Adventure games have had somewhat of a comeback in recent years, mostly in the form of lightweight, downloadable offerings by Telltale. However, LA Noire is the first example of a big-budget, full-fledged $60 adventure game we’ve seen lately. And it is an adventure game through and through, despite the Rockstar name on the box and the open-world nature of the gameworld. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s just Grand Theft Auto in postwar LA, but it’s not. It’s a really, really good adventure game.
Set in 1947 Los Angeles, you play as Cole Phelps, a war hero looking to right the world’s wrongs as an idealistic young police officer. You start as a uniformed trooper, but you quickly move up the ranks as a detective. The game is divided into cases, each of which can take more than an hour to compete. You’ll solve crimes like car thefts, homicides, and the like. There are three main activities: gathering evidence, interrogations, and shootouts/action sequences.
Gathering evidence is often the first thing you do for any given case. You walk around the crime scene or home of a suspected criminal or whatever, picking up various objects and examining crime scenes. It’s up to you to figure out how any of what you find relates to the case.
Then, you interrogate everyone related to the crime: witnesses, victims’ family members, even fellow police officers. You have to use your instincts as a human – not as a gamer – to determine if they are lying. To help you do this, the game uses motion-capture technology to accurately transfer the movements and mannerisms of the actors involved into the game world. If the character is nervously looking around, for example, you might be inclined to believe he’s lying. But if his wife has just been brutally murdered, maybe he’s just confused or overwhelmed. The actors employ almost an endless number of subtle mannerisms during the interrogations – twitches of the eyebrow, breathing heavily, pursed lips, etc. All of us, as social animals, are inclined to notice these things when engaged in conversation with real human beings. LA Noire taps into something significantly deeper than “Shoot that guy whenever his head pops out.”
Occasionally, the interrogations can be relatively simplistic – for example, the person will say something that directly contradicts a piece of evidence you’ve discovered. Yes, it is like Phoenix Wright in this respect. However, usually I forgot I was playing a game during the interrogations. The technology is so good, I really thought I was looking at real people. It especially helps that all the writing and voice acting is top-notch.
There are occasional action sequences, usually involving chasing a suspect on foot or by car. These are fun and done well, but they’re clearly there to just break up the evidence-gathering and interrogations, not as the main focus.
After every case, you get a rating on how well you completed the case. It measures how many pieces of evidence you discovered and how well you completed the interrogations. Yes, there is just one correct answer to every question in an interrogation. It doesn’t fail you or anything – the only Game Over screen you get is if you die during an action sequence. But you will miss out on a crucial piece of evidence and perhaps even throw you off the right trail. Sometimes, I arrested the wrong suspect because I failed some interrogation questions. Like last year’s Heavy Rain, LA Noire just keeps moving forward, taking your decisions into account.
Story-wise, LA Noire succeeds tremendously. Most cases aren’t self-contained; there is usually some over-arching plot involved. Seeing the way all these various plot threads get tied up over the course of investigating all these seemingly unrelated crimes is a great pleasure. Just note that this story is noire to the core. Fans of noire films like Double Indemnity will be right at home here. Phelps as a character, however, comes across as a little bland. He doesn’t really have much of a personality, which is a shame given just how great all the other characters are.
You see very few games that come along that try to do something completely new. LA Noire is one of those few games, and it succeeds tremendously.