It’s all about the contrast. The best way to describe the appeal of film-noir, as I find it, is in the stark dichotomy between black and white – the dissimilarity of things. The most striking aspect of the films is in the way the lighting might reflect the softness of the female lead in juxtaposition to the rigid features of her male counterpart, the way the lines of their faces are more defined than the films that came before. On the verge of being overproduced, L.A. Noire takes strides in bringing videogames further in this direction with incredibly realistic facial animations.
It hits all of the generic conventions of a noir film, going so far as to recreate what I imagine to be a relatively faithful rendition of 1947 Los Angeles. And the setting is all right; filled with ambitious Americans returning from World War II to find that the motion picture industry is booming and the city is reaping the benefits. Cole Phelps (Mad Man’s Aaron Stanton) returns from Okinawa a decorated war hero, following his honorary discharge. In need of extra work, he takes on a job as a traffic cop for the Los Angeles Police Department.
Phelps is a likable character; his lines are well performed by Stanton, who does a fine job reacting appropriately and expressively. He does well enough that occasionally you’ll forget about the technology and why it’s so damn impressive, and just let the story sink in. There are over 320 other actors brought to life in the game, becoming a who’s who of respected bit actors. The dialogue captures a good sense of the ‘40s, with heavily misogynistic views, and clever knack for wit that’s apparent in other Rockstar titles. The facial animation’s as good as you’re going to find in a videogame for some time now and once it can be done on a lower budget, should be held as the industry standard.
The first case is aptly named “Buyer Beware”. Team Bondi takes the interrogation mechanics from Phoenix Wright and places them into a fully-realized open world. This mixture of inherently contrary genre conventions is less frustrating than it sounds. Unlike most adventure games, there’s no way to fail an interrogation. You can do badly if you read the suspect improperly and may receive false leads as a result, or even arrest the wrong suspect if you haven’t accumulated the needed evidence, but the worst that’ll happen is you’ll receive a brutal tongue lashing from a superior, filled with coarse language and reasons why you’ve let everyone down. It’s incentive to do better, but never requires it, and that’s what makes L.A. Noire a great adventure game, in its own right.
Crime scenes are pretty consistent throughout the game. Someone has usually died and depending on how they’ve died, the case is assigned to the appropriate department (traffic, homicide, vice, or arson). When arriving at the scene, you’ll be on the search for clues. Discordant music will swell, jazz cues signaling when clues are in reach, and once all the clues are found, the music stops. These simple design choices make the investigations far easier and there’s an option for turning them off, but it expedites the adventure game aspect.
There are plenty of action sequences in L.A. Noire to keep things varied. Many of them are chases over the rooftops of Los Angeles or car chases. The worst of them have you tailing a suspect and staying far enough behind them that they don’t notice and close enough that you’re not losing them. While these segments occasionally provide frustration – like the adventure aspects – it’s catering to a broader audience. After a few failed attempts, an option to pass the mission is given. There are also plenty of street crimes occurring around the city and you’ll be called to the scene to help clean the streets in some decidedly more action-based sequences.
Each case is its own self-contained story and much like the pulp fiction that inspired it, some are disposable cop procedurals. As cases are cleared, Phelps works his way towards a promotion, allowing him to switch out his partner. The way corruption trickles down from the politicians and other higher-ups through the police force is readily apparent, as your partners for the later desks are less scrupulous than the ones with lesser titles.
Some of the most interesting cases are the “Quarter Moon Murders”, based on the real-life murder of Elizabeth Short, the “Black Dahlia”, among other women. As one of the L.A.P.D.’s most infamous cases, L.A. Noire draws the storyline out, taking up the lion’s share of the cases for the homicide desk. It allows you to charge someone for the unsolved murder and provides an interesting layer of historical context that necessitates the use of a real location, rather than a blatant parody of an actual one. It’s more than just that. The greed and corruption of Hollywood already parodies itself and in a sense, L.A. Noire’s still based on the fictional construct of the Los Angeles seen in the cinema.
Fans of Grand Theft Auto’s less structured approach may occasionally resent being nudged down a more linear path. Although the city of Los Angeles is genuinely worth exploring, with plenty of historical landmarks, Phelps can only draw his gun at specific times and your rating is impacted at the end of each case, depending on damages to public property. The design is generally sound, with a large number of era-specific cars filling out the many roads making up the grid-like pattern of the city, although there’s still the feeling that there’s a ton of people on the roads and none of them are going anywhere.
L.A. Noire brings a level of precision to facial animations in videogames that hasn’t been seen before. It’s an impressive technical feat and stands to reason that this will soon be the standard for how all realistic next-gen games ought to look. In many ways it feels ahead of its time and once this technology becomes accepted as an industry standard, L.A. Noire will no longer feel as significant. Until then, it’s a testament to Rockstar’s ability to create characteristically rich worlds with top-notch production values and is also a pretty good homage to film-noir.