L.A. Noire is nuanced. Uncanny valleys be damned. It pushes gaming in a unique direction whilst unearthing the corpses of past genres, injecting new life into experiences we thought were long forgotten. In a handful of ways it might be Rockstar’s most ambitious game yet, but still retains the kind of focus you would normally expect from more linear titles.
More than any title that’s come before it, L.A. Noire is dependent on the performance of the actor. In most instances gaming suffers from a real disconnect in this area – voices are recorded separately, in a sterile booth, while movements are worked on by a separate team of animators. L.A. Noire seeks to eliminate that disconnect and does so with a varying amount of success. When it fails, L.A. Noire still maintains a standard above its competition, but when it succeeds, it completely blows them out of the water.
Which is a good thing, considering the game’s main mechanic – interrogation – depends on it.
There’s more than a smidgeon of Phoenix Wright in L.A. Noire’s interrogation sequences, but comparing the two would be akin to comparing Chinatown to Harvey Birdman: Attorney-at-law. Both are awesome, in their own way, but the tone and implementation is radically different.
In L.A. Noire progress is dependent on the recognition of subtle facial cues – is the suspect lying? Are they hiding something? Does their testimony contradict the evidence? At times the temptation to yell out 'OBJECTION' is almost overwhelming, but interviews in L.A. Noire are far more subtle, dependent on both the timing and the temerity of your own reactions. You need to know when to push suspects, and when to hold back.
Strangely enough, however, we couldn’t help but feel a slight twinge of disappointment when we noticed that, during the conversations, L.A. Noire’s HUD would register whether we had ‘correctly’ interrogated the victim/perp during specific sequences. If we contradicted the interviewee perfectly, or eased off at the correct moments, the game rewarded players with a ‘tick’ message. We understand the need for positive feedback in a game like this, but we felt like it undermined the dynamic nature of the interrogations, and we'd secretly hoped for something a little less black and white.
But as huge fans of the mostly discarded ‘point and click’ adventure, we love the fact that Rockstar and Team Bondi have cleverly attempted to integrate many of the mechanics from that genre. Again, much like Phoenix Wright, players can gather evidence before unleashing it on those dastardly lying perps, giving you that satisfying ‘HOLD IT’ moment. But, more subtly, we were thoroughly impressed by the way L.A. Noire guides you towards clues, aiding you in your quest to find evidence.
As you walk past objects of interest, the game’s soundtrack intelligently adds a curious piano tinkle, consistent with the jazz soundtrack you’d expect from a Noire game, but noticeable enough for you to realise there’s something of consequence in the vicinity.
It’s brilliantly implemented, and exists outside of the standard grammar generally used to highlight objects of interest. Gamers as a whole are used to the Resident Evil twinkle, or Uncharted’s golden highlight, when looking for clues – but L.A. Noire’s aural cue works outside of those traditional rules and is more consistent with movies or television – the piano tinkle sounds like the music you might hear when a movie protagonist opens the right drawer during a search, or stumbles across new evidence. It’s subtle, ingenius, and brilliantly implemented.
In hindsight though, what impressed us most about L.A. Noire was the consistency of the game’s universe and how, despite juggling numerous mechanics (interrogation, driving, shooting, investigation), neither necessarily felt like a discrete and seperate part of gameplay – more like part of an elaborate jigsaw experience that made sense within its own context.
There are issues certainly, some facial animations seemed more convincing than others, and there was a slight disconnect between the physical and facial performances of the actors (probably as a result of the fact they were 'recorded' separately) but even at its worst L.A. Noire pushes the boundaries of acting in a video game to previously unseen levels of detail and nuance. At its best? It's a transformative experience, and a wake up call to a medium wallowing in dramatic mediocrity.