|System: Xbox 360, PS3|
|Dev: Team Bondi and Rockstar Games|
|Pub: Rockstar Games|
|Release: May 17, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Blood and Gore, Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs, Violence|
by Steve Haske
In the venal world of film noir and its hard-boiled literary counterpart, few stories end happily. It's not uncommon to see tales of hapless everymen and working schlubs that are pushed or duped into tawdry affairs, criminal scheming, and murder. Characters who aren't willing to give up a little of their humanity for a chance at more material happiness are a rare occurrence. Even if the private eyes or cops get their man, there's always a price. Sleuths go back to a life of loveless, alcoholic, world-weary cynicism, while police may turn a blind eye to dirty politics. This is just the way things work in a genre that deals almost exclusively with servicing the darker psychological desires inherent in humanity.
This makes Cole Phelps, L.A. Noire's golden-boy protagonist, an unlikely hero for a noir exploration. Unlike most officers of the law, Phelps can't be bought. He's a hard-nosed, by-the-book cop who plays by the rules. He takes offense at his fellow LAPD officers when it is suggested (as it often is) that making a conviction stick is better than nabbing the right man. As the paragon that drives Noire's narrative forward, Phelps is determined to make a difference in a city teeming with less-than-savory characters. He also makes this ambitious detective story a somewhat different take on noir in general. And make no mistake—Rockstar's name may be on the cover, but what Team Bondi has created is far from GTA with more broads and snub-nosed revolvers.
L.A. Noire isn't an open world game either. Yes, you're free, more or less, to explore the sprawling, golden-tinged streets of post-war Los Angeles, which Bondi has painstakingly recreated here (well, to 90 percent accuracy, anyway.) Yet the scope of the game is very linear. The narrative follows an episodic trajectory that tracks Phelps from up-and-coming beat cop to detective at various desks within the LAPD. There are, however, narrative meanders throughout the course of Noire's (mostly) expertly-crafted script. That being said, don't expect to get distracted by a swirling vortex of time-wasting activities to pursue when you don't feel like investigating a case. In fact, Noire is actually much closer in design to classic point-and-click adventure games than it is a free-roaming choose-your-own-adventure. (Players looking to mug prostitutes and cause mayhem will probably want to look elsewhere.) Instead, the focus is on actual detective work, giving the game a feel not unlike that of a police procedural.
Here's a typical gameplay scenario in L.A. Noire: Phelps and his partner are assigned a new case. This usually involves thoroughly picking a crime scene over for clues, which will either be marked as evidence or hidden around the premises. After giving an area a thorough search, the focus of the investigation turns to interviews. Are there any witnesses, suspects or people of interest? When there's a corpse to be autopsied, does the coroner have anything to say about it? Are there neighbors to canvass? Getting a feel for any given crime scene will be crucial when it comes time to question anyone that might be able to give you leads for the case, or, as the case often is, when you need to start putting the screws to someone.
Call it a trait of the genre, but almost no one in L.A. Noire is going to be completely forthcoming with you. This is where the game's conversational component comes in, and it's where you'll start to really notice how incredible Team Bondi's design is. Using Avatar-like facial capture techniques, you'll need to read the dart of a witness' eye, an awkward swallow, or any nervous glance they might exhibit. Every question Phelps asks requires you to think carefully before choosing to believe someone's words or accuse them of flat out lying. To put more pressure on you, there is a correct response to every inquiry you ask.
What's particularly interesting about the questioning system is what happens when you screw up. Should you wrongly accuse someone of something by presenting the wrong evidence, the witness will generally become more hostile and clam up. This wouldn't necessarily be a big deal, but, just as in real life, you only get one chance for any given questioning. When you don't get the answers you need, it often keeps you from learning vital details about a case that you won't find anywhere else.