L.A. NOIRE Review [Game On] Jun08

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L.A. NOIRE Review [Game On]

I’m convinced Rockstar won’t be satisfied until it has created a superb experience representing every significant time period.  Such is the case with their latest effort, L.A. Noire. Set in 1947 Los Angeles, this detective drama deftly combines an intricately restored vision of the city with a stunning cast and a story that weaves itself in and out of the historical headlines of the period.

You play as officer Cole Phelps, working your way up from beat cop to detective.  Gameplay revolves around investigating crime scenes, examining evidence, and interrogating suspects.  Interrogations are particularly thrilling thanks to RockStar’s innovative new approach to capturing the facial animations of the actors used in the game.  Rather than using motion capture balls to approximate the position of a furrowed brow or a subtle sneer, they utilized multiple HD cameras capturing each actor’s entire performance from every perceptible angle, creating a true 1-to-1 translation of the actor’s likeness and performance onto each digital model.

While high production values are certainly desirable, a game cannot rest on them alone.  Many games have suffered from ho-hum gameplay that drug the experience down despite a beautiful execution.  Thankfully that isn’t the case here.  In fact, L.A. Noire represents one of the most harmonious unions of form and function, with the graphical presentation directly linked to gameplay.  Point in case, the technology I referenced earlier for the animation makes it devilishly difficult to sort out what suspects are telling the truth, half-truths, or outright lies.  Each character’s projected emotional state will have you questioning even the most insignificant assertions during your investigations and subsequently ratchets up the tension admirably.  Of course it’s not all piecing together the puzzles of Hollywood’s crime scenes and how they all comes together — there’s plenty of action to be had as well.

However, while the influence of the Grand Theft Auto series is apparent , the open-world feel has been stripped down a bit.  You can certainly go wherever you please in the city, but the freedom to pull out your .38 and start unloading on civilians isn’t only discouraged but is IMPOSSIBLE.  Can you mow down civilians in your Model T?  Certainly!  That is, if you want to incur considerable cost to the city and possibly jeopardize your investigation to the point of failure.  But what may seem like a limitation is actually a sound design decision.  These kind of maniacal freedoms made sense in Grand Theft Auto because, well, criminal behavior is encouraged and its in your hands whether you want to be an effective criminal with lofty goals or a knuckle-dragging buffoon who opens fire outside of a shopping mall or who delights in a face-full of SWAT team ballistics.  In L.A. Noire however, you’re a police officer.  A police officer who’s a rising star on the force and it just wouldn’t make sense to reward (or at the very least not punish) such inconsistent behavior in light of the story being told.

Normally I’d complain about the imposition of such a linear narrative, but L.A. Noire gets a pass on account of its rationale; driving from one side of the town to the other is a sneaky technical inclusion that allows the load times of the game to be masked.  Of course, if you don’t feel like fooling with driving around the admittedly gorgeous recreation of L.A. you can always have your partner drive, but then you miss out on the banter between him and Phelps which is almost always as informative as it is entertaining.   The narrative is vast and deep, and it doesn’t pull any punches either.  The crime scenes drip with brutality and suspects range from gee-golly-excited to help out the LAPD variety to the grizzled veterans of the city who have seen everything and have zero qualms about telling you to shove it up your ass.

Despite the terrible pun, I must say that L.A. Noire truly is a game changer.  It’s the next evolution of video games in narrative and presentation. Seeing the sheer range of expression a digital model is now capable of in L.A. Noire reminded me of the first time I saw Mario in all his polygonal glory on the Nintendo 64 or when Silent Hill showed me the true meaning of terror in a video game.  Incredible presentation, outstanding performances, thought-provoking gameplay, and raising the bar for the medium makes L.A. Noire a must-play title.