L.A. Noire, a film-noir-inspired detective game from Sydney-based Team Bondi, is set in a dark, gritty, exquisitely detailed mid-century Los Angeles. Nixon ads hang between landmarks like the RKO Theatre and the Mayfair Hotel as crimson-lipped women and pinstriped men saunter along the boulevards below.
Patrolling these streets is Cole Phelps, a decorated but troubled Second World War veteran who takes up a career as a cop. His keen eye and reliable intuition earn him a detective’s shield, as well as high-profile cases involving serial killers and celebrities.
Well educated and seemingly incorruptible -- shades of Guy Pearce’s character in L.A. Confidential -- Phelps is portrayed by Mad Men’s Aaron Stanton, whose youthful, clean-cut features and almost painfully earnest expressions are instantly recognizable thanks to a cutting-edge performance-capture technology that maps even his smallest muscle movements to Phelps’ face.
Called MotionScan, this revolutionary tech is applied to all characters, and it isn’t just for show.
When interviewing persons of interest, players are required to read faces to discern whether they’re telling the truth. Did the victim’s husband glance away when he said he didn’t know what time his wife left the house? Did he grimace slightly before providing his shoe size? Is he staring back too intently when meeting Phelps’s gaze? These scenes are the most original, compelling, and difficult parts of the game.
However, they’re also slow moving, forcing players to flip through pages of notes to reconcile suspects’ stories with known facts. Other sequences are deliberately paced, too, making L.A. Noire feel something like an interactive police procedural. Players canvass neighbours, visit the coroner to gather scientific evidence, and comb crime scenes and apartments for clues. Tense fistfights, gunfights, and car and foot chases liven things up, but they’re doled out sparingly, at about the same rate you’d expect in a murder mystery movie.
However, slow doesn’t necessarily equal boring. The drama and suspense is as real as it gets for games. Plus, sloppy work results in a very real chance of botching sophisticated, twisty cases. It’s perfect stuff for armchair detectives with meticulous, fastidious natures.
It seems, though, that Team Bondi also wanted to court more traditional gamers.
As players drive between locations they can answer radio calls for in-progress crimes that will send them to action-packed armed robberies, bloody domestic disputes, and even the scene of a deranged maniac terrorizing the public. Though entertaining in their way, these missions - which bear the unmistakable mark of L.A. Noire’s publisher, Rockstar Games, a master of open-world action games - feel as though they were tacked on in an effort to appease players aching to run around and shoot stuff. They often distract from the case at hand and are better suited for beat cops than detectives.
Still, it’s tough to fault a game that, most of the time, works so hard to deliver an original experience. Like last year’s Heavy Rain, L.A. Noire is less a game than an audience-controlled crime drama, and one of a handful of titles charting an exciting new course for interactive storytelling.