Today, I can breathe a long sigh of relief. When a person writes something as flowery as this about a game that they’ve only seen being played, there’s a strong risk that the person in question will have to eat every one of those hastily chosen words. Not this time: I have now played an entire case from Rockstar’s forthcoming LA Noire, and, but for some unforeseeable disaster, the studio seems to have another critical darling on its hands.
Here’s a complete guide to every element of what is looking like one of the most significant games of the year.
LA Noire: The City
Rockstar’s mastery of atmosphere has been proved time and again. No matter what one might say about Grand Theft Auto’s shooting mechanic or the drawn-out Mexico section of Red Dead Redemption, the pure, sensual pleasure of inhabiting their worlds is beyond reproach. LA Noire looks set to be another home-run in that respect, recreating the Los Angeles of 1947 with an unerring eye for detail: roads obliterated by the freeways were restored; businesses long-since shuttered were returned to their former premises; crimes committed in the game are straight from the headlines of the day.
Like the crime novels and films from which it draws inspiration, LA Noire’s story explores the underbelly of the city, and particularly the glamour and allure of Hollywood. This will be nothing new to hardened veterans of noir fiction, but, like Red Dead Redemption, LA Noire is an attempt to realise a classic cinematic genre in interactive form. Familiarity is kind of the point.
The world is open to you, but your access to it is more controlled than in a game like Grand Theft Auto, or even Canis Canem Edit. You will drive between locations the vast majority of the time, and you’re free to choose your own route. Occasionally, you’ll get a call for assistance over the radio, which you can choose to pursue or ignore, but I get the impression that these side-pursuits are there as much for authenticity as the need for more gameplay.
LA Noire: The Cops
In 1947, there were a lot of confused young men flooding into America’s major cities. Veterans of World War II were arriving home en masse, some of them trying to continue with their former lives, others deciding to re-evaluate and ring in the changes. LA Noire’s protagonist, Cole Phelps, is one of them, starting work as a patrolman for the LAPD to make a positive contribution to the city. He was awarded the Silver Star for bravery in the Battle of Okinawa but prefers not to discuss it, which pretty much guarantees that his experiences will play a key role in the plot at some point.
The LAPD see Phelps as poster-boy material, and fast-track him through the ranks. The game follows him on this meteoric rise, solving cases on a number of different desks, from Traffic to Vice to Homicide. Each desk introduces a new partner character who can offer advice, threats or sarcastic banter as the situation demands. And for those who would rather not engage in LA Noire’s open city, you can always ask your partner to drive.
LA Noire: The Crime Scene
This is probably a good point to remind everyone that L.A. Noire does feature the driving, shooting and brawling for which Rockstar games are known, but only in relatively small doses. Beyond that, the gameplay is roughly divided into two parts, the first of which is investigating the crime scene.
The case I played was the Silk Stocking Murder, and after a curt debriefing from the irascible Captain Donnelly I was poking around the corpse of a mutilated Hispanic girl. Rockstar makes no attempt to sanitise the experience: the body must be closely examined by grabbing and moving the arms, body and head. The fact that she is naked could be a clue. The nature of the wounds might help profile the killer.
In this case the victim had “Kiss The Blood. BD” scrawled on her stomach in red lipstick, but there are always other items scattered across the surrounding area - some are pertinent to the case, others are red herrings, still others are useless junk. The information gleaned from the crime scene evidence adds notes on people, places and items to Phelps’s notebook, which can be referenced at any time.
Certain leads can be followed up with HQ from phone-booths all over the city - a licence plate, perhaps, or a convict’s name - but most will require Phelps to find and question people who knew the victim, which neatly brings us to the other part of LA Noire’s gameplay.
LA Noire: Interrogation
Interrogation is the other key branch of LA Noire's gameplay, and this is where Rockstar really strikes out for the horizon. There are precedents for almost everything else in the game's design, but finding a way to turn the human aspects of detection into meaningful gameplay took six years and some extremely cool technology called Motion Scan.
As in other games featuring detective work, you'll need to collect evidence and chase leads, but in LA Noire you also have to read their faces, watch for tells, and make judgement calls about who's telling the truth, and who's got something to hide. When Phelps talks to a suspect, to all intents and purposes you are seeing a real actor giving a real performance. Indeed, Phelps himself is played by Aaron Staton, who fans of brilliant TV shows will know as Mad Men’s Ken Cosgrove.
Using the notebook, you are able to question a witness or suspect on any pertinent evidence you’ve collected. At certain points in the conversation you are given the choice to believe them, push for more information, or accuse them outright of deception - make the wrong call and it the subject might just clam up. There were moments when making the distinction was simple, but there were just as many when I was operating on instinct, pursuing a hunch based on a flick of the eyes or a nervous tic.
Rockstar has created meaningful gameplay that has almost nothing to do with pressing buttons, which, trust me, is far more impressive than it might sound.
L.A. Noire: The Showdown
LA Noire features two difficulty settings - Officer and Detective - but Rockstar doesn’t want you to get the wrong idea. This isn’t a game that deals in traditional notions of success and failure; Phelps is able to miss evidence, push a witness too hard, or falsely accuse a suspect of a crime, but however badly he screws up the game will continue. This is the one aspect of L.A. Noire that recalls the relentless momentum of Heavy Rain.
I have now seen two cases from LA Noire: the one I watched culminated in a brief shootout on and around the set of DW Griffiths’ Intolerance, the one I played finished with a car chase through the Los Angeles streets. In both instances the climax of the case was the only example of the driving and shooting for which Rockstar games are known, and that approach will remain consistent throughout. Real detectives don’t shoot a dozen people a day, and LA Noire seems more interested in representing that reality than any game in recent memory.
L.A. Noire: The Verdict
Okay, time for a little perspective, because, revolutionary technology notwithstanding, LA Noire is taking some major risks. The city, for example, will not be the sort of completely open sandbox that Grand Theft Auto games are built around. You’ll be able to pick your own routes and there will be crimes you can choose to pursue, but Los Angeles will principally be a backdrop for Rockstar’s most linear story since Manhunt 2.
Now, I have major problems with the way “linear” has become a dirty word in certain circles, but it would be foolish to ignore the fact that games as diverse as Mafia II and Alan Wake were criticised for their ‘semi open-world’ approach. I still maintain that these games were victims of critics allowing their own expectations to distort their perception of what the developer was trying to do, but that doesn’t remove the risk of the same thing happening to LA Noire.
The other problem is more pressing. In the moment, I was enraptured by the way LA Noire incorporates human instinct into its game mechanics, but that places a great deal of pressure on Rockstar to deliver a compelling story, believable characters and snappy dialogue. It certainly did that of the few hours I’ve seen, but managing the same over 20 hours is another matter. Personally, I think the studio responsible for Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption deserves the benefit of the doubt.