kneeling, seemingly posed like dolls in positions of prayer. The scene is gut-wrenching and grim. This is the work of a twisted man and it’s up to Detective Phelps to find him.
That memorable scene is just one of dozens in L.A. Noire, which at times is more film than video game. It often wrests control from the player to tell its story, so if you’re an impatient fidget who gets tap-happy with buttons in a frantic attempt to skip cutscenes in other games, this may not be for you. But then again, L.A. Noire isn’t like other games. Though it presents a sprawling 1940s-era Los Angeles to explore at your leisure, I wouldn’t put it in on the shelf next to “open world sandbox” titles like Grand Theft Auto. Car and foot chases frequently happen–many times ending in violent shootouts–but I’d hesitate to call it an “action game.” The real meat-and-potatoes of the game lie in the search for clues, close examination of evidence, and interrogation of suspects. Are they telling the truth, exaggerating, hiding something, or just lying through their teeth? Well, it’s up to you to figure it out by paying close attention to their body language and facial expressions. This is where Noire really breaks off into a league of its own.
[ad#longpost]Awkward lip-synching and facial features (especially teeth) have long proven to be the bane of believability in video games, but the performances here lift it to another level of realism. That’s because when you see Detective Phelps squinting his eyes and lifting his eyebrows, you’re actually watching actor Aaron Staton (Mad Men) in his natural element. To pull this off, Team Bondi utilized MotionScan technology, which uses special cameras to capture the real performances of actors and actresses. The cameras take footage from all angles of a person’s face, and then map it to a 3-D model that is placed into the game. Every little forehead wrinkle and eye twitch is faithfully translated into Noire‘s world, and it is those subtle details that can give away a character’s innocence or guilt.
Finding the truth is about more than just looking for sideways glances and finicky behavior, though; sometimes you’ll need to refer to your trusty notebook to ferret out a lie. Every valuable piece of evidence you find and every relevant statement you take is recorded here (it’s a creative alternative to a simple menu screen). If any of those details conflict with what a person says, you can accuse them of lying. If their answer lines up with what you already know to be true, then they’re probably being honest. There’s also an option to “Doubt” a person’s statement, if they seem like they want to tell you something useful, but can’t quite spit it out. It’s a nuanced system that requires you to listen carefully to every conversation and think critically. When you finally have enough dirt on a suspect and you successfully charge them with a crime, the “gotcha!” feeling that ensues is genuine.
Gameplay boils down to a sequence of objectives that eventually becomes familiar: go to a crime scene, examine the body/evidence, question witnesses and suspects (and sometimes chase said suspects), and then charge the lead suspect. Cole will work four departments (Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson) throughout the game, but those investigative elements remain fairly constant. However, the game will throw you for a loop now and then. Just when you think you know what to expect, a killer will lead you on a breadcrumb trail of notes and previously missing pieces of evidence, taking you from a park fountain to the top of a giant chandelier. There are also some fun distractions around town. Dispatch will call for assistance to street crimes, of which there are forty. Some involve the simple apprehension of muggers, and others escalate into full-blown shootouts with gangs of bank robbers. There are also dozens of cars to drive…and getting behind the wheel of a car will unlock it in a showroom to view later. They’re exquisitely modeled, and some of the secret ones (there are fifteen hidden across L.A.) look like spaceships out of an old science fiction comic, so they’re worth seeking out. Other than that, there’s not a lot of “extra” stuff to doâ€¦but I’m okay with that. The absence of clutter allows you to focus on the wonderful story. To say anything about it would be absolutely criminal (nyuk, nyuk), so you’ll need to play it for yourself to discover its secrets.
When it comes to visuals and sound design, Noire is pretty darn classy. The environments are wonderfully detailed, with seedy nightclubs and dark alleyways to explore. Everyone is wearing snappy fedoras and sharp suits (the expensive $30 variety) and frumpy dresses, and everything is accompanied by the sweet sounds of era-specific licensed music and jazz orchestra. The brass section blares and squawks when trouble is afoot, and you’ll hear minor-key vibraphone chords when searching a crime scene for clues. Piano key triplets are used as audio cues to let you know when a piece of evidence is nearby. The voice work is outstanding, and it’s clear that the cast was having an absolute blast with their characters.
The MotionScan technology, as valuable as it is to the experience, isn’t quite perfect. Facial textures and hair appear slightly smudged at times, like someone drew a nice picture on Silly Putty and then tried to stretch it over a mannequin head (though this could be a result of hardware limitations). Speaking of which, most of the characters show a fantastic amount of emotional range in their faces, but sometimes their bodies can’t keep pace. Gestures look too robotic in some scenes, and hands tend to look Ken doll-ish. Supposedly those problems will be remedied in future games, as developers are now toying with full-body scans of actors and actresses, meaning every piece of a performance would be captured. These are nitpicks, but in a game world clearly striving for realism, every little detail counts.
While I’m on the subject of “stuff I didn’t like,” I’ll go ahead and say that the cover and shooting mechanics feel slightly stiff. There’s a late-game twist that doesn’t quite feel earned. Some objects (like trees) occasionally phase into existence as you’re driving through town, and some textures draw in before your very eyes. Again, these are miniscule issues that shouldn’t deter you from playing.
L.A. Noire is Team Bondi’s and Rockstar’s love letter to crime capers and police procedurals, both in literature and in film. The dark subject matter, well-developed characters, and cinematic presentation all intermingle to produce something truly unique. It represents a huge step toward bridging the “uncanny valley,” something that game developers have struggled with for years. Like Heavy Rain (PS3), Noire pushes the boundaries of what video games can achieve cinematically and emotionally. When weighed only as a game, it doesn’t impress all that much. Parts of it hark back those point-and-click adventures that were so popular on the PC years ago. However, when taken as a complete experience that blends interactive puzzle solving and open-world gameplay with the finest moments in noir cinema, it is simply mind-blowing. If you’re a gamer of any skill level, you owe it to yourself to give L.A. Noire a shot.