L.A. Noire (2011)
Okay, for those of you wondering why I am writing about a video game on a cult film blog it’s because Rock star games latest offering is as much a movie as it is a game. Sure the term ‘interactive movie’ has been thrown around for ages but never before has technology really made it possible to allow the two platforms to merge together properly. Don’t get me wrong, we are still a long way from starring in our own epic blockbusters but this game certainly takes a few steps in the right direction.
In L.A. Noire players take control of new recruit Cole Phelps, a war hero with ambition hoping to rise through the ranks of the L.A.P.D in circa 1947 Los Angeles. As the title suggests this is pure homage to film noir but is less Maltese Falcon and more L.A. Confidential. As you would expect it is at times violent and dark but it is probably best described as different. Gamers expecting a similar experience to Grand theft auto might be surprised by Rock stars change of direction.
The city of Los Angeles has been beautifully re-created and is a joy to explore from behind the wheel of your Buick squad car. Everything looks suitably authentic from the Cola billboards to the sparks from the tram wires overhead. Period music plays in the background and is one of the best game soundtracks that I have heard in ages. The vehicles handle like you would expect them to, heavy and somewhat unresponsive. Speed around corners and the suspension wheezes under the pressure whilst the brakes squeak the car to an eventual halt. The roads are filled with these beautiful post-war gas guzzling behemoths and the general public go about their day to day lives around you. From a technical point of view everything is pretty solid with minor flaws only occurring on rare occasions. The real star here though is the games pioneering ‘motion-scan’ technology. An entire cast of quality actors has had their facial features and actions scanned and mapped out to replicate almost photo realistic character models. Throughout the story every subtle nod of the head or nervous blink is noticeable and since the games fundamental mechanics rely on it I am happy to say that Rock star have yet again set another bench mark that other developers will struggle to follow. As you would expect from a detective story a lot of the game play involves interrogating witnesses and suspects. This is where the motion-scan becomes important as Cole has to rely on your powers of intuition to make the right decisions. Fail to pick up on the characters eyes twitching whenever they lie and you will miss vital information. Go in too hard and they will clam up completely. In an early mission I had to talk to a witness about a shooting. On my first attempt I was too rough with my accusations and found myself driving across town following up another lead. Playing through the scene again I altered my approach and got the arrest quicker. These lengthy scenes are what give L.A. Noire its cinematic edge and help merge game and film as one. It fairly basic and at times drawn out but it’s an original approach that generally works quite well. I did find that more often than not I was relying on luck rather than perception and sadly you can’t adjust the outcome of the story with your decision making either. Whatever option you choose the suspect will only be arrested if the pre-determined story allows it.
Another aspect of playing a detective is your skills at observing a crime scene. Right through ‘Noire Cole will have to survey the landscape and find evidence. Being the forties forensic science is still in its infancy so you have to do it the hard way. The game requires you to find the ‘rumble point’ on the controller when Cole is positioned over a point of interest. In most cases this might only turn out to be a beer can or cigarette packet but finding key evidence is vital for convicting a prime suspect. You will also find newspapers that will provide important character back stories. The system is simple and works well. I found a real sense of achievement and genuine intrigue when building a case against a felon and missing an important item had an impact on the questions I could ask during interviews.
Aside from scouring crime scenes and interrogations Grand theft auto fans will know exactly what to expect from getting around. The city is free to roam if you choose to deviate from the main story. Famous L.A. locations can be discovered as well as hidden vehicles. There are also a number of side missions that are activated randomly via the radio dispatcher. There is something very cool about flaring up the sirens and tearing across crowded intersections on the way to an emergency. It’s just a shame that there isn’t more variety in these sub plots. After the first five or so and you will know exactly what to expect for the remainder of the game. Of course being a cop also means you can’t go on a rampage shooting pedestrians willy nilly. In fact you can’t even draw your fire arm unless you are threatened by a criminal. Also, the games controls are overly simplified which I found a little disappointing. You don’t have a jump or action button and most of the characters movements can be achieved by simply pointing Cole at the obstacle you need to ascend. All of this makes the game feel a lot more linear than is usual for a Rock star game. This might not bode well with some players considering that over the year’s games have become much more open allowing the gamer to shape their own experience. Given the quality of their previous efforts I suspect that Rock star have introduced these limits deliberately. Maybe they felt the game needed a more defined narrative to compliment the film noir aspect or maybe they were just reaching the boundaries of current technology?
So is L.A. Noire a successful blend of classic cinematic story telling and cutting edge gaming? Well I think that Rock star have achieved a fantastic land mark in the way we will play games in the future. Whilst its reserved pace and original approach might not appeal to everyone it is never the less an exciting view of what is to come. Some of what we see on offer has been done before with more flare and panache but it’s the interactive elements and improvements in motion technology that are the most notable. I suspect that in the near future we will see download packs that will expand the package even further but I doubt we will see fully interactive entertainment in our living rooms just yet.