Perfecting a formula requires intelligence. Consistently reinventing that formula with each new endeavour requires either boldness or stupidity, yet the teams at Rockstar Games have shown again and again an aptitude for the former. While most of their offerings on the current generation of gaming systems have been what would be considered ‘open world’ games, each game has taken the foundation of open world gameplay and reworked the familiar elements in ways that give players new and immersive experiences, and L.A. Noire is no exception.
Trading the urban claustrophobia of Grand Theft Auto and the sun-bleached mesas of Red Dead Redemption for the sprawling streets of 1947 Los Angeles, L.A. Noire takes everything gamers expect from a Rockstar game and…disposes of it. Protagonist Cole Phelps is not the brooding anti-hero gamers might expect, he’s a cop, a by the book cop. He’s not without his secrets, but he’s not the sort of revenge-fueled loner one would expect to find in a game like this. He’s a man trying to do good, as he makes his way through the traffic, homicide, vice and arson desks of the L.A. Police Department, a fact that impacts the gameplay as much of the story.
Where Grand Theft Auto delighted in causing anarchy and Red Dead Redemption gave players a moral choice, L.A. Noire plays it straight. Despite controls that will feel familiar to many Rockstar fans, players will find zero opportunities to cause chaos: you’re a cop, you don’t even draw a gun unless you have to. Instead, players will likely be surprised to find L.A. Noire is a puzzle game as much as anything else. While optional, action oriented cases may come through on the radio leading to a car chase or shootout, the bulk of the game involves traveling to locations and searching for evidence, piecing together events before confronting a suspect or witness in an interview.
The act of interviewing is where the game directs the bulk of its energies, and it shows at every moment. The player is expected to look at a suspect and deduce if they are being dishonest or lying outright by watching for things like facial tics and darting eyes, breathtakingly captured by the game’s marquee feature, MotionScan technology. Every lip quiver, eyebrow furrow, sneer and sideways glance is beautifully captured in-game, leaving the player a list of questions to consult, and the decision to trust, doubt or accuse the suspect of lying. Musical cues let the player know if they made the right call, but these can be turned off for gamers wanting more of a challenge. If the player isn’t sure, they can use one of five ‘Intuition Points’, which will either eliminate a wrong choice, or show all clues on a map, depending on the situation.
While the game does so many things well, I still found myself asking if I was actually having fun? L.A. Noire is undoubtedly an exceptional piece of interactive art, there really isn’t anything like it. But is it fun? I don’t think it is. At least, not fun in the way most gamers are accustomed to. L.A. Noire is not about action. It’s not about getting that next big gun, or fighting the endboss, or leveling up. It’s a game of moments. And while standing over the naked body of a murdered woman, delicately holding her head in my hands as I looked for signs of trauma would not be anyone’s idea of fun, it was one of the most affecting moments I’ve experienced in a long time, and both Rockstar and developer Team Bondi are to be commended for taking such a gamble. While it may not be to everyone’s liking, it’s the sort of game that should be played by everyone, to experience what happens when games make that controversial leap into the realm of art.