I've been racking my brain this past week for the phrase to best describe Detective Cole Phelps, L.A. Noire's fedora-clad gumshoe and ostensibly infallible leading man. I've toyed with "straight-laced," which seems too two-dimensional a descriptor, and I briefly considered "haunted," but it comes across as needlessly tragic. The word I keep coming back to is "driven" - driven by his unshakable morals, driven by a deft intellect, and driven by the demons borne during the events of his tour in World War II Okinawa.
This drive relates and separates Phelps to and from previous Rockstar protagonists. Brendan McNamara, founder of developer Team Bondi and L.A. Noire's writer and director, paints the detective as a "golden boy" crime buster and war hero at first blush, channelling L.A. Confidential's determined Detective Edmund Exley more than Red Dead Redemption's quick-drawing cowpoke, John Marston.
Opting for his notepad and pen over a Colt .45, Phelps' most dangerous weapons are his cunning and ambition. But like Marston and sociopathic ex-soldier Niko Bellic before him, he is a product of his blood-stained past. And over the course of Noire's 21 core cases, he’s tasked with confronting and, hopefully, conquering them all.
Touted as an atmospheric "detective thriller," Noire is a very different beast from publisher and co-developer Rockstar's previous open-worlders. Sure, it features many of the cinematic staples ever-present in the studio's impressive oeuvre, but L.A. Noire is more Tex Murphy than Grand Theft Auto, employing players' intuition before the speed of their trigger fingers.
The two core gameplay features – crime scene investigation and witness/suspect interrogation - are tense affairs that demand every ounce of the player's attention. Investigations call for a keen eye for vital clues, as well as plenty of patience, as each scene is littered with inconsequential red herrings. Rife with telling details and "aha!" moments, these investigation sequences manage to be engaging without tottering into tedium, and present a thoughtful approach to, and evolution of, the adventure game in the HD era.
The interrogations are even more demanding, pitting players face-to-face with civilians and criminals who regularly lie, mislead, and withhold important information. These sequences are a more mature and grounded take on Phoenix Wright's melodramatic cross-examinations, but when players aren't presenting hard evidence to debunk bogus claims, they’ll have to use their instincts to determine if said suspects are telling the whole truth. It's more challenging than it sounds – due in no small part to the endlessly impressive MotionScan facial animation technology - and the hard-boiled script really comes to life with some of the most convincing performances I’ve yet seen in a video game.
While gun-toting does tend to take something of a backseat, L.A. Noire's more cerebral moments regularly give way to action-packed set pieces. The game's scripted nature presents opportunities for some incredibly cinematic scenes, including an impeccable foot-chase through a decrepit film set, and a memorable shootout sequence set in an ice factory. Phelps isn't as much a one-man army as Bellic or Marston, but Noire's gunplay still feels very rewarding.
Based on the number of clues found, interrogation questions answered correctly, and collateral damage/injuries accrued, the game assigns a star rating at the end of each case. That, matched with the branching dialogue options and secondary leads, accounts for much of the game's replay value, and had me regularly restarting cases right after they'd concluded in hopes of better and more efficiently solving them. The scripted nature of the cases and the story that envelops them can make for a couple of curious outcomes, but nothing that takes away from the overall flow and momentum of the game.
The story itself is told in three threads: that of Phelps in 1947 Los Angeles as he works his way up the ranks of the LAPD; a concurrent narrative told through newspaper-spurred cutscenes that follows an eager young ex-Marine and med student; and a series of pre-case flashbacks, chronicling Phelps' lurid tour in World War II. It's an engrossing plot that calls to mind the conspiratorial crime fiction of author James Ellroy, as well as the pulpy prose of Raymond Chandler. And while the game's episodic nature can sometimes obscure the story's big picture, particularly in its latter third, overall it’s a strong and satisfying narrative that paints a vivid portrait of a crime-steeped L.A. during one of its most violent eras.
As interesting as Noire's story is, the real star is the post-war City of Angels that Phelps is tasked with protecting. It’s one of the richest and most impressively rendered video game environments I’ve come across in some time, and whether Phelps is driving to his next objective, speeding towards a street crime dispatch call, or exploring the city's landmarks, 1940s L.A. shines as a vivid and memorable backdrop. The build I played did admittedly suffer from infrequent slowdown and minor graphical glitches, but nothing that disrupted the gameplay.
L.A. Noire may not appeal to everyone, but those that are charmed by its mean streets will likely love every second of it. It's a bold, cinematic step forward in a genre that’s dying for innovation, and its implementation of the MotionScan technology is truly a game-changer. It took me about 20 hours to clear Noire's campaign, but I’m anxious to re-open Phelps' case files at the next available opportunity.