L.A. Noire begins like a movie preview, narrated with a smoke-rasped voice. “A city on the verge of greatness. A new type of city based not on the man but on the automobile … Where every man can own his own home … A city of opportunists.” In other words, L.A. is just like every other city designed by Rockstar Games, the publisher of Grand Theft Auto. It’s a city full of driving, hideouts and crime.
There will be plenty of gamers who are entertained simply by seeing the name “Rockstar” on the game’s packaging, in the same way that drooling toddlers and movie bloggers are pacified by the name “Pixar” and suburban technophiles adore anything labeled “Apple.” But even though it has all the pieces of a Grand Theft Auto game, L.A. Noire isn’t like any of Rockstar’s other adventures.
For starters, in L.A. Noire I play a good guy — a square-jawed, suitwearing detective. Instead of conjuring the gumshoe grit of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, the hero of L.A. Noire, Cole Phelps, evokes the flat-footed earnestness of a high-strung accountant. Compared to some of Rockstar’s other vivid characters (Niko Bellic, Gay Tony and John Marston spring to mind), Phelps is at best the hero of a B-list bargain matinee.
L.A. Noire is divided into chapters that must be played through sequentially for the game to progress. Forget the free-form storytelling that Grand Theft Auto innovated. The sandbox of L.A. Noire can only be played-in between the game’s missions. I’m sure the chapter-based structure will help Rockstar sell downloadable episodes to players during the next year. But the restriction of my freedom makes L.A. Noire more narrative and less immersive than any other Rockstar game I’ve played.
The houses in L.A. Noire aren’t hideouts — they’re locations where I’m expected to wander around until my game controller vibrates, indicating a possible clue nearby. Searching for these is similar to hunting and pecking at pixels in the old PC games that LucasArts published. It’s not detective work — it’s an Easter egg hunt.
During my investigations, I must also evaluate the facial expressions and gestures of the characters that I’m questioning. Given the unrealistic state of character animation, this is more of a guessing game than an empathetic human activity. I watch them like an old videogame boss who moves in a particular pattern, only instead of waiting for the foot stomp that indicates an oncoming charge, I watch for the obvious side-eye or ducked head that indicates a lie.
THE GOOD: Interspersed among the various mysteries is a larger, more psychological story that only gradually reveals itself. It takes so long coming that it’s not a surprise, but it’s nice to see a game tackle bigger, more contemporary themes without hitting players over the head with them all at once.
THE BAD: Rockstar’s innovation has been to give the basic components of gameplay a moral twist. In the Grand Theft Auto series, instead of buying healing potions, I hired hookers. I didn’t merely drive around — I drove into pedestrians. L.A. Noire takes a step back and reverts the players’ actions to linear, placid and morally obvious events instead of outrageous, spontaneous moral obliviousness.
THE BOTTOM LINE: L.A. bore.