Why is there an ‘e’ on the end of ‘noir’? Why does Cole tackle every single crime scene with all the subtlety and grace of a curious chimp? And why is he able to perform forward rolls without damaging his lovely hat? Why, in a city full of aspiring actors and actresses, can nobody stray from the truth without suddenly needing to scratch a chronic neck itch or without trying to look at everything in the room at once? These questions and many more besides are raised but never answered by Team Bondi’s counterpoint to Rockstar’s flagship, a game where crime certainly doesn’t pay. Detective Cole Phelps has a way with words, an eye for a clue and a tendency to gun down anyone that so much as looks like they could be packing heat, a trifecta of skills which, in gameplay terms, never excel individually, but which come together more cohesively and agreeably than such a hodge-podge of genres has any right to.
But Phelps, although the protagonist and player character, isn’t the real star of L.A. Noire. That honour goes to the titular city. Team Bondi’s striking vision of Forties Los Angeles is a delight to explore, a world so alien to modern eyes that you simply can’t help but be enraptured by it. Architecture and interiors lovingly evoke a simpler age, the era fleshed out by the strains of muted trumpets, long-lost lingo and a genuine feeling of the city’s struggle between aspiration and corruption to create a sense of place and time that few games can rival. Only the idle chit-chat of LA’s pedestrians ever really fractures this beautifully crafted illusion, their ‘amusing’ banter sometimes feeling forced and at odds with the gravity of the narrative content – a little like a GTA hangover. But considering the majority of the dialogue finds its mark perfectly, it’d be remiss to go ballistic over a handful of cheesy throwaway quotes.
Still, even the greatest lines are only as good as the mouths that speak them and, in L.A. Noire’s case, them’s some scarily realistic mouths. The facial capture technology is a technological triumph and a genuine glimpse of the future of gaming, even if it is one best appreciated through a slight squint. Hyper-real faces sometimes sit oddly on marionette bodies – we’d reference Weinerville at this point if a) it wasn’t massively harsh and b) we thought anyone would get it. Whereas most games have problems with realistic environments and even bodies let down by freaky faces, here it’s the faces that highlight just how far behind them everything else is. It’s something that needs to be seen all the same, a fascinating visual turn that commands attention. Plus, in fairness, the end result is more often than not extremely impressive.
Just as well really, since one of the main pillars of the game is the human interaction element. Interrogations are a keystone of the L.A. Noire experience – being able to separate truth from falsehood just by reading a character’s facial tics and body language is a novel concept indeed, and one only permitted by this new technology. That said, it’s hardly the most taxing of processes and, since a stoic expression usually means a suspect or witness is being straight with you, a wildly exaggerated tell means it’s time to either accuse them of lying (which needs to be backed up with evidence) or select Doubt, an alternative to calling them fibbers best used when you don’t have the evidence for a full-scale accusation. It’s a mechanic fit for purpose, but one that always feels like there should be more to it, each line of questioning a formulaic one-shot lunge for truth where a single yes/no/maybe question can lead to new evidence for a case or an offended suspect and an investigatory dead end.
Well, we say dead end but the truth is that there’s no such thing in L.A. Noire. Even the most fumbled investigation leads to an arrest (albeit not necessarily the right guy). Since Phelps’ rise through the ranks is preordained, poor players can look forward to awkwardly fumbling their way to the top; a sly pop at the justice system of the time perhaps (it wouldn’t be the only one), but moreover a sign of Team Bondi’s decision to champion linear narrative over branching gameplay. This feeds into even the more action-based sequences, so while shootouts and the excellent chases won’t challenge seasoned gamers, those who are only in it for the ride are given the option to skip such scenes without ill effects after three failed attempts.
Similarly, crime scenes can pretty much be played on autopilot, with controller vibration and audio cues making it near impossible to miss both evidence and red herrings. Seeing supposed brainbox Cole fascinated by the identical pieces of garbage he so closely inspects in search of justice is unintentionally amusing, though the process itself, while extremely simple, is oddly cathartic.
Those that called it ‘GTA in fedoras’ are likely hearing the same negative chimes that accompany a verbal misstep from Phelps right now – L.A. Noire is actually far closer to the classic point-and-click formula (in particular the excellent Blade Runner) than to Rockstar’s crime sprees. Each core element is at least passable in its own right, but the end result is far more than the sum of its parts. Even though the episodic nature of the game means each case follows much the same structure, the repetition involved can be argued away as an accurate reflection of Phelps’ line of work. A slow start builds to the high point of the Homicide desk and it holds its form for a good while. And though the final hours are somewhat trite and contrived in the way they weave seemingly unrelated threads together, L.A. Noire won’t be remembered for its slightly disappointing finale – it’ll be remembered for its pioneering technology, its adept fusion of genres and the respect and talent with which it opens a window on the past. Oh, and for its improper use of the letter ‘e’.