Movies and video games. These two entertainment genres sure have a lot more in common now than they did in the Pac-Man days. And it's not just the console crowd that's changed. While games have become more cinematic by leaps and bounds, many movies have traded story for over-the-top CGI action. And with a game like RockStar's L.A. Noire, the two mediums have moved so close together that the gap between them is about the same distance as a rooftop leap in a 1940s night-shrouded detective flick.
RockStar Games is, of course, already well known in the gaming world for having created the crude and violent Grand Theft Auto franchise. But don't be deceived into thinking Noire is just GTA with classic cars and spiffy fedoras. Yes, it has its own share of stumbles, but this is a game with something fresh tucked in its front vest pocket.
The Angel-Free City
The setting is Los Angeles circa 1945. As the decorated World War II Marines veteran Cole Phelps, players serve the city with a dedicated, straight-arrow resolve. Starting him off as a street cop, the game offers Cole plenty of time to work his way up through the ranks of the traffic, homicide, vice and arson squads, with plenty of cityscape to do it in. And what a city it is.
The art direction is creatively absorbing, to say the least, with spot-on period renditions of L.A. locales, landmarks, costumes and cars. And as Cole cruises down Hollywood Boulevard or pursues criminals into the historic Egyptian Theatre, his actions are underscored with an authentic film noir orchestration. There is truly an impressive sense of crime movie veracity on the faces and in the virtual air of L.A. Noire.
The objective is simple: Clear the case at hand. That involves investigations, gun fights, car chases and even an occasional brawl. Each new chapter flashes its title up on the screen like a serial mystery playing down at the local 25 cent double feature cinema. The case of "A Marriage Made in Heaven," the case of "The Golden Butterfly," the case of "The Black Caesar"—there are more than 20 hardboiled crime stories that play out with as much pulp fiction flare as their titles suggest.
Other overworked cops and jaded detectives might just give a weary shrug to that pulpy mix, but you and Cole Phelps won't let up till the job is done. A crime scene might look like yet another hit-and-run to your average passersby, but with some digging it could pan out to be a plot to get a quick divorce and a fistful of insurance money.
A Lift of an Eyebrow
That digging equals scanning a crime scene for tiny clues—such as pictures in a wallet, bills of sale in a coat pocket, a used bus ticket in a dresser drawer—and then taking that list of bits and pieces into interviews with witnesses and suspects. And here's where L.A. Noire really shines with a brand-new technology:
The game developers created a new gamemaking process called MotionScan that precisely records each of the story's actors as they perform their scripted lines. Their expressions are minutely captured via 32 $6,000 HD cameras set up around them in a 360-degree arrangement. The result is an astonishing realism in the animation that's never been incorporated in a video game before.
You can see the lie run across a sultry femme fatale's face as she fishes for her alibi. Or quickly spot that lantern-chinned thug's jaw-clenched determination to take a swing at you seconds before he does so. Each cool-cucumber mannerism and tough-cookie flinch and quirk is spelled out onscreen.
"If you are going to make a game about a detective, and the main mechanic is going to be asking questions and being able to tell whether they are being truthful or not, you need to make sure that you are getting strong performances," Rob Nelson, art director for RoskStar Games told USA Today. "This was a technology that was developed for the sole purpose of making games better and with this game in mind."
Those strong performances are present here. As Nelson says, they have to be. Because as Cole you must choose whether the mug you're interrogating is telling the truth, lying or at least in doubt. If you can back your instincts up with the clues you've found, you can piece together the crime-solving solution. And after a few cases you start to see threads that begin to weave together and lead to the possibility of mass murder and a power-grabbing scheme that goes all the way up to the top.
A Rank Scent in the Air
L.A. Noire is hardly all beauty and no beast, though. Several murders involve fully naked, bloodied female corpses that can be examined up close for clues. Bodies sport grimly realistic evidence of torture, massive brutality and drug overdose. Cases cover everything from child molestation and statutory rape to race-based murder to mob killings to prostitution to misogyny to a guy kissing a corpse. Sometimes we witness a killing, complete with battered flesh and spurting arteries. And even when you try to chase down, capture and bring a criminal to trial, some baddies are destined to have their brains splattered by your gunfire, no matter what you might do to avoid it.
Additionally, though not constant, dialogue can be extremely raw, incorporating scores of f-words along with numerous other profanities and racial slurs.
What do all of those bloodstained clues lead me to conclude? That while you can opt for a crisp black-and-white view option giving this title an even stronger sense of film noir panache, there's no one-button setting designed to prevent you from heading down dark alleys and falling face-first into the rancid, seamier side of a noire L.A.