To spend tens of millions of dollars on a brand new adventure game, one that evokes everything from Grim Fandango to Police Quest: Open Season, is a big gamble these days. But when I played about eight hours of L.A. Noire yesterday, I felt the gamble had paid off. I began as a beat cop, honest but lowly, who was once a WWII hero. After a few hours, I became a detective, interrogating all manner of people, rich people, jaded poor people, low-life liars and the innocent. There are three stories woven into the well-crafted narrative. There’s the day-to-day drama of moving up through the ranks and working on various crime desks, the mysterious WWII back story of the lead character, detective Cole Phelps (told through black and white flashbacks), and the tale of creepy, drug-supplying psychiatrist to the stars, told through movie-like scenes when you pick up hidden newspapers that are found strewn about as you solve cases.
L.A. Noire really is pretty brilliant, full of action and adventure that goes far beyond interviewing suspects. The last case I dealt with involved a hotshot Hollywood producer who tricked young actresses onto the casting couch and then secretly filmed them (you don’t see any sex here). What you do see when you chase down the producer, is this mammoth, D.W. Grifffith-like Hollywood set recreating a Jungle temple. You’re being shot at as you run through the it. The feeling is that of an Indiana Jones movie, especially when a four story tall statue falls in front of you.
The writing is crisp, taut, witty, and sometimes bawdy (this game is definitely not for kids), and the narrator evokes the hard-boiled, slightly cynical essence of Jack Webb in the old Dragnet TV show.
Throughout the experience, Los Angeles really comes to life. Driving the streets of L.A, in the 1940s is a real joy because the highways, alleyways and buildings are meticulously created to be very similar to those of the time. There’s a lot of art deco and a lot of neon.
The car radio plays songs of the great artists of the time – like Billie Holiday — to enhance the mood. There are dozens of classic jazz tunes, along with an original soundtrack and old time radio shows featuring superstars of the time like Jack Benny.
And the faces of the actors are quite realistic — you need detail in facial expressions to interrogate them and judge whether they’re being honest or lying. It’s a big part of the game, although I’m not getting high scores on interrogation at this point. Getting the suspects to ‘fess up is harder than I thought it would be – which makes the challenge all the more compelling.
But mainly, L.A. Noire signals a step forward for videogames, thanks to Rockstar Games and Team Bondi. It proves that the best videogames can be their own movies and even their own books. And it proves that videogames can be as artful as any other popular media like film and TV and bestselling novels. Anyone who plays L.A. Noire will feel transported to a fascinating, intelligently-imagined world in which the complex characters and the City of Angels come alive. You care about the smallest details in the game because of the well-designed narrative. You want to see what happens next. And you think of these cases and plots and people made of bits and bytes after you play this game. L.A. Noire is indeed a pop culture work of art.