LA Noire Review

Noir has flaws. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, its twin pontiffs of the pen, wrote the stories and screenplays that defined a genre on the silver screen. Both were hopeless alcoholics, leaving a trail of soured friendships and ruined marriages in their whiskey-soaked wakes. Their stories depicted a world full of the venal and the greedy, the homicidal and the hapless.

L.A. Noire, a new detective game from Team Bondi and Rockstar Games, has flaws. Never has a game in modern memory made the simple action of opening a closed door so unpredictable. But, more importantly, there are other flaws as well: the foibles and weaknesses of the real, compelling characters that populate its cast, and the grasping, ill-considered actions they take. Though its design is imperfect, L.A. Noire is a groundbreaking game full elegance and ambition, and a well-spring of fun.

LA Noire (PS3 [Reviewed], XBox360, PC)
Developer: Team Bondi
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: February 15, 2011
MSRP: $59.99

Protagonist Cole Phelps is a complicated person. Decorated for valor on Okinawa, he is deeply ambivalent about his reputation as a hero, and unsure of how to cope with the horrors of the war and the demands of his new career in the LAPD. Portrayed by Mad Men actor Aaron Staton, Phelps begins the game as an idealist. Gradually, his experiences on the force leech him of such blinkered optimism, and by the end of the story, he is armored in cynicism, as hard-boiled as any pulp gumshoe.

And what a story it is. Writer-director Brendan McNamara weaves a 20-hour tale of crime and corruption that can stand proud among the classics of the genre, whom he acknowledges with homage, pastiche, and reverence. Doled out gradually through subtle hints and careful plotting, L.A. Noire avoids the senseless segues and exploitative twists that dog video game writing, building its conspiracy piece by deliberate piece until momentum takes over and it hurtles headlong towards conclusion. The game’s themes — redemption, forgiveness, and the travails of a generation of young men recovering from the horrors of war — are both intelligible and resonant.

None of this authorial accomplishment would have been possible without L.A. Noire’s pioneering MotionScan technology. In place of traditional motion capture, MotionScan uses a battery of 32 high-definition video cameras, all focused on an actor’s head as he or she performs a part in fully-styled hair and make-up. By combining the images from each camera, developers are left with a detailed, 3D model of an actor’s face, which can then be grafted onto a body motion-captured using traditional means.

The effect is nothing short of transformative. Though few publishers other than Rockstar would have the budget to underwrite more than 400 actors (including four Mad Men veterans), and more than 2,000 hours of filming, the implications of MotionScan are vast. Even the most graphically puissant modern games are still mired in the uncanny valley, peopling their exquisite environments with uncanny, corpselike avatars whose flapping lips belie their dialogue. In L.A. Noire, by contrast, the characters, even incidental passerby, are believable – alive – and their expressive faces work symbiotically with McNamara’s vibrant script to create real emotions and real tragedy.

This sense of symbiosis can be found everywhere in the game. At its heart, L.A. Noire is a risky, original piece of game design, one that adapts an engine built for mayhem and uses it to recreate the science of detection, which is exacting and deliberate. The experiment could easily have gone awry, were it not for Team Bondi’s clear, firm grasp of their concept, and their willingness to return to L.A. Noire’s foundational ideas – Film Noir, detective stories, the character of Cole Phelps – in order to supersede obstacles and strengthen its design. Each aspect of the game seems subtly to prop up every other aspect.

Instead of levels, the game has cases, which work splendidly as an intuitive and appropriate means of organizing iterative gameplay. As cases are completed, Phelps moves through various “Desks” in the police force, starting as a rookie patrolman (an elegant way to frame a tutorial) before graduating to Traffic, Homicide, Vice, and Arson. The nature of the casework serves as a subtle way of increasing the difficulty; traffic offenders are hardly criminal masterminds, but by the time you’re ensconced on the Vice squad, you’re interrogating hardened felons.

Each time you change desks, you get a new partner, ranging from the half-drunk, thickheaded Homicide detective Rusty Galloway to Arson’s jaded, avuncular Herschel Biggs. This constantly changing cast of flawed companions elicits all the joy that a video game sidekick can provide, with none of the pain. The characters are uniformly well-written, and just as soon as one begins to wear out his welcome, he’s gone. Maybe most importantly, you can request that your partner do the driving for you, obviating the cross-town commutes that are such a tiresome feature of previous Rockstar games.

The final feather in L.A. Noire’s detection-centric fedora is the detective’s notebook, which acts a U.I. hub for the game’s two foundational gameplay elements: interrogation and clue-collection. When interrogating suspects, Phelps consults his notebook and chooses from a list of pertinent questions. Having asked them, the player must scrutinize the suspect’s reaction, letting the magic of MotionScan take center stage. Team Bondi’s army of actors provide a wondrous array of nervous chuckles, cleared throats, flinty stares, sidelong glances, and involuntary blinks. Though some tells are easy to spot, others are more subtle, and the game provides a diverse mix of the mendacious and the honest, sprinkling in the good liars among the bad.

