Friday, July 15, 2011

L.A. Noir

Written by Joe the Revelator

Rockstar, the makers of Grand Theft Auto, have come a long way from ultra violent hooker-killing mobster games. They've veered away from rewarding players for driving over pedestrians, incinerating bystandards, and kicking in the nuggets of carjack victims, and have started penalizing such chaotic behavior in LA Noir. After all, you're the police.

ALthough thanking L.A. Noir for being more mature than a GTA game set in the 1940's is like giving a treat to a pitbull for not mauling toddlers. In LA Noir you play as a flatfoot cop who has just made detective, Cole Phelps. Your primary mission is to watch a cutscene of a crime being committed in 3rd person, arrive on the scene the next morning as the detective, and fumble around the evidence while listening to the keys of the grand piano playing in your head. Instead of highlighting usable objects, as in most games, LA Noir plays chords on the piano to indicate when you're near a piece of potential evidence. The Great Piano points you toward soup cans, spoons, cerial boxes, and other assorted trash, and in rare occasions; murder weapons and other incriminating information.

After the evidence is gathered and taken down in your trusty notepad (quest log/journal) it's up to you to question the witnesses. It's here that the game sports its highly developed facial models, which are so sensitive to human expressions it can render readable emotions. Characters squirm when they lie to you, or avert eye contact, or attempt to obfuscate facts. The strength of your case and the experience points you earn are based on how well you can smell out a lie. Is the angry housewife with a dead husband and a new boyfriend; A) Telling the truth, B) dissembling, or C) Lying?

There is no "break his fingers" button.

With the case nearly solved it's time to take witnesses and suspects downtown for some good old fasioned police work. The chief, who was so much ruddy Irish Cop that his gums bled green, tells you to stick it to the suspect, and knock a confession out of him, to "give him lumps". I was expecting a scene from punisher. What I got was Law and Order. There's no button for a hard interrogation. It's more face-watching and accusations.

And finally, when a witness has cracked and given up a name, when the perpetrator's location is spilled, you might get to shoot someone. But so much of LA Noir is cool thinking and good police work that even the highspeed chases can sometimes be delegated to your partner. And one chase is almost identical to the next. The murderer flees out a window, you follow him over a few rooftops or down an ally, and commence investigating his organs with bullets.

Streamline the Truth-Doubt-Lie function to: Doubt-Bullet

Perhaps there's something in the water around Las Angeles, but some supernatural force has turned every potential witness into a pathological liar or a manipulative jackass. By the middle of the game I was convinced everyone was lying, all the time, and I was usually right. Even the underage rape victim had something to lie about. After a game like LA Noir I found myself doubting everyone around me, telling the pizza delivery guy that I couldn't help him if he didn't "come clean".

It may be my love for the genre, but even with the slow pace and the liar's guessing game, I found LA Noir to be exceptional. It was a callback to pulp in the finest sense, like a collection of dimestore detective novels. It was Hollywood and glamour and murder and intrigue, everything that made the era interesting. I would recommend everyone at least try LA Noir.

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