Version tested: PlayStation 3
The detective thriller isn't new to video games. It was often spoofed or pastiched in the PC adventure games of the nineties, and it's recently been revived in a spate of 'visual novels' and casual puzzle games.
But there's never been such a high-profile attempt to bring this popular form of fiction to the video gaming mainstream as L.A. Noire. Rockstar's latest - produced by Australian studio Team Bondi - is pure police procedural. Cinematic production values, elaborate animation techniques and acting talent by the hundredweight have been brought to bear on the dogged business of collecting evidence, interrogating suspects and unravelling plots.
L.A. Noire's writer-director, Brendan McNamara, was one of the first to follow Rockstar North's trailblazing Grand Theft Auto III with his 2002 crime caper for Sony, The Getaway. Now under his inspiration's wing, he's succeeded in creating one of the more distinctive variations on the evergreen GTAIII template. L.A. Noire resembles a cross between GTA, Ace Attorney and Heavy Rain - and it's almost as interesting as that makes it sound.
If the mention of David Cage's psychological thriller makes you think of the term 'interactive movie', you wouldn't be far wrong. But it might be more accurate to describe L.A. Noire as an interactive DVD box set. It's largely linear, but long and very episodic. You play as straight-arrow LAPD detective Cole Phelps (Mad Men's Aaron Staton), cracking 21 cases in succession, most lasting 40 minutes to an hour.
There are connections between the cases, but these, the overarching storyline and Phelps' character only come into focus slowly - very, very slowly. You're into the game's second half before it really starts to come together.
At least you can enjoy the ambiance along the way. One of Rockstar's greatest talents is for transposing iconic slices of pop culture - Miami Vice, Spaghetti Westerns or the gangster rap myth - into games with perfect tone and timing and an uncanny sense of cool. In L.A. Noire, it has performed its most surgical transplant yet.
While its roots are in forties film noir and the cynical mysteries of crime writers like Raymond Chandler, the 1947 Los Angeles of the game's setting is unmistakably the one described (in a staccato stream of expletives) by a more modern but no less hard-boiled author, James Ellroy. You'll recognise it from the film of one of his most famous books, L.A. Confidential: a city whose seedy glamour is built on a tar pit of inequality, brutality, conspiracy and corruption. A city haunted by serial murders, where vice and show business walk hand-in-hand.
As a work of world-building, L.A. Noire is sensational. Rockstar has nailed L.A.'s infinite sprawl and sulphurous, smoggy vibe before, in GTA: San Andreas and the last Midnight Club. But it's the fastidious period detail that really impresses this time, and you have plenty of time to drink this in during the game's languid investigation sections.
The rich atmosphere owes much to the music, too. Andrew Hale's excellent score blends L.A. Confidential's signature muted brass with the ominous swells of Bernard Herrmann's classic Taxi Driver soundtrack, and hustles chase scenes along with urgent jazz.
McNamara's script is also at its best establishing context, painting a picture of L.A. at a fascinating and dangerous crossroads. The city is an uneasy mix of racial tension and the suppressed trauma of a violent war, of drugs and alcoholism and misogyny, all of it about to be smothered under that superstructure of giant freeways. Anarchic bebop clashes with smooth swing on the radio; even the music seems to be spiralling out of control.
Yes, this is a serious piece of work, and it's desperate to be taken seriously. Rockstar's usual irreverence is nowhere to be seen or heard; Team Bondi plays it dead straight. That's quite a gamble for a video game, but L.A. Noire has the substance to pull it off - just.
A series of tutorial cases, introducing Phelps in a beat cop's uniform, walks you through the various gameplay styles. These are crime scene investigation, driving around the open street map, gun battles, chasing down suspects on foot, and the game's party piece: interrogation.
As an action game, L.A. Noire is enjoyable, if unremarkable. Driving around in the immaculate period vehicles doesn't do much to hold the interest (fortunately, you can ask your partner to drive for a quick teleport) - but the handling has just enough going on to make the occasional car chases exciting. Gunplay takes the form of a bog-standard cover shooter, with some awkward controls excused away by a Call of Duty-style snap-aim.
The foot-chases are more memorable and fun. They recreate a typical cop-show scene you don't often see in games, and they do it well, with Phelps' slick athleticism giving Drake, Croft and the Prince a run for their money. You can enjoy all of these elements in the 40 bite-size street crime scenarios that get called in as you drive around working cases (they can also be accessed in a free-roam mode).
