In an alternate reality, “L.A. Noire” is a film, but not a very good one.
It’s a film with a dedication to factual history that gets in the way of building a compelling narrative. One filled with capable actors in forgettable roles, delivering lines that are believable but rarely elicit an emotional response. It’s a film that ends with firing a flamethrower on countless thugs in a sewer — hardly the next “L.A. Confidential.”
A comparison to cinema is not only appropriate for “L.A Noire,” it’s necessary. This isn’t a game you win or lose. It’s a game in which the player tags along with detective Cole Phelps and watches events unfold with minimal influence on the game’s world. The ride to the conclusion is linear, where critical mistakes are as easily made as they are forgotten.
Team Bondi’s debut (with input from Rockstar) is a throwback to detective novels and film noir with a focus on investigating crime scenes and interrogating persons of interest. There are car chases, foot chases and shootouts, but most of your time will be spent observing crime scenes and suspects’ faces — the highlights of the game’s lengthy story.
These interrogation scenes wouldn’t be nearly as compelling as they are if it weren’t for the motion-capture technology created for the game. “L.A. Noire” brings characters to life with full facial capture of some of TV’s greatest actors from “Mad Men,” “Dexter” and more. Eyebrows furl, suspicious glances are cast and faces tense up. Reading your suspect well is key to ranking well on a case. So much so that Tony Attwood, psychiatrist and author of “The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome,” recently said the game could help those with Asperger’s syndrome improve at reading emotions, according to Joystiq, a source of news on the video game industry.
Maybe “L.A. Noire” could make for a good learning tool, but it would have to make for a good game first. Reading characters’ faces in the game isn’t the problem. The problem is that you have to simultaneously read the mind of a game that leaves you with three options: “Truth, Doubt or Lie.” There are no consistent definitions to the categories either. Sometimes choosing “Lie” and pointing at incriminating evidence isn’t enough — you have to make a wild guess as to which incriminating piece of the puzzle the game wants, even if there is more than one suitable choice.
The game tries to sell itself as a police procedural show, with each case being the equivalent of a TV episode. Some cases are self-contained while others are series linked to serial killers. Surprisingly, the game’s opening traffic cases are the most interesting. You’ll find yourself second-guessing the motives of abusive husbands and promiscuous housewives while you anticipate each new piece of evidence that may give you the answer you suspected all along.
Most of “L.A. Noire” is spent playing a game of cat-and-mouse, interrogating loosely connected suspects that point you toward another. You also spend a great deal of time literally chasing suspects in dull chases that have none of the spontaneity of “Grand Theft Auto.”
Between the cases, you get to learn about Detective Phelps’ history in World War II, banter with your one-dimensional partner (who changes as you move to new departments) and learn about larger events going on in the game’s world (via collectible newspapers).
If slimmed down to its main narrative arc and a handful of the best side-plot cases, “L.A. Noire” could have been an interesting interactive experience, even if it remained a repetitive, unchallenging one. Exploring 1940s L.A., historically accurate recreations of crime scenes and the ways police used to deal with them is thrilling in its own right, but eventually the lavish backdrop loses its novelty. Only a wish for better ways to interact with it remains.