Looking for clues
Review If you were expecting Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption dressed in police uniform, then I'm sorry to disappoint you. LA Noire is far removed from its Rockstar stablemates. Sure, it bears all the hallmarks of gaming's master craftsman: the peerless synergy of narrative, art direction and game design, the unabashed depiction of crime and the criminal underworld and, of course, a repugnant legion of degenerates and sociopaths. But LA Noire is an entirely different game.
Don't make me call you a schmuck
As the title implies, this is the hardboiled crime detective fiction introduced by pulp writers like Hammett and Chandler and popularised on the silver screen in film noir. Set in 1940's Los Angeles, you play as Cole Phelps, a WWII-hero turned cop who's as honest as the city is corrupt. Your job is to solve crimes and rise through the ranks from uniformed patrolman to detective on the traffic, homicide, vice and arson desks.
Focusing firmly on detective work, LA Noire's pace is markedly slower than GTA and Red Dead. There's still plenty of action in the form of shootouts and pursuits, and even fist fights, but they take a backseat here, as action interludes to the mainstay of meticulous investigation.
A heavy hit on the pipe?
Each case begins with a crime scene. You need to search the area and any victims for clues, including the many red herrings. It's a task simplified by soft piano plinks denoting their proximity and a musical crescendo signifying all clues have been discovered. The real challenge is not sorting between the red herrings and clues – the game does that for you – but knowing which clues to call upon when questioning witnesses and suspects.
Give 'em a grillin'
You see, the City of Angels is populated by anything but angels. It seems almost everyone has something to hide: the director abusing the starry-eyed teenage hopeful on the casting couch, the philandering husband faking his own death to elope with his lover, the street vendor selling morphine taped to the undersides of popcorn boxes. Everyone's got an angle, and no-one's eager to assist you with your investigations.
Clue at the blue
Interrogation, therefore, is the pulsating heart of gameplay. Logic, intuition and evidence are all required to distinguish fact from fiction - often requiring you to backtrack and question people several times upon discovery of new evidence or leads - but it's the ability to read body language that really steals the show.
While falling short of the visual fidelity of Killzone 3 and Black Ops, the much-vaunted Motion Scan technology imbues facial animations with a range of expression unseen before. You'll need to scrutinise your witness or suspect for any signs of subterfuge, no matter how subtle. A nervous twitch, a chewed lip, or an aversion to your gaze can all cast doubt on statements. Call it right, and they'll spill the beans. Get it wrong, and they'll clam up and the line of inquiry will close.
If you suspect they're lying altogether, you're going to need to back up your assertion with hard evidence. It's here that LA Noire displays the gulf between real life and videogames. The logic is often highly subjective and littered with non-sequiturs, making inductive reasoning impossible. It's not quite Monkey Island logic, but even after amassing overwhelming evidence, choosing which to use to disprove a lie can be a frustrating guessing game.
Help is always round the corner
Luckily, it's not a game breaking flaw. The game is cleverly crafted to ensure you'll always get your man. And any experience points lost through incorrect questioning can be made up by completing one of the many Street Crime side-quests. Nonetheless, its a shame that LA Noire's central mechanic doesn't work as well as you'd hope.
You've been tangoed
There's also an issue of repetition. Nowhere more so than during the Black Dhalia homicide case, where plot devices are repeated all too frequently. A bloodied wheel brace and rope turning up in every suspect's house feels contrived, as does the ubiquitous book of matches leading to a new bar to investigate. But your eventual move onto the vice and arson desks brings a welcome change in theme and tone during the game's latter stages.
LA Noire's narrative deserves special praise. The equal of GTA and Red Dead, its plot and script are grounded in the hardboiled fiction. Despite being being pure pulp, there's not an ounce of schlock to be seen. And, thanks to excellent characterisation – and a cast comprised of a veritable who's who of American TV – the excellent dialogue and voice acting sustain interest throughout.
Putt the weapon down
LA Noire is a seminal videogame, but by no means a perfect one. Look beyond the astonishing Motion Scan technology and superlative narrative and the game can feel like an interactive movie in the vein of an old Cinemaware game or, worse, FMV CD-Rom. But even though it's debatable exactly how much influence and freedom you have along its heavily scripted path, the experience remains beguiling and memorable. ®
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