L.A. Noire, Rockstar's gritty detective thriller set in a meticulously detailed Los Angeles circa 1940s, takes some great strides toward pushing gaming in a fresh, more cinematic direction with its flashy, well-implemented facial expression technology but backpedals on minor flaws of stale gameplay and a plot that rocks back and forth between boring and gripping as much as one of the crazed suspects you scrape off L.A.'s seedy streets.
Noire promises a scintillating story that has all the headline grabbers: war, drugs, sex, corruption and most prominently—murder. As Cole Phelps, a World War II hero turned detective, you begin your work on various murder cases on the traffic desk, the first of three other police beats: Homicide, Vice and Arson. Then, the plot thickens—at the speed of molasses. The slow-paced narrative doesn’t seem to pick up until midway through Homicide, and until then, Phelps slogs through a slew of cases that have plentiful characters, who are largely forgettable, save for the main cast of characters who overlap various cases. Because of this, some cases border on impersonal, which isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it certainly makes the game less interesting and engaging to the player. Conversely, the cases where bits of the overarching story begin to converge are engrossing (If Phoenix Wright cases are your detective videogame cocaine, you'll definitely get your fix).
As the story shifts between investigations, interrogations and action-oriented scenarios. In investigations, you survey the crime scene for clues and gather information from witnesses and fellow officers. A helpful chime plays when you walk by an object you can investigate, and you can then pick items up and examine them in closer detail. If the clue is relevant to the case, it merits an entry in Phelps' notebook, which serves as a running list of evidence, people and locations to travel to. Among the crime scene evidence, unrelated objects like cigarette cartons litter the crime scene. You can investigate these, but nothing is entered into the notebook and Phelps will often clue the player in by declaring it circumstantial. Phelps also has a partner who will help guide him around the crime scenes. The investigations have a nice balance of nudging the player in the right direction, but not holding their hand—keeping frustrations down and your inner Sherlock Holmes happy.
Noire's narrative also takes some very nonsensical turns: Phelps’ family life, which isn't even mentioned in any kind of detail other than they exist, is suddenly brought into play later in the game just to jerk him from one desk to another; for no apparent reason, you don’t even end up playing as the protagonist in your final hours. Gameplay can quickly get stale as it cycles through varying sets of gunfights and chase sequences on car and foot that harken back to mechanics from Rockstar's older titles. For newcomers or those who have trouble with these, Rockstar mercifully added an option where if you fail an event three times in a row you can bypass it and skip to the next cut scene—all without affecting the cases outcome or penalizing the player.
Rockstar's MotionCapture technology, a camera system that captures actors' and actresses' facial expressions for use in-game, is the crux of the interrogation system, where reading body language is key to uncovering clues and solving crimes. Based on evidence Phelps has gathered and the testifying NPC's body language, you can call their allegations out as Truth, Doubt or Lie. A wrong answer can push the investigation off track, and correct answers will prompt the NPC to spill more information and spur the case forward. A flicker of the eyes, a fidgety shoulder shrug paired with a wavering voice or steely glare complete with a stiff lip—these tipoffs and tells strike a good balance of making you guess at times, but still being readable.
This facial expression technology was the star in this old-time melodrama. executed extremely well and lends a movie-like quality to nearly every aspect of the game. Most notably, NPCs no longer vapidly stare back at you or react with awkwardly animated facial expressions. When you stare into L.A. Noire's painstakingly recreated world, something very human stares back.
This technology is what makes L.A. Noire's interrogation system, where reading body language is key to uncovering clues and solving crimes, successful. Based on evidence Phelps has gathered and the testifying NPC's body language, the player can call the testimony out as Truth, Doubt or Lie. A wrong answer can push the investigation off track, and correct answers will prompt the NPC to spill more information and spur the case forward. A flicker of the eyes, a fidgety shoulder shrug paired with a wavering voice or steely glare complete with a stiff lip—these tipoffs and tells strike a good balance of making you guess at times, but still being readable.
L.A. Noire feels and plays like an attempt at doing what Uncharted did in regards to Indiana Jones, in translating its genre of crime drama to video games. Despite its flaws and the one game-freezing glitch I ran into, it's worthwhile to explore the detailed city streets that might as well be a time capsule from the 1940s. Although this ambitious combination open-world adventure with complicated cases fell flat at times, Rockstar has certainly laid down a solid base for games like L.A. Noire to grow from.