When I was a kid one of the staples of television were reruns of the second series (1967-1970) of Dragnet. The show (for the few of you living under rocks, or not otherwise familiar) featured the gravel-voiced Jack Webb as Friday, the sallow-faced Harry Morgan as his partner, Gannon, and “The City of the Angels, Los Angeles California”. The show would open with a slow tracking shot across the horizon, filled with buildings, lights and a touch of smog. “This is The City,” Webb would intone in his inimitable style. As a kid, I honestly believed California was like that, filled with Technicolor and lurid orchestral music. But then I grew up and realized it was really full of mudslides, wildfires, earthquakes and riots. Joe Friday would have a hard time there, even with Gannon at his side. What I didn’t realize is that a considerable chunk of my childhood had drifted off into that imaginary L.A., as the show had either been watched or provided a mental wallpaper to that time in my life.
That is, I didn’t realize until L.A. Noire came along. From the get-go the game looked fascinating, with its facial-tracking technology and wealth of actors involved — but something else fascinated me, something suggested in the snippets of screenshots that I couldn’t put my finger on. Sure, I have always been a fan of the 30s and 40s, particularly in the Art Deco movement prominent then — but still, there was a dimension that seemed oddly familiar, yet still detached from my experience. It wasn’t until I made Homicide and me and my partner “Rusty” (I will not spoiler his real name here) Galloway were questioning some schmuck about killing his wife that it hit me — I’m fucking Jack Webb.
Not literally, of course (the man’s dead after all — let him rest in peace), but you know what I mean. That whole vibe, that dimension of “This is The City” hit me hard. And I loved it.
L.A. Noire is far from being another GTA, although a number similarities exist — from all the driving (and there’s a lot of driving, unless you manage to convince your partner to take the wheel) and map management to firefights under cover. Beyond these, however, Noire breaks its own ground. As heavily advertised, the cornerstone of the game was its use of MotionScan, a technology developed by Depth Analysis to render the entire performances of actors rather than simply use their voices. Its use in-game is to help separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were, when it comes to obtaining information from P.O.I.s (Persons of Interest). This makes for a lot of fun (or frustration), since interviews with P.O.I.s usually serve to direct the progress of each case. The player (as Detective Cole Phelps, digitally portrayed by Aaron Stanton, above) is given a series of questions in his notebook, which are put to the P.O.I.s. Their answers are to be interpreted as either Truth, Doubt or Lie. Generally speaking, Truth is just that, an honest answer (one that seems genuine and in accordance with the character in question), Doubt is an answer that seems unlikely or is evidently so, and Lie — unlike Doubt — is not only unlikely, but can be proven with evidence culled from the scene of the crime, or elsewhere. Often successful interviews (ones where each question has been interpreted correctly, and given a checkmark in your notebook) lead to a more concise path to the end of the case, instead of having to spend time at more locations, and interviewing more P.O.I.s (and more driving). Successfully solved cases lead to promotions, different cases (Phelps starts as a beat cop, and then is promoted to Traffic Detective, and from there goes to Homicide, Vice and Arson), and different partners, as well. My fave is the aforementioned Galloway, who drinks almost constantly, and prides himself on his lack of complication. He’s a self-aware stereotype, and one of many excellent characters in the game.
I could go on about the amazing look of L.A. Noire, the wonderful score, and the astounding amount of detail given to the massive recreation of Los Angeles, not to mention the smoothly interwoven stories (even supporting characters from other cases reappear from time to time) and signature Rockstar black humor, but the game isn’t perfect by any means. Often the MotionScanned heads of the characters don’t quite match their bodies, with a bit of a “bobble-head” effect, and the “street crime” missions outside casework are repetitive (most consist of different combinations of foot chase/shootout/car chase). While the overall storylines are wonderfully mixed, the dramatic arc of the main storyline is actually disserviced by the pacing created by the game’s structure, and could have used considerable beefing up in parts, but probably would’ve required a lot more gameplay to support them. Maybe upcoming DLCs could provide this, I don’t know.
The bottom line with L.A. Noire is that it took what could’ve easily been a “gimmick game” and created a remarkable new style of entertainment. As many other reviews have said, it is the closest thing to actually being in one of the noir films of the ’40s and ’50s (there’s even an option to play the game in black & white!). Major kudos to Team Bondi for their considerable achievement with the game, and to Rockstar for not only gambling on new technology, but a drastic departure from their usual fare.