Although Rockstar/Team Bondi's LA Noire is not the first game to tap into the dark, moody, and morally ambiguous vibe of classics such as “The Big Sleep” or “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” it is by far the most thoroughly successful at capturing the genre's combination of seediness, mystery, and tension. LA Noire is not a perfect game, but like Red Dead Redemption before it, the game creates a new standard for characterization and storytelling in an interactive medium.
Noir was a genre of fiction and film that turned American post-WW2 ebullience on its head and examined the dark underbelly of a society that was growing morally suspect, where economic growth was unchecked, and where the twin tendrils of corruption and vice had invaded every strata of society. LA Noire captures this bleak, weary world perfectly. Its characters are haunted and often hopeless.
You play Cole Phelps, a seemingly heroic veteran who rises through the ranks of the LAPD, in part to bring justice to an unraveling city, as well as put to rest ghosts of a recent past. Starting as a patrolman, you work your way through the Traffic, Vice, Homicide, and Arson desks, solving cases that reveal a growing conspiracy and sense of underlying evil. Like all great noir, Cole's existential dread and sense of futility build and begin to challenge and overtake his good intentions.
Throughout the 20 or so hours of gameplay, the template remains consistent. The main story is told through a series of cases which you, and a variety of partners and colleagues, must investigate. Gather crime scene evidence, interview suspects and witnesses, solve the case, and move forward. Now and then you may elect to answer a radio call and interrupt the story by taking on a side mission before returning to the main plot.
Thanks to a breakthrough facial animation system, stellar voice acting, and nop-notch writing, the suspect and witness interviews are always interesting and engaging. Subtle and realistic, 'reading faces' is not only possible, it is an important gameplay element. Are the witnesses lying or coming clean? Are they withholding evidence? Your careful crime scene investigations and skillful interrogations are rewarded by points that you can spend on unlockable items and use to give yourself an edge in further cases.
Like a novel or film whose outcome remains the same whether you skip sections or miss some important detail, the plot and outcome of LA Noire remain largely unaffected by your choices in the game. This disappointing lack of real impact on the world—as well as the pixel-hunt nature of the crime scene investigations—is one of the game's major flaws. Whether you're a brilliant investigator or bumbling oaf, the story unfolds in much the same way. Knowing this, the repetitive nature of the investigations can make them feel tedious and superfluous, a sort of impediment to the story instead of a driving force behind it. Like Red Dead Redemption, the artists, animators, writers and actors do a brilliant job of bringing a specific time and place to life. Unlike Red Dead, though, the gameplay and gunplay are not as engaging as the environments in which they take place.
Speaking of driving, vehicles in LA Noire are loose, floaty, and unnatural, and I found myself fast-traveling whenever possible. It's unfortunate, because 1947 Los Angeles is rendered with uncompromising attention to detail. As a native Los Angelino, I recognized famous landmarks and wished I had known the city in those bygone days. But like a beautifully painted flat, it's just all a backdrop, with no real interactivity beyond the scripted missions. It's too bad; this would have been a great place to explore freely, a la GTA. Voice talent in LA Noire is Hollywood quality and the music is standalone soundtrack-worthy, a sultry and evocative score mixing moody jazz with tense orchestral set pieces.
Noir is not an easy genre in which to work. Its darkness and moody tension can grow dull and tedious and its lack of a strong moral center can create a feeling of bleak hopelessness. LA Noire boasts a genuinely cinematic story and characters, groundbreaking new standards of animation and characterization, and an aesthetic that drips with authenticity. Though its gameplay is less successful or interesting than its presentation, LA Noire definitely advances the art of digital storytelling.
An accomplished detective, or lucky ducky: Which are you? What's the next time period or theme you'd like Rockstar to explore? Let us know on Twitter @gamers_hell