If nothing else, LA Noire is a tribute to the power of production values. There’s that sprawling set, for a start: a recreation of ’40s LA that – despite a half-hearted sprinkling of collectibles – functions merely as the backdrop for its brooding tales of post-war moral corruption. Then there’s the painstakingly detailed props, which range from the incidental and world building – contemporary car models, authentic storefronts, a full range of ’40s fashions – to the utterly central: the telltale lawyer’s letters, train tickets and bloodstained knives that you, Detective Cole Phelps, will rifle through. And then there are the faces.
It’s impossible to overstate just how crucial the Motion Scan technology is to the success of LA Noire. The interrogation scenes may turn every tic, twitch and flicker of the eyes into something to be deciphered, but even if the game’s astonishing facial animation was a mere cosmetic enhancement, its inclusion would be justified. Hints of the uncanny valley remain, of course. Hair is worn up or cut short in LA Noire, to minimise the disjoint between its static nature and that of the features below. As detailed as the faces are, you won’t mistake them for the real thing up close, but what matters is that they’re equally expressive, and it’s this that allows the subtleties of a performance to emerge. It would be unfair to say Nathan Drake has lost his charm, but suddenly he looks a lot more cartoonish.
Every case begins with a crime scene, and investigating these burglarised houses, abandoned vehicles and discarded corpses is easy enough. The boundary defining where clues can be found is marked aurally – by moody jazz that plays while you’re on the scene. Walk past an item that can be investigated and you’ll hear a two-note tinkle accompanied by a controller vibration. While this aid can be turned off, it’s hard to tell interactive objects from static scenery without it, and it draws your attention to red herrings, too. We switched off the instrumental flourish and ensuing silence that lets you know you’ve ‘completed’ a crime scene, however: a feature which helps avoid endless searching, but also undercuts the tension of building a case. While some clues require the solving of a simple puzzle – assembling a water heater to work out the shape of a missing pipe, for instance – for the most part clue-gathering is a methodical process – the challenge comes not from finding evidence, but knowing when to deploy it.
At its core, LA Noire’s interview mechanic is pure Phoenix Wright – you listen to witness testimony, presenting contradictory evidence when you suspect a lie. It’s complicated by two factors, however – the presence of a ‘doubt’ option alongside believing or accusing them, and your interviewees’ faces.
The doubt option – which causes Phelps to push his interlocutor a little harder – calls even pieces of testimony that don’t contradict your evidence into question. Judging whether or not a statement can be trusted requires you to scrutinise a suspect’s expression – are they looking shifty? Biting their lip? Avoiding your gaze? If so, you can try to drag the truth out of them. Trust a faulty statement and you’ll miss out on the full story; accuse a sincere witness of holding back and they’ll clam up angrily.
It’s not an entirely logical system. You’d think, for instance, that well-meaning witnesses would give you more than one chance to get the truth, though this limitation is essential for generating tension during the more fraught head-to-heads, and on more than one occasion we found ourselves absolutely certain that our suspect was lying – but not sure which incriminating piece of evidence the game wanted us to use to prove it.
Nonetheless, Motion Scan takes what could have been a mere fact-checking exercise and imbues it with a beguilingly human element. Early witnesses ham it up for the camera, with the kind of overt shiftiness you’d expect from a child telling their first lie. As the game continues, however, expressions become more subtle
– suspects giving themselves away with nothing more than a tightening of the lips. And, of course, there are times you’ll be confronted with an excellent liar you’ll need a little assistance to outwit (see ‘On a hunch’).
Interrogation and investigation are the heart of the game, but by no means all of it. Tying together the game’s detective work is a host of action beats – car chases, shootouts, chases on foot, fistfights – which are woven directly into Phelps’ cases as well as the optional (and brief) street crime missions. They don’t always thrill mechanically. After the Euphoria-powered shootouts of Red Dead Redemption, Team Bondi’s clunkier cover-based gunplay can feel a little flat. And while the in-car action fares better, vehicle handling is simplified to the point of feeling over-twitchy. Nonetheless, this mostly seamless genre blend ensures that almost every case is well-paced, and in turn, this pacing benefits the action itself – LA Noire may not have the best shooting, driving or brawling around, but at least these most familiar of actions for once have dramatic weight.
Indeed, drama is something at which the game excels. In comparison to, say, Heavy Rain, which aimed for emotional maturity but descended into melodramatic hokum, LA Noire has no desire to be anything other than pure pulp fiction, yet it achieves moments of more genuine poignancy on the way. In a game preoccupied with lurid murder and outlandish conspiracy, watching grief overwhelm the hitherto stoic features of a bereaved lover can be unexpectedly affecting. A high-quality script – with an excellent ear for police patter and ’40s slang – does some of the work, but much credit must go to the actors. Aaron Staten gives a solid central performance as the likable Phelps, but it’s the supporting cast that stands out. Andrew Connolly’s charismatic, fire-breathing turn as the captain of the homicide desk dominates any scene he’s in, while a host of cameos from recognisable faces from the past decade of US TV ensures that even the bit-parts are of a generally high-calibre. In any other game, an engaging script and convincing performances would be merely cosmetic, but here they’re essential. The interrogations and interviews blur the line between cutscene and gameplay more than any QTE could ever hope to, and ensure that these at turns convincing, disturbing and stirring performances aren’t just there to be watched, but actively engaged with.
Compounding the sense that this is a game in thrall to television as much as cinema is the episodic structure. Phelps works four ‘desks’ over the course of the game, each built from a series of cases roughly an hour long, and relatively self-contained. It’s a structure that deftly avoids the videogame pitfall of the bloated second act, ensuring that, around the point most videogame stories would be pointlessly padding themselves out, LA Noire is handing Phelps new partners, taking him to fresh parts of LA, and poking around in previously unseen parts of the city’s underbelly. Still, there are some drawbacks to this approach. Many cases are overly similar in setup and structure, and the script’s awareness of this (copycat crimes, the work of one person or coincidences?) only goes so far towards mitigating the sense of repetition.
At times, it’s hard to tell how much influence you really have over LA Noire – its cases accommodate your actions rather than allow themselves to be influenced by them. Mess up the questioning of a witness and nearby clues will point you in the right direction, for instance, and if they don’t you’ll simply have to chase a few more dead ends than if you’d extracted the correct lead. Of course, the game is happy to hand you control at the very end of a case – letting you decide, when applicable, which of your suspects you’d like to charge. These dilemmas can be near impossible to resolve – and missed clues or failed interrogations will niggle more than a poor rating on your post-case report card ever will. Indeed, there are occasions when you may find yourself lacking faith in either of the cases you’ve built, and resenting the enforced decision – though whether this is an accurate reflection of the moral compromises involved in police work or a design pitfall is hard to tell.
Nonetheless, LA Noire is a success story. Over its 20-hour-plus length, it cuts a cross-section through the moral, social and geographical landscape of a city that carefully treads the line between a plausible ’40s LA and the morally bankrupt City of Angels found in hardboiled fiction. The characters populating this stage and the stories they tell aren’t always affecting, but they are uniquely convincing. And the competent (if creaky) action mechanics make LA Noire a rare thing – an adventure title with the capacity to thrill, and an action game that sees the virtue in holstering its gun. With the exception of its facial capture, there’s no single aspect of Team Bondi’s title that hasn’t been done better elsewhere, but few developers have brought such a diffuse set of genres together so atmospherically, stylishly or cohesively.