It’s still quite early in the year to make such a claim, especially with Deus Ex: Human Revolution a few months away, but I think LA Noire has the legs to make it stick. Just maybe.
The key thing about LA Noire is the delightful way it mixes the story into the gameplay itself. Your trip through the various departments at the LAPD feel remarkably like seasons of a television show. Once you graduate from the street to the traffic squad, you start to wonder if the game is all style and no substance. Sure, the visuals are impressive, and the cases are joyous, but is it going anywhere?
It truly clicks at about the third newspaper. These things are scattered around the game at varying intervals, seemingly unconnected to your troubles at the time, and reading them treats you to a nice little cinematic related to the headline. The first few times you watch it, you might think it’s a nice little curio, but then you start to think otherwise. Your detective instincts kick in.
This is the best thing about LA Noire by far. The face scan technology – which allows the developers to capture an actors performance perfectly, and drop it into the game – has allowed Team Bondi to create an adventure game that isn’t all about item puzzles and dialogue trees. They’ve made a genuine detective simulator, where your instincts can be more important than the evidence. The difference it makes, seeing a face move perfectly in key with the lines it is delivering, is immense. Lines that would fall flat on the more wooden faces of other game characters are given extra life here because, at the end of the day, you have all the tools we normally use when assessing how a person is speaking.
How do you know when someone is lying to you? Well, perhaps they’ll say something that goes against what you know to be true, but the majority of the time you can tell by the way they say something, by what their face is doing. LA Noire’s ability to put this into a game is nothing short of sublime. Every conversation brings something new, and it’s more than a programmer pumping more points into a character’s deviousness pool, or a canned animation that can be learned by heart by a savvy gamer, this is the closest thing you can get to an actual interrogation in any form of interactive media. Every actor Team Bondi have hired deliver their lines perfectly, to the point where they might as well have strolled into your living room for the purpose of being called a liar.
With this in mind, Cole Phelps, the protagonist du jour, is more a vessel than a true character. He has a story, true, and you control him and all that business, but the way he interacts with the narrative is somewhat peculiar. When he’s on the job, you are in control. Soon as he clocks off, you have no idea what he’s up to. He goes off, lives his life, and unlike other sandbox-style games, you don’t really get to see much of what happens around him. The perfect example is his marriage; the eagle eyed gamer will spot his wedding ring fairly early on, but there’s no real mention of his wife until you are already a few hours in, and she only actually appears in game once. Compare this with GTA4, where you are introduced to Niko’s family immediately, and they never ever leave you alone.
LA Noire is, then, considerably more story based. There are limited chances for any sort of anarchy, and the majority of your time in the game will be spent investigating crime scenes, interrogating witnesses, and running after suspects that get a bit jumpy at the mention of a badge. Yet this presents a much more focused game, one with an agency to it that is heavily compelling. Each department feels like a game in and of itself, most having their own little story arcs linking their cases, as well as possible links to something bigger. There is a lot at work in this game.
In the very truest sense, LA Noire is an adventure game of the old school, what people like Telltale should have been doing. There’s a legitimacy to all your actions, an authenticity that sort of removes many of the barriers between you as a player and the world of the game. When you investigate a crime, it’s you investigating it, not you-as-Cole. When you interrogate, it’s you doing the interrogation. It is your instincts and acumen that help you determine when someone is lying or holding something back, not some abstract system of clues. You ask a question, you get an answer, you weigh that answer against what you know from the evidence and what you think of them as a person. It’s just so perfectly pure.
As every arc ends and another one begins, you get little moments of joy and gratification. You are constantly rewarded, and the sensation that comes from calling someone on their lies never gets old. Cole Phelps may be the name of the man on the screen but, and I cannot stress this enough, you are the real protagonist.
It’s not perfect, however. There are a few oddities such as the discoverable landmarks (surely they’d be on the map anyway) and Cole’s unwavering insistence to take the “doubt” option to mean “I KNOW YOU ARE THE MURDERER YOU VILLAINOUS DICK”, but really these are minor issues. That the actions scenes are somewhat clunky at times, and the warning shot to stop a fleeing suspect requires an unusually large amount of time to pull-off, are slightly bigger issues, however.
The actions scenes boil down into three types: shooting, punching and driving. The shooting is pretty self explanatory, with a competent cover system and decent weapons. It is functional and, sometimes, it can be a nice break from the more methodical approach to police work the investigations promote. It suffers, however, from men who can take bullets without flinching and an overly generous lock-on mechanic. The punching has similar flaws, but this is mostly a result of the blows themselves looking more robotic than they should, and the fights feeling a little too staged and polite than the maddened scuffles you would expect from hardened crims.
The driving scenes are actually quite good, but they can sometimes appear a bit protracted. Trying to get your opponent to spin out, either by PIT manoeuvring them or having your partner take out their tyres, can take a while, all while dodging civilians who seem to lack the basic survival instinct required to own a car. They will rarely try to get out of your way although, thankfully, they are rarely in such large numbers that you can’t dodge them. It’s annoying at times, but never breaks the game.
In fact, that is perhaps LA Noire’s biggest success: making a game that is impossible to lose without feeling as though that is a sacrifice. Many games in recent years have played the “you cannot actually lose this” card, and the majority of them actually mean that the story is scripted so that failing a fight just acts as though you won it or the like. What LA Noire does, however, is present a story where it is impossible to lose or get stuck – the ability to skip action scenes and the way the game allows you to continue even if you cock up a case royally – without having to pull a retcon to make it work. The writing is done with such finesse and such skill that, depending on your actions, the only thing that changes is the subtext. They never overtly refer to the outcome of a previous case, never present you with a canon path that has happened, but every oblique reference reminds you of what you did.
Even if you lose, you get as coherent and powerful a narrative as if you had won. There is no wrong move. Play Phelps as a perfect super-cop, correctly lauded by the papers as an American hero, or play him as an incompetent oaf, the department’s talentless poster boy, around only for the image. The writing fits either way, and that is an amazing achievement.
I could go on, I really could, but I don’t want to spoil the game any more. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most impressive games I have ever played. The writing is the sublime, the characters are deep and believable, the way you interact with the world is fresh and original and so very unique. If games like Phoenix Wright can be called interactive novels, LA Noire is an interactive TV series.
It is utterly and completely sublime.
MLG Rating: 9/10
Platform: PS3/Xbox 360 Release Date: 13/05/11
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer bought a physical copy of LA Noire for review purposes . The title was reviewed over the course of two weeks on an Xbox 360. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.