I don’t think I’ll ever forget my L.A. Noire experience. It’s up there with Limbo and the featureless boy’s early jaunt through the forest, with Fallout 3 and leaving Vault 101 for the first time, with finishing a level in Super Mario Bros. by clinging to a flag pole and drifting down, fireworks praising your accomplishments. This crazy creation from Rockstar and Team Bondi is a mix of genres and games and most definitely not another skin for Grand Theft Auto IV fanatics to wear. It’s also unlike anything I’ve ever played, and it’s “motion scan” facial animation work has ruined everything that’s come before it–and possibly everything else after it. Deus Ex: Human Revolution may be all shiny and futurized, but it’s impossible not to cringe during cutscenes where characters are talking to each other.
You play as Cole Phelps, a detective trying to do what’s right, as well as avoiding the horrors of his past, namely his time spent at the battle of Okinawa during World War II. It’s the late 1940s, and Los Angeles is yours for the scouring; as the city begins to thrive with post-war opportunities and jazz and all things that encompass film noire, so does crime. Scoundrels and scum really earn their nicknames in L.A. Noire, committing horrific crimes, most of them against women, and it’s up to Detective Phelps to piece together what happened from clues, inspecting the crime scene, and interviewing key witnesses or suspects.
It’s a point-and-click adventure with astounding production values. As you search a crime scene, a deep, whomping bassline plays, letting you know you’ve not yet found everything. As you drive around the city–or let your partner take the wheel–you’ll go over the case’s details while listening to remixed versions of tunes by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, Lionel Hampton & His Orchestra, Dinah Washington, Louis Jordan, Gene Krupa, and Billie Holiday. By far, the music is the strongest factor for immersing one’s self in a period lost to time and technology. Nobody writes songs like these anymore.
It’s a game that demands you pay attention. To play detective. Sure, the musical sound clues make it a little easy for finding actual clues at a crime scene, but it’s up to you, you playing Cole, to determine what’s actually important, where to go to first, what questions to ask witnesses, when to get tough and accusatory, when to lock up the guilty. There’s even one mission during the Homicide desk where you’ll be traversing all across L.A. based on cryptic poetry, having to use your eyes and knowledge of the city to get you where you need to go. Genuinely rewarding, by the completion of it.
Unfortunately, L.A. Noire is quite disappointing come the end. The developers pull a Metal Gear Solid 2, and you’re suddenly no longer playing as Cole Phelps. Sure, there’s a story reason for it, but it felt a bit like a betrayal, as well as clearly foreshadowed what was to unfold. And what unfolded was trite, a death not needed, not justified. Cole bites it saving Elsa, the woman he cheated on his wife with, which didn’t make him a terrible man, only all the more human. Then there’s a funeral scene with some cryptic accusations tossed at minor characters. After that and credits, strangely, you can hop back into the game to look for newspapers, golden film reels, cars, locations, and missed unassigned street missions–as Cole. Yeah, it’s a videogame all right.
That said, it’s a fantastic one, and I encourage all to experience, even if, like me, you really hate the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Most of the time you can’t even take your gun out of its holster, and L.A. citizens are pros at hopping out of the way of reckless drivers. And you can skip all the action sequences if they are too tough or not your thing; it’s a story game, where the story overshadows the game, and the game exists only to strengthen the story. There really is nothing quite like it.