Once players listen to an answer, they’re left with three choices. Selecting “truth” will cause Phelps to respond in a conciliatory tone. “Doubt” is employed when suspects seem to be lying, but there is no hard evidence to catch them in a lie. The dialog of doubt can be a little unpredictable – the game suffers from the kind of uncertainty common in BioWare games, which leave you unsure of exactly how the sentence you select on screen will be transmuted by the voice of a Shepard or a Hawke. “Lie” is only advisable in certain situations, when you have a specific clue that can be used to prove a suspect’s dishonesty.

If this system sounds hard, don’t worry – it is. Surprisingly, however, the game is very forgiving of failure. It doesn’t expect you to judge all the responses correctly, reasoning that even the most experienced detective would occasionally be duped. Indeed, it is possible to complete a case even if you fail every single question you attempt. Having to live with your in-game mistakes is not something that comes naturally to most gamers, and L.A. Noire deserves plenty of credit for refusing to compromise. Cases can be reattempted at any time from the main menu in order to improve outcomes, but you’ll have to start from the beginning. There is only one crutch inexperienced interrogators can rely on – if you accuse someone of lying and don’t have the evidence to back it up, you can apologize and try again.

Evidence is gathered using the game’s other major mechanic. Moody, sparse jazz plays as players pick their way through a crime scene, tensed for the tell-tale musical cue and controller vibration that signal the presence of a clue. When all clues are found, the music ceases entirely. Instead of challenging coordination or reflex, L.A. Noire challenges patience and perspicacity. In some ways, the evidence-gathering sections serve to better immerse the player in the game’s impeccably noire atmosphere and unsettling, artfully-designed environments. Whether you’re in an adulterer’s disheveled bedroom or a maniac’s bloodstained abbatoir, you’ll want to take your time investigating.

The game’s surroundings, on a grander scale, are magnificent. The art direction abounds with modernist beauty, and the game’s camera is cleverly manipulated to frame vantages that evoke any number of noir classics. The music, which consists equally of authentic 40′s jazz and impressionistic, moody originals, is one of the game’s strongest features. The cultural references, wry, period-appropriate jokes (“next think I know you’ll be calling Richard Nixon a crook!”) and hard-boiled dialog are all pitch perfect.

L.A. Noire recreates a large diagonal swath of central L.A., filling it with vintage cars, painstakingly recreated landmarks, and more subtly authentic touches than any reviewer could hope to chronicle. But despite the vast area on offer, there is actually precious little to do in it. The grand urban scale captured in the game exists mostly to lend heft to proceedings, giving them a lived-in believability that a more linear game (or Mafia II’s snow-globe chintz) could not hope to match. The expected collectibles appear, hidden in nooks and crannies, but aside from the cases, the only activity in the city is provided by “Street Crime” cases. Announced over Phelps’ police-band radio, these brief, numerous set-pieces give the trigger-happy a chance to indulge in L.A. Noire’s ancillary action mechanics.

There are three main categories of action, if you don’t count the game’s cursory puzzle sequences, which, like clue-collecting, are more about atmosphere than challenge. Each category is derived directly from noir canon. There are a number of chases, occasionally by car, but more often by foot – suspects in L.A. Noire have a tendency to cut and run at the slightest provocation. Running in a straight line to catch them is easy; Rockstar’s idiosyncratic, physics-based character models make changing direction difficult.

Even more authentically, you’ll occasionally have to tail suspects. This system performs adequately and deepens immersion. So too the fisticuffs, which marry GTA IV’s beat-em-up controls to a button-masher-punishing system reminiscent of Batman Begins. Praise, unfortunately, is not due to the gunfights, which are marred by an awful, molasses-like cover system and a profusion of anonymous minions to shoot. This becomes particularly aggravating towards the end of the game, when the story ramps up and the bullets start flying in earnest, though it is hardly an overweening concern. By that point, Brendan McNamara’s slow-burning conspiracy is well on its way to a massive noir climax, and you’re more worried about what happens to the characters than about being stuck to the wrong bit of chest-high wall.

This sense of worry defines everything that the game does right. L.A. Noire is the rare game whose characters feel like real human beings, people who learn, change and adapt as they experience the events of the game. The players, in turn, learn and change with them. They make mistakes along the way, just as the characters do, confusing lies with truth. But it is because of their flaws, and Cole Phelps’ flaws, and L.A. Noire’s flaws, that the game will be counted among the best – of 2011, without a doubt, but maybe among the best ever.

Score: 90/100

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