The question of interactivity lies at the heart of L.A. Noire, as it’s a game that quite openly seeks to forge a new virtual-storytelling trail. Like Heavy Rain before it, Rockstar Games’ eagerly anticipated 1947-set crime saga is a semi-user-controlled movie, one in which the primary action involves scrutinizing scripted cutscenes, and then responding to what’s been seen via the selection of specific commands. You play as Cole Phelps, a war hero-turned-LAPD officer who, during the course of the 15-20-hour campaign, rises through the department’s detective ranks, solving a variety of increasingly big-ticket cases that, per the game’s noir-ish influences, are all introduced with slanted-text title cards straight out of a hardboiled ’40s-era drama. Sharing a graphical style, an open-sandbox metropolitan setting, and general controls with Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto franchise, L.A. Noire feels nominally similar to its publisher’s past efforts. It’s a kinship furthered by colorful writing and strong voice work that, here, is married to quite-stunning motion-capture technology (dubbed MotionScan) that allows for proper dialogue lip-syncing and expressive facial movements, the latter of which are key to the game’s overarching design.
Despite taking place in an expansive city that you’re free to roam, and regardless of random, skippable side missions (in the form of sudden police-radio crime reports) that have one engage in traditional shootouts and chases, L.A. Noire isn’t about exploration or combat, both of which seem to have been included more as tacked-on concessions to hardcore gamers than integral components of the larger story. Rather, for the majority of its tale, you’re primarily tasked with investigating crime scenes and interrogating witnesses in order to solve cases. That the focus is less on traditional hand-eye-coordination reflexes than on careful inquiry and analysis is, in theory, a welcome shift. And courtesy of the game’s expert facial graphics, which are modeled after a host of recognizable actors (many from Mad Men, including lead Aaron Staton as Phelps), there’s real tension to some of these sequences, as well as a requirement for constant, serious engagement with what are generally a title’s most ignorable cutscene aspects. Since you’re asked to figure out whether suspects are lying through consideration of both the evidence at hand and their shifting eyes, downward glances and fidgety comportment, L.A. Noire is, in a certain sense, revolutionary—a game that exploits not one’s trigger finger, but one’s intuition and deductive reasoning skills.
Unfortunately, it’s a concept that doesn’t quite work as intended. For each interrogation, you’re given a series of topics to explore, but success or failure largely hinges on an ability to identify the veracity of statements. These distinctions, however, can often be murky, and more problematic still, incorrectly assessing a given suspect doesn’t always hinder progress, a fact that somewhat drains these confrontations of their supposed import. Furthermore, investigating crime scenes isn’t nearly as exciting as it might have been, since these tasks can only be performed via two options: with vibration-enabled clues that tip you off to which items demand a closer look, or without vibration, which leads you to repeatedly hit the “A” button in the hope of finding key environmental articles. Given that sometimes you’re obliged to study random things (a beer bottle, a cup) that have no bearing on the mission, but not others, the overall impression is one of gimmickry masquerading as innovation. To be sure, there’s minor pleasure to be found in canvassing a fresh crime scene or a ransacked apartment. Yet L.A. Noire either so holds your hand during these moments, or forces you to button-mash while walking around every inch of an area, that the gameplay proves rather simplistic.
The same can be said of the various cases themselves, which are rarely very surprising; there’s always a husband, a hitman, or some other obvious culprit just waiting to be uncovered. Later stages do become a bit more complex, but their repetitive nature extends to all of L.A. Noire, which forces you to do so much driving around the city—while penalizing you during end-of-level assessments for smashing up your car or public property (a near-inevitability, given the so-so steering controls)—and so many on-foot pursuits of criminals that the game winds up being less daring than merely beholden to its own rigid formula. Somewhat compensating for this roteness is a persuasive aesthetic depiction of ’40s L.A. and a genre-faithful mood of fatalistic police-procedural machinations, as well as lots of subtle elements—references to the Black Dahlia murders and era-specific movie stars, for instance—that help envelop one in the cinematic action. Yet though it cleverly turns the act of passive cutscene-watching into a fundamentally active experience, L.A. Noire never does so compellingly enough to make up for its too-authentic recreation of monotonous police-work drudgery.