For the most part, video games are simply a way to relax and kill time. The good ones will challenge you intellectually, the great ones will stick in your mind forever. But when all is said and done, the vast majority of games end up being tools of procrastination or escapism. Every so often, though, a game will come along that does something so new and interesting, it gives you that same feeling of awe and wonder that you had as a kid when everything was an exciting discovery. For me, as the years go by, those moments, those games are fewer and fewer. Grand Theft Auto 3 and Gothic showed me just how fun a sandbox could be, Assassin's Creed blew me away with its fluid free-running mechanics, and now L.A. Noire arrives on the scene with another leap forward in game design.
The game plays out like a sequence of detective movie serials, stand alone cases that eventually tie together. Most episodes start out with a thorough investigation of the crime scene where our hero, Cole Phelps, discovers trace evidence and clues. Next, Phelps usually has to interview witnesses and suss out the lies that people invariably tell him. As the clues and testimonies accumulate and you get a better understanding of what really went down, the tension rises which can lead to car and foot chases, fist fights and even shootouts. While all of this may sound like a simple action/adventure game, the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.
The big "gimmick" of L.A. Noire is the facial animation technology. Motion capture and other new camera tracking tricks were used to completely transfer a real life actor's facial movements and micro-expressions onto the heads of the characters in the game. While at first, it's jarring to see just how precise the results are, you quickly settle in and start trying to read people's faces to see if they are giving you solid leads or red herrings.
While it is only one aspect of the gameplay and it only has a game-specific use in interviews and interrogations, it's far from a shallow gimmick. The whole city feels alive as every citizen, even the randomly generated extras, have highly expressive features. I got so used to it, that when I kicked on another game briefly, it was jarring to see such lifeless, stone-faced facades everywhere. Not every game needs this technology for gameplay reasons, but damned if I'm not going to hope for the day when it becomes standard, purely for immersion's sake.
Another standout aspect, which ties in with the facial animations, is the acting and writing. Yes, the plot has a number of interesting twists and mysteries to keep the player hungry to see what comes next, but more than that, the dialogue is sharp, witty, and expertly directed. Characters realistically talk over each other and stutter; their eyes, nostrils and even neck muscles all give important texture to each scene. Oftentimes they'll also give voice to exactly what the player is thinking and wondering, proving that the writers respect the intelligence of their audience and wouldn't have their characters pretend to be fooled when the player wasn't. These are detectives, after all, and if anything, they should be quicker on their feet than I am. There's better writing and acting in this video game than vast majority of Hollywood movies produced in the last ten years.
There are some flies in the soup, however. The most obvious misstep comes in the form of mandatory, and often ludicrous, action sequences. At one point during, while following a serial killer's treasure hunt of evidence, I was tasked with scaling a building Assassin's Creed style, tightrope walking onto a sixty foot-high chandelier (and then swinging from it when it inevitably became unstable), and surfing a wooden platform on a dilapidated movie set. These Indiana Jones moments simply have no place in a serious crime drama and I really can't imagine why they were included. Maybe developer Team Bondi thought that the audience would get bored with the focus of the gameplay and need these asinine interludes?
While those events are the most egregious, there are other, more subtle ways in which LA Noire destroys its own immersion. The side missions, while a good way to add some flavor in between major plot points in the larger cases, usually just boil down to mindless shootouts. I was actually flummoxed much of the time because I kept trying to, you know, be a police officer and arrest the criminals non-violently. But it seems that Phelps brought much of the war home with him, as most street crimes end in small battles, with numerous officers and criminals alike having their heads blown off. I can only imagine what the average citizen of Los Angeles thinks when the newspaper headlines read "Another eight officers dead this week, totaling sixty-two for the month so far". It got so ridiculous that when Phelps continually had to call for an ambulance and a coroner, I imagined that the dispatch lady might respond "One Phelps special, on the way!".
The sad thing is that this game doesn't need these action scenes. When it focuses on its strengths (crime scene investigation, interrogations, and the occasional chase), it sucks me in like few games ever have. Every time the title of the next "episode" came on screen and my boss announced "We've found another body...", I felt a sense of excitement and anticipation. And every time I promised myself that I would just finish this last case and go to bed, the next one would start and I was compelled to begin anew. But when I had to reload a checkpoint for the fifth time so that I could finally get past the chandelier-swinging scene, it made me want to turn the game off in frustration. Of course, the allure of a new mystery always kept me coming back, but this was a game where I particularly didn't want to feel frustrated, like I was dating the girl of my dreams but also had to deal with her occasionally recurring alcoholism.
While it may sound like I dislike large parts of the game, this is not the case. To put it into perspective, the negatives I mentioned are only amplified because they dampen what would otherwise be a near-perfect gaming experience. My frustration is one of witnessing an Olympic runner breaking record after record, only to stumble a few feet from the finish line and come in second. The flaws don't mean the game isn't great, it just means that it was oh-so close to phenomenal and fell just short. I would recommend this game to everyone, without any hesitation. What it does well, it does amazingly well and where it stumbles, it's only ever a minor hiccup.