There is one word that comes to mind when you’re playing through L.A. Noire: Ambition. It was ambitious for Brendan McNamara and Team Bondi to take the game’s main technical innovation — a new form of motion-capture performance that makes the population of Noire look vastly more “humanlike” than most digi-people — and turn it into a central aspect of the gameplay: You have to stare into the eyes of the game’s characters and decide if they are lying or telling the truth. But the true ambition of Noire only really becomes clear after you’ve been playing the game for awhile. When I spoke to McNamara a few months back, he professed a great love for the literature of Dashiell Hammett and James Ellroy, for vintage film noir like Out of the Past and Detour, and for the essential ’70s neo-noir Chinatown.
At first, L.A. Noire seems to largely capture the tone of those works without quite grasping their deeper meaning — sort of like when Electronic Arts turned the epic sweep of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies into a gorgeous-to-look-at, incredibly simple button-masher. The streets of Noire‘s ’40s Los Angeles look great, the dialogue has a pleasantly no-bull cynicism, and the gameplay has a nice diversity — hunt for clues, talk to witnesses, drive, shoot somebody, chase a perp, etc. But great noir is about more than just tough guys and boozy broads, and after a few hours of playing the game, I sort of felt like it was the videogame translation of Sin City: All the affections of noir with none of the soul.
And that’s okay. L.A. Noire has a pleasantly professional sheen. You could argue that there are entirely too many “chase the guy across the rooftop” scenes, that the action-movie gunplay feels awkwardly wedged in to keep the grade-schoolers in the audience happy, that it seems curious to create such a vibrant open-world and then populate it with nothing but missions and bystanders whose main topic of conversation appears to be “Hey, isn’t that the cop from the papers?” But I liked L.A. Noire — if nothing else, it was better than the miserable Mafia II, another period-piece crime thriller that bogged you down in miles of endless driving across an empty metropolis.
For me, the main drawback of the early hours of Noire was the central gameplay mechanic: Deciding whether characters are lying to you. The problem, I thought, was that all the characters were lying… because they were really actors. When one suspect stared hastily around the room while insisting he had nothing to do with the murder, it was a comic silent-film moment: “No, no, d’oi, I didn’t do it!” (The shifty-eyed dog from The Simpsons was more subtle.) But sometimes, the interrogations are incredibly difficult — and, I think, they’re difficult in a good way, the way that Super Mario 3 was difficult, back when videogames weren’t afraid to say “Game Over” and mean it.
The bigger problem, I thought, was the way the game reduced the gameplay to a simple binary “Lie/Truth” system. Real noir lives in ambiguity, and L.A. Noire seemed entirely too square. That’s especially true of the game’s hero. In the game, you control Cole Phelps, a straight-arrow cop played by Aaron Staton (Mad Men‘s Ken Cosgrove — and if you’re a Mad Men fan, get ready to play spot-the-supporting-actor.) Phelps seems, at first, almost unbelievably bland — as far from a world-weary Bogart or a cynical Nicholson as you can imagine. I couldn’t decide if it was the way the character was written, or if Staton had been told to act bland because that’s how most videogame protagonists are, or — and this is where Noire‘s technical innovations might backfire — if Staton was simply not giving a very good performance.
But, like a TV procedural that starts off rote and then finds its footing, L.A. Noire begins to get more incisive the further along you get. At first, Phelps is just a beat cop, but he slowly rises the ranks: First to a traffic desk, and then to homicide. And it’s when he becomes a homicide detective that, I think, the game really starts to get rolling. You begin to investigate a series of murders that all appear similar: Dead women, usually left naked, often with messages written across them in blood. The sight of the dead women is shocking, but it’s the rare videogame nudity that doesn’t feel remotely salacious. (You control Cole as he bends down to investigate the bodies, examining their cold dead faces and lifting up their hands — It’s one of the most weirdly intimate sights I’ve ever seen in a videogame.)
There are implications that these killings might be the work of the Black Dahlia, or perhaps a Black Dahlia wannabe, or that these are all separate crimes whose perpetrators all tried to blame it on the Dahlia. I’ve been through four of these missions so far, and without spoiling anything, I will say that the best part about all of them is that they all wind up incredibly, wonderfully unsatisfying. You build up a mountain of evidence against certain suspects, but even after you send them to prison, you still wonder if they really did the crime.
I just went through one mission that ended with me interrogating two suspects: One of them a lovesick kid who truly seemed half-insane, and the other an intelligent socialist with a history of beating women. I charged one of them with the crime, and my Captain told me I made a bad call; I restarted the mission, and charged the other one, and my Captain told me I made a good call. My roommate was watching me play — if nothing else, Noire makes for a fun viewing experience — and he was sure he knew who did it. I was equally sure. We disagreed. At my point of the game, there is a growing implication within the game that everyone you accuse is actually innocent.
I’m not sure how, exactly, L.A. Noire will turn out, and I’m also not entirely sure on what basis to critique it. It’s a game that I feel uncomfortable reviewing until I’ve played it in its entirety, just because my reactions to it have been so all over the map. The action elements of the game feel more tacked-on every hour… but the experience of watching people, real people, becomes more and more addictive. It feels, most of all, different from anything I can remember experiencing in games. The closest thing I can compare it to is Mass Effect, but with one big difference: The Mass Effect series turned the act of creating a character into gameplay. With every decision you made, every specific choice of dialogue, you added one more rung to your version of Commander Shephard. L.A. Noire, conversely, game-ifies the act of creating other characters: You choose whether you will look at the dead woman’s husband as a lousy homicidal maniac or a poor broken wrongfully accused man.
Gamers, are you playing L.A. Noire? What do you think about the interrogation gameplay? And, for people who are further in the game, do you feel like the overarching plotline is pleasing, or would you have preferred a more episodic game? Most of all, what would you fix in L.A. Noire for a potential sequel?
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich