In the early years of the new millennium, industry analysts tossed around the phrase “convergence” with reckless abandon. Referring to the symbiotic development between new interactive media and classic Hollywood, the two realms have often experienced an uneasy union. From recreations rushed along to meet movie release dates, flat voice performances from celebrities, and a string of inelegant game-to-film translations, attempts at amalgamation have often demonstrated the immiscibility of the two mediums.
One publisher who has persistently evaded these quandaries is Rockstar Games. With titles like Bully, Red Dead Redemption and the Grand Theft Auto series, the label has repeatedly delivered richly detailed worlds- each flaunting the type of cinematic experience that the rest of the industry aspires to emulate. Working alongside Sydney-based Team Bondi, Rockstar’s latest opus, L.A. Noire, thoughtfully synthesizes pulpy crime novel, period music, along with the moody stylings of films like L.A. Confidential and Chinatown, into one of the richest concoctions in contemporary gaming.
Throughout the title’s twenty-one main cases, players take control of Cole Phelps, a Marine Corps officer returning from World War II’s Pacific Theatre. Initially a rookie patrolman, Phelps quickly moves up the ranks due to his astute investigative skills and impressive war record. Cleverly, each step of his ascension is marked by work at a separate LAPD desk, allowing the protagonist to view the seedy streets of Los Angeles as a patrol, traffic, vice, arson, and homicide cop. Although much of GTA‘s sandbox-style gameplay has been stripped from Noire, the title’s focused trajectory allows for more regimented, and ultimately- rewarding experience. While some may bemoan the inability to open fire on guiltless civilians, Team Bondi clearly recognized that an impulsive act would disrupt the game’s cautiously crafted premise.
The game’s introductory sequence acquaints players to Noire‘s cadence- as players scour a crime scene for evidence. Recalling a classic adventure title, players direct Phelps around the environment, until a faint musical tone and controller vibration signify an adjacent clue. At that point, the protagonist has the option to scrutinize victims, objects, and environments in greater detail- spinning small items around or pointing Phelp’s on-screen hand toward an area for further analysis. With a healthy number of red herrings, Noire‘s investigations are dense enough to captivate players, yet rarely too difficult to confound; veteran point-and-clickers might even find cases a bit too simple.
Following clue collection, players are ushered into the interrogation stage, where Phelps examines suspects, witness, and persons of interest (POIs). Using a subset of commands, gamers indicate if they believe the interviewee’s testimony is truthful, dubious, or a downright lie. If players have gathered the proper evidence than can refute a deposition, or without substantiation, they can read a person’s nonverbal cues for signs of dishonesty. Although the game’s interrogations serve as tense peaks to many cases, they are undermined by two elements- each question has a single ‘correct’ response, and the facial tics and shirting eyes which accompany deceit are painfully easy to discern. While savvy players likely won’t need it, the developer embedded a organic hint system into the title, allowing players to spend a currency called ‘intuition points’ to acquire hints.
Despite the ease of examination, L.A. Noire‘s visual representation of interrogation sets a new precedent for character fidelity. Thanks to the title’s highly-touted MotionScan Technology (which used 32 simultaneous cameras to capture the nuance of facial expression) every articulation of disgust, grief, joy, and bewilderment is captured with astounding authenticity. Similarly, post-war Los Angeles is recreated with startling believability, with a pathos as heavy as any of the game’s characters. Concealed beneath the city’s burgeoning skyline, is a squalid mix of betrayal, misogyny, racism, and fury, which gradually reveals itself to players.
Although L.A. Noire‘s pensive investigations and fastidious simulation gratify, many gamers will be drawn in by the title’s visceral action sequences. With cases (and optional side quests, offered via dispatch while driving around) culminating in shootouts, brawls, and car or foot chases, the game stimulates both heart and head. From cover-based gunfights with posses of bank robbers, pursuits across uneven rooftops, and sticking close enough to a perpetrator’s car so your partner can shoot out a tire, the title’s action is pleasingly diverse.
Typically, a game with such lofty cinematic aspiration is retrained by some type of technical imperfection- from dead-eyed protagonists, awkward dialog or some other type of performance issues. Yet, the mavens at Rockstar have helped propelled Team Bondi into the upper echelons of game design, proficiently blending the viscera of interaction entertainment with the strength of a top-tier Hollywood production. With Mass Effect 3 delayed until 2012, L.A. Noire is a clear forerunner for 2011’s game of the year.