Vince Keenan on L.A. NOIRE

Say this for Team Bondi, the independent Australian studio behind the new Rockstar Games release L.A. Noire: they don’t think small. Structuring their maiden launch around sophisticated motion scan technology wasn’t enough of a challenge. They had to revive a dormant form of gaming, recreate the Los Angeles of the late 1940s, delve deep into the mythos of film noir, and tell an unusually dense story as well. I’ll begin by awarding points for degree of difficulty.

In L.A. Noire (for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, played on Xbox 360) you’re Cole Phelps, a decorated veteran of the Pacific War who hires on with the LAPD and begins a rapid ascent through the department. Phelps is played by Mad Men actor Aaron Staton, and without his grounding presence the hard-charging do-gooder would be insufferable. Phelps handles 21 cases, all involving some traditional run-and-gun elements. Regular calls to respond to street crimes create more opportunities for head-busting. But the bulk of the gameplay is investigatory, putting a new gloss on the old school graphical adventure format. Phelps and a partner arrive at a crime scene and search it thoroughly, aided by music cues and controller vibrations. They chase down the resulting leads, conduct interviews, and eventually make arrests.

It’s in the interrogations that L.A. Noire breaks new ground, only to occasionally stumble over the spadework. Witnesses and suspects are portrayed by actors, many of them recognizable, filmed by multiple cameras that capture every nuance of facial expression. Their body language, as well as what they say and how they say it, factors into Phelps’ response to their testimony. The player decides if the character is telling the truth, hedging, or lying. It’s a fascinating mechanic that doesn’t entirely work, in part because of the broadness used by the actors but mainly because Phelps’ return volleys are wildly inconsistent. Maybe it’s how I was raised, but I don’t express doubt by jumping down a kindly old woman’s throat.

Still, these sequences are compelling, and I found myself working hard to choose the correct answers and have evidence to back up my assertions. Which is why it’s disappointing that as L.A. Noire progresses, it moves away from these signature moments and toward routine gameplay as it wraps up a complex storyline involving institutional corruption, the unsolved Black Dahlia case, a missing shipment of military surplus morphine, and Phelps’ own tragic past.

The narrative is clunky but ultimately coalesces into something that, if not quite moving, at least gestures at authentic human emotion. The sheer ambition of the story, woven together from familiar film noir elements and owing a monumental debt to the work of James Ellroy, generates its own momentum. The individual cases might not make it out of the writers’ room on a police procedural but they’re pleasantly knotty logic puzzles, engaging enough when you’re the one burning through shoe leather and providing a clear sense of satisfaction when you close them.

The meticulously recreated world of 1947 Los Angeles does the rest. The detail in the environments, from downtown to Hollywood, is nothing short of breathtaking. You won’t mind completing the game’s copious driving scenes given the array of period vehicles to take and landmarks to visit.

L.A. Noire doesn’t clear every high bar that it sets for itself. But it comes tantalizingly close on those it doesn’t vault over, and has the undeniable feel of a milestone. Crime fiction and film noir buffs will most definitely want to acquire a copy. Until time travel is perfected, the game is the closest you’ll get to going down Raymond Chandler’s mean streets yourself.

Vince Keenan
Mr. Vince is a renaissance man. He reads books (most without pictures!), makes cool computer games and enjoys long walks on the beach…he enjoys them even more if he is holding a cocktail in hand. For his thoughts on books, films, music, sports and more, Check out his blog.