Video Game Review: L.A. Noire
By Tim Briody
May 24, 2011

How much for the girlfriend experience?

L.A. Noire isn't so much a video game as it is an interactive episode of a 1940s-era cop procedural. Think the "law" part of Law & Order if it took place in Los Angeles after World War II. With that said, it's one of the finest gaming experiences of the last several years and should not be missed.

Cole Phelps, a Pacific theater hero, returns home and decides to continue to do his part to make the world a better place and joins the LAPD. As a uni, which serves as the game's tutorial, you learn the basics of crime scene investigation and suspect interrogation. After breaking a murder case, Cole is promoted to detective and the game's fascinating story truly takes off from there.

This is the latest release from Rockstar Games, so if you think it's in the vein of the Grand Theft Auto series or last year's phenomenal Red Dead Redemption, think again. Yes, it still retains the sense of open-worldness that is commonplace (the map of Los Angeles is *huge,* it would seriously take you about 20 minutes to drive from one end of the map to the other) in games these days, but the game's plot is presented in a strict linear fashion, each case is its own self-contained story, though various aspects will tie together as you approach the end of each desk.

The typical GTA-style missions of chasing, tailing and shooting suspects are still there, but they're almost secondary to the meat of the game: investigating crime scenes and interviewing persons of interest. What's more, while none of the action sequences are exceptionally difficult, those who prefer to not bother with those scenes have the option to skip them entirely, a choice that is also provided to you after failing multiple times. Even driving around Los Angeles is optional, as you'll have a partner who will do the driving to the next destination by simply holding a button. This was helpful, as I often did my best Frank Drebin impersonation as I arrived at each location.

The heart of the game is insanely simplistic on paper but brilliant in its execution. You will arrive at a crime scene and be given free reign to walk around. A small chime and controller vibration will occur when you come near something that can be examined closer. Incidental items will be dismissed, but key pieces of evidence on victim's bodies and around the crime scene will add the item to your detective's notebook. It's important to grab every clue you possibly an at each location, as they'll come in handy for the second important part, interrogations.

When faced with a person of interest (typically a witness or potential suspect), you'll ask them a question related to the case, and then have to select whether you believe they are telling the truth, doubt their statement or are flat out lying. If you think they're lying, you'd better have evidence from an earlier investigation to back it up. Select the correct response and they'll come clean and you'll have more evidence to build your case on. If you're wrong, expect some stonewalling.

That's not to say a case becomes unsolvable thanks to poor investigation and interrogation techniques. You will get your man, it may just not be the correct one, or the eventual case before the judge may be paper thin. What's more, the game provides plenty of moral gray areas during various cases. Your case against one suspect may be ironclad, but it'll look much better in the papers if the known child molester or communist sympathizer is put away, and your boss will tell you so.

The other key aspect to the interview part, and one of the most amazing technological advances in video game history, is the face capture, which is basically motion capture done one better. The voice actors were not simply sitting in a recording studio reading their lines. Virtually everyone had their faces motion-captured while doing so, recording every expression from all possible angles, and has transported that into the game. You'll see Cole raise his eyebrows and at a surprising revelation, and his face shows true human emotion especially at key plot points. While grilling suspects, you'll notice their reactions while you try to decipher what they've told you is true or false. Tip: if they're not making much eye contact, they're probably lying to you.

Cole, voiced (and, well, faced) by Mad Men actor Aaron Staton, is not as instantly likable as other Rockstar protagonists such as Niko Bellic, John Marston, or Tommy Vercetti, and this is probably expected as unlike the others, he's on the right side of the law. An idealistic goody-two-shoes cop sticks out like a sore thumb compared to Red Dead Redemption's outlaw Marston or Vice City's ex-con Vercetti. Over time, though, Phelps grew on me, and Staton's voice acting helped in that regard.

As with every Rockstar game, the writing and voice acting is truly a highlight. While there aren't any big names among the cast (Staton is recognizable, but only to Mad Men fans), every part is well acted. A few twists and turns are blatantly obvious (your partner on the Vice desk is on the take? Shocking!), but the storyline is intriguing, the dialogue outstanding and how each desk's seemingly individual cases end up tying together is nothing short of fascinating.

Those expecting another GTA game will actually be disappointed. I'd still classify L.A. Noire as an open-world game, but the only free-roam part has you driving around, locating real landmarks in 1940s Los Angeles, answering to street crimes that come over the police radio. Those expecting to start murdering random pedestrians and seeing how many cars they can blow up should just pop in their copy of GTA IV, as that's just not possible. You're a cop, remember?

L.A. Noire is not gaming perfection, however. For all the gushing I've done above, the action sequences peppered in generally land with a resounding meh, as it's been done before in other games and done better, especially in other Rockstar games. If the LAPD thing doesn't work out for Cole, he should consider a career as a distance runner. The guy can run for hours, that's for sure. I'm willing to let the pedestrian action scenes slide, as it's clear they're not the focus of the game. They let you skip most of them for a reason. Truth is, it's really not much of a game, but I can't really call that a knock on it when I couldn't put the controller down until the main story line was finished.

What Rockstar and primary developer Team Bondi have done with L.A. Noire is nothing short of remarkable. The landmark face capture technology has set the bar for all future games (we're looking at you, Bioware), and while those seeking Grand Theft Auto V will have to look elsewhere, those who want a fascinating story written and acted well will find what they're looking for.