Street crimes are side-quest chaff, though, the main event being the story cases, which sprinkle action scenes through a heavy diet of investigation and questioning. This side of L.A. Noire is more original, more compelling - and like most ambitious ideas, more problematic, too.
In essence, it's the same formula seen in Phoenix Wright and the rest of the wonderful Ace Attorney series, just in a very different medium. You hunt for clues in crime scenes and other places of interest; you interview witnesses and suspects; and then you use the evidence you've collected to expose lies under interrogation. It's tightly tied to narrative; whilst you usually have two or three avenues open to you, you can't really progress until you've reached the conclusion the plot requires.
But where Ace Attorney carries you through on winning characterisation and a swift interface, L.A. Noire's realistic, low-key style gives this process a very different pace and flavour. To begin with, it's disconcertingly slow, but you soon relax into and start to enjoy its steady, methodical tempo.
It can be clunky, though. Combing the obsessively detailed environments for clues is potentially a needle-in-a-haystack affair, so they're telegraphed with pad rumble and an audio chime when you walk by (masochists can disable this). It can be laborious. For the most part, the scenes are so well set that exploring them holds the attention, even if it doesn't engage the brain.
In questioning, Team Bondi takes us into new territory with its use of extraordinary facial performance capture. This results in spooky facial animation which really does make it possible for actors to communicate more of their performances, using eyes, tics and expressions. It's electrifying at best, a bit hammy at worst, but always an exciting novelty to watch. (It's a shame that the body performances, captured separately, are often puppet-like mugging that belongs on the opposite slope of the uncanny valley.)
The idea is that the actors' performances will tell you when a suspect is lying (or not telling the whole truth) and prompt you to push harder with a 'doubt' option, when you can't actually disprove a lie with evidence. In terms of raising the tension and your attentiveness during key scenes, it works brilliantly, helped by some subtle audio cues.
Sadly, the script's dedication to realistic characterisation and dialogue often plunges these interrogations into grey areas where the correct responses are poorly defined and hard to suss out, irrespective of the suspect's nervous shifting. And while failed action scenes can be replayed, interrogations can't without starting the entire case again. You can use 'intuition' points, earned as you rank up, to eliminate options if you're stuck - but you will get questions wrong regardless.
So the plot has a habit of progressing to its conclusion regardless of how well or badly you perform. L.A. Noire's game world may be impressively open, but you consistently hit the narrative equivalent of invisible walls. It's initially disappointing to realise how prescribed its corridor of story is, how carefully led by the hand you are, and how little you can affect events.
The gameplay is not a question of success or failure, then, but of the quality of your police work (graded by a star rating for each case). In fact, this is a powerful motivator on its own, and slam-dunking a key interrogation is quite the thrill. But if you're the sort of gamer who has to get everything right, it could be torture. You can replay earlier cases to try to improve your rating and see different results, but this is a painfully slow process with many unskippable scenes. It's yet to tempt me.
If you're willing to take the rough with the smooth and submit to the story, L.A. Noire will pay you back in spades - but you'll need patience, too. McNamara is better at the big picture than he is at day-to-day characterisation and plotting, which can be workmanlike. Early cases are unremarkable in themselves, and Phelps starts out as a priggish stuffed shirt surrounded by clichés. The sinister Irish captain, the boorish alcoholic old-timer, the slick vice operator - they're all here.
After a good few hours, however, you begin to join the dots. Cases run into each other and subplots (about a shady psychiatrist, a torch singer and Phelps' wartime service) gain traction; a big, complex fiction develops its own momentum and drags you along with it, bringing the characters to life as well. You don't often find storytelling this involved in games outside of RPG epics, but it's a shame it doesn't draw you in sooner.
L.A. Noire is slow but quietly engrossing; its mechanics are suspect, but you can't fault the ambition, attention to detail and commitment that went into its making. It risks stumbling over its own earnestness at times, but it's saved by its star - and I don't mean Staton, who does his best with a dry character.
That star is Los Angeles: as bizarre, threatening and fascinating in this virtual 1947 as it is in the real world today. L.A. Noire may owe its vision of the city to Ellroy and others, but as a game, it can depict it in a way those others can't. McNamara, Team Bondi and Rockstar have taken that responsibility seriously, convincingly peeling away the layers of a sick society over the game's length. That - not the curse words or the grim subject matter or the naked corpses - is what makes L.A. Noire a genuinely mature game.
8 / 10