REVIEW: Shamefully, the term "blockbuster" is bandied about with reckless disregard these days.
Having long since thrashed this word, game publishers now use the "AAA" descriptor; a tag applied to the upper echelon of game glory. A title that, irrespective of its merits, flies off the shelf faster than discounted DiFlucan at a Hamilton pharmacy.
Any pretence to altruism aside, LA Noire, in every conceivable way, is that title. It's bold, innovative, artistic and gritty. It twists and turns, surprises, flusters and entertains. It's from a producer of merit, it features a cast of hundreds, and has undergone a lengthy, difficult inception.
Generally presenting itself as a third-person open-world thriller, LA Noire is heavily influenced by hardboiled crime fiction. Felt fedoras, spinning newspapers and poorly lit streets. It's also markedly different to any title Rockstar has produced to date.
Playing as Cole Phelps, a cop rising through the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1947, daily routine consists of investigating cases throughout the metropolis and avoiding Phelps' tortured military background. Our sometime-hero is shuffled between Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson divisions at the behest of his own actions, be they commendable or catastrophic.
In attendance at every morning briefing, Phelps is subjected to a series of wryly demoralising statements from a typically tyrannical captain before being despatched to a crime scene to scout for clues. The presence of a clue is indicated by controller vibration and an escalating piano tone, prompting Phelps to examine the clue either by observing it, picking it up, manipulating it, or a combination of all three.
Little clues have the propensity to distract, and not all are relevant to the case - Phelps will handle more useless beer bottles than a Lion Red distributor - but those that are of importance are duly noted in Phelps' case book for future reference.
Exploring the surrounding area will eventually yield all clues, at which point the background music will slowly fade out and Phelps will be in a position to question any witnesses or suspects either at the scene of the crime, or at a location revealed by a previously obtained clue.
Confronting these characters reveals an innovative twist in game design that, whilst failing to approximate the oft-quoted Uncanny Valley effect, certainly plots a course for it.
All the characters in the game are played by real actors - some of whom you may actually recognise. Using a piece of technology called MotionScan, Rockstar has captured each actor's performance using a series of surrounding cameras, from which is built an animated virtual model of the actor's face. This is then mapped onto the character's 3D model in the game. It enables realistic facial features and body language to actually be used as a function of the game. It's entirely possible to see subtle movements of a character's facial muscles, from a cursive eye flicker to a slight twitch in the corner of the mouth. Even an inopportune swallow could indicate duplicity. The subjects interviewed pitch their answers, and it's up to the player to choose one of three responses: belief in the testimony ("truth"), disbelief ("doubt"), or an accusation of dishonesty ("lie").
Registering truth in response to an eye-witness eager to offer information might seem like a safe bet, and it frequently is. However, eye-witnesses aren't always reliable, and some may even have their own interests to pursue. Doubting their testimony isn't any safer - many are good Samaritans and will refuse to volunteer important information if they detect an element of suspicion in your line of questioning. Failure to extract the correct information from such individuals can hamper the investigation, as successful answers frequently become clues in their own right.
Procuring these clues is paramount. Suspects will frequently lie during questioning, and it's not just a simple matter of calling them on it. When accused of lying, each suspect will demand proof, which Phelps will have to supply by consulting his list of clues. A criminal may claim he wasn't present at a murder, and without discovering his muddy boots matching footprints at the scene, you'll have no way of proving it. Accuse him of lying without the appropriate evidence and you'll either need to humiliatingly retract your statement, or risk failing to obtain information necessary for a quick resolution of the case.
Entering an interrogation room without a comprehensive overview of the case notes is a recipe for disaster. The causal links between suspects, witnesses, crime scene evidence and the meta-plot currently in play can be utterly overwhelming at times. Which character is the wife of the guy being interviewed, and was she the alcoholic who lost her shoe at the scene? Was this gas regulator the one that was modified to blow the house up, and is this the suspect whom the last witness told me fitted it or is it the other suspect I have in custody?
The interview and interrogation sequences require total concentration from the player; a moment's distraction can be disastrous. It's occasionally necessary to study your subject intensely to look for the slightest indication that they're being liberal with the truth, and if you've missed their lead-in, you're screwed. Playing LA Noire with anyone else in the room who doesn't know that silence is golden may well precipitate a real-life encounter with a homicide detective.
Despite the clear intent being to push the player towards the happy resolution of each crime without excessive hand-holding, some perks are included. Successful completion of tasks earns Phelps experience points, which eventually raise his character level and intermittently grant the odd intuition point. Intuition points can be redeemed to display all clues at a crime scene, for example, or remove one incorrect option when questioning a suspect. They can even cross out irrelevant clues in Phelps' notebook when it's time to accuse.
The implementation of intuition points could have been better, however. At any time, Phelps only has a maximum of five intuition points available. Upon attending a crime scene, Phelps has no idea as to the number of clues, or whether or not they're likely to be out in the open, or hidden well out of sight. Only by attempting to find all the clues can this be determined, and only by failing to find the last clue does it become necessary to use an intuition point. This point could have been used right at the beginning to highlight all clues and saved a mindless ten minutes of trotting about a crime scene. Perhaps a larger pool of intuition points with deductions made to the sum of any outstanding clues uncovered, or evidence eliminated, would have been better.
