One of the strengths of this extraordinary celebration of crime fiction in general and film noire in particular is that it rarely succumbs to parody or excess. Granted, you encounter the usual assortment of hardboiled stereotypes, including crooked businessmen, dirty cops and fading movies stars, but measured pacing, subdued dialogue, excellent voice acting and subtle art direction ensure that this third person adventure retains a certain dignity throughout.
As LAPD Detective Cole Phelps, you’re charged with investigating the criminal underworld of the 1940s. You’re a fascinating character, as dedicated as you are ambitious, as principled as you are flawed. At times, you appear to struggle with an inner conflict that borders on self loathing. Outsiders perceive you as a square jawed hero, but you’re actually much more, and indeed, much less, than that.
You spend time with various units within the LAPD, including Patrol, Traffic, Vice, Homicide and Arson. In the end it doesn’t really matter what manner of crime you set out to investigate, it almost always ends in a corpse. While L.A. Noire consists of 21 seemingly discrete cases (and scores of optional side missions), the most intriguing challenges tie into a larger conspiracy which doesn’t come to a head until the dying stages of the game. Fortunately, you don’t have to face this alone. A series of partners are on hand to assist and/or obstruct your progress to varying degrees.
Most missions begin with you scouring a crime scene for evidence. This often involves poking and prodding a dead body for signs of foul play. Is that a rope burn on the victim’s neck? Could this mark on her finger indicate that a ring has been removed? Stooping to examine the naked remains of a brutalised woman can be quite unsettling and it is treated with the gravity that it deserves. The area around the body must also be searched. Could this receipt from her purse be significant? What about this shoe print? What does this eyewitness have to say?
The odds and ends that you discover at crime scenes usually lead you to a handful of ‘persons of interest’ and it is during these exchanges that L.A. Noire really begins to shine. Thanks to groundbreaking motion capture techniques employed by developer Team Bondi, the characters of L.A. Noire are wonderfully lifelike and expressive. This enables you to closely observe every nuance of a person’s physical behaviour as you interview them. Something as simple as an unwillingness to meet your gaze can be a sign of false testimony.
If someone appears to be on the level, you can select ‘Truth’. If you have evidence that you’re being fed a line, you can call them on a ‘Lie’. This will often lead to further clues or even wind up the case. Be warned, however, wrongly accusing someone of dishonesty can damage your investigation. When you suspect someone of deceiving you, but can’t yet prove it, you can express ‘Doubt’. If you’ve read their facial cues correctly, they’ll come clean. Trying to extract the truth from drug runners, child molesters and cold blooded killers can be agonisingly difficult. These exchanges are both riveting and, at times, chilling.
Sometimes multiple suspects appear equally likely to be the culprit. Interestingly, your superiors don’t really mind who you charge, as long as the case is closed and the department receives some decent press.
While nuts and bolts police work forms the compelling core of the game, there are many other facets to L.A. Noire, some more enjoyable than others. A handful of spectacular car chases notwithstanding, the driving segments are underwhelming, with each car feeling much the same as the next. Surreptitiously tailing suspects can be quite tedious, unless, like this writer, you inexplicably lose control of your vehicle and slam into their parked car. Needless to say, this tends to alert them to your presence. If you ever tire of driving, you can always turn the wheel over to your partner.
Could L.A. Noire have been improved by ditching its open world structure? Perhaps, but the ability to drive period cars through beautifully recreated streets contributes greatly to the sense of time and place, which is so important to the overall atmosphere of the game.
Numerous sequences require you to pursue criminals on foot as they barrel through alleyways, scurry up drainpipes and leap across rooftops. At other times, you’re forced to exchange fire with heavily armed goons or bare knuckle your way to a confession. These action segments are far from intuitive and it occasionally feels as if your avatar has a mind of its own. Team Bondi may have been aware of the potential for frustration, as the difficulty level is often scaled back during these scenes to ensure that you aren’t forced to repeat them ad nauseam. You can even skip certain segments entirely if you fail them enough times.
More successful are the occasional puzzle elements. You may be called upon to reconstruct a hot water service, access a secret panel in a slot machine or even use a crane to rearrange furniture in a warehouse. While these little brain teasers provide a welcome respite from the relentlessly bleak world around you, L.A. Noire is at its best when you’re combing crime scenes, interrogating suspects and absorbing the beautifully realised cinematics. At these times, you’re struck but just how close the game has come to realising its lofty ambitions.