Although successfully locating clues, questioning suspects and correctly charging criminals is rewarded with a glowing mission summary, it's not always necessary to complete your investigation fully, or even in the most logical order. Witnesses and locations can be visited whenever you see fit, each offering information out of synch with each other that can then be analysed for relevance at a later date. There are many paths through each mission, and the game will point you relevant content if you're unable to find it yourself. On the other hand, more successful interrogations will expedite the case. Ultimately Phelps always ends up in a position to complete the mission to some degree.
For all the subtle complexity introduced with MotionScan, LA Noire does frequently revert to a Grand Theft Auto-style open-world cops 'n' robbers romp with well-deserved confidence. At the lower end of the scale, tailing missions that require Phelps to sidle up to lamp posts, duck behind vehicles and maintain a visual bead on a suspect offer an enjoyable tactical challenge.
Foot pursuits have Phelps vaulting fences, scaling drainpipes and leaping across rooftops in a remarkably energetic fashion. A neat inclusion is the occasional ability to target runners in the weapon crosshair for a short duration, enabling Phelps to fire a warning shot and stop the runner in his tracks.
Vehicle pursuits are linear in execution, with only the duration determined by the player's skill in stopping the suspect. Nudging a fleeing vehicle, flipping it over and shooting the surviving suspects as they attempt to flee will rate highly when memorable gaming moments are tallied at Yuletide. The 95 wonderfully detailed vehicle variants may lack the diversity in handling and speed found with the likes of Mafia II, but they're tuned to provide the player with a functional vessel in which to race from one point in the plot to another. Or you can easily skip much of the driving if you prefer; happily, the game's method of fast travel relies not on cabs or camp-fires, but simply inviting your partner to drive instead.
Damage modelling exists, but lacks continuity. Destroying a police-issue vehicle prior to visiting a crime scene will frequently result in a spotless example waiting at the exit to ferry you to the next stage in the game. Rightfully so, too - this isn't Grand Theft Auto, and treating it as such will result in damage to cars, pedestrians and city property that adversely affects your mission score.
LA Noire's narrative trajectory may be tightly controlled, but there are side activities on offer to distract. Street crimes frequently occur, and Phelps can opt to attend these call-outs when en-route to another stage in the story. Many seem to feature shoot-outs that end with a maudlin Phelps grimacing as a full body-bag is stretchered into the Coroner's van, although many manage to offer an alternate look at some of the more colourful characters populating the City of Angels.
The only real annoyance to be found here is in their wide distribution; it's a chore to have to drive across half the map to attend a call-out. Most of the time, the lure of the main story objective is too powerful to be diverted by mere street thuggery, and any desire to intervene is squashed. It's an unfortunate outcome that could have been avoided by spawning these events closer to the action.
Nevertheless, there's plenty of gun toting and fist fighting in the 21 cases that form the main story arc. Phelps is seldom without his Police-issue side-arm, although it soon becomes necessary to obtain larger guns from fallen foes. The usual rules apply here - shotguns, machine guns, rifles and the odd B.A.R. round out the armoury, with a notable exception late in the story. Shooting mechanics are tight and it's seldom difficult to win a shootout, a design decision which carries over to physical altercations too. The game's difficulty rests in reading people, not inflicting damage upon them.
Film noir is not an avenue to be recklessly plundered with no regard for quality, and LA Noire's visuals largely satisfy. There's exceptional use of lighting throughout, and calculated implementation of the day and night cycle. Weather effects are tied to each mission, and add atmosphere at all the right moments. There's even an option to play in greyscale only. Coupled with an outstanding musical score and auditory effects, the outcome is as close to perfection as can be realistically achieved in this hardware generation, although occasional pop-ins, texture ripping and repetitive background chatter do their best to break immersion.
Ultimately though, the grasp of the plot, the intricacies and foibles of each character and the relentless desire to explore Phelps' back-story are simply too strong to be diverted by minor annoyances. Yes, the internal camera angles are sometimes too tight. Yes, scripted events very occasionally fail to trigger. Yes, the game punishes lapses in concentration quite unlike any other.
And yet when the skies clear, the sun comes out and the suspects start singing, it's a title absolutely beyond compare. The grand scale of a bustling period city coupled with the microscopic features of a crime scene separated by the gateway of interrogation. An old-school adventure game in spirit coupled with remarkable technology that avoids graphical enhancement merely for the sake of it, preferring instead to inextricably bind it to the underlying structure.
Rockstar has excelled in producing a truly innovative title that sets the high-tide mark for inquisitive gamers looking for a real challenge. It's not to be missed.
Ups: Utterly brilliant motion capture, voice acting, and soundtrack. Noir themes and techniques are seldom intrusive, and act to compliment the story. Good game length, engaging story, and fantastic art direction. Innovative action-adventure with a solid level of difficulty.
Downs: Some minor annoyances in enemy AI. Occasional graphical glitches. Repetitive NPC banter. Internal camera angles can be frustrating. Location of Street Crime events promotes backtracking.
System: XBox 360