Without wishing to show any disrespect towards either John Marston or Nico Bellic, L.A Noire‘s lead character Cole Phelps is perhaps the most inordinately compelling protagonist to have appeared in any Rockstar game to date. This is partially down to good writing – as always – but much more fundamentally it’s the way that Phelps’ inherent good nature is woven into the fabric of the gameplay. The guy is extremely easy to root for, and the combination of savvy dialogue and an understated performance by Mad Men’s Aaron Staton mean that you’ll want to uphold his reputation as Los Angeles’ last honest cop at every available turn.
This energizes the action scenes too, because you always feel as if you’ve played a pivotal role in their construction. Towards the climax of the mission case that we played – entitled The Silk Stockings Murder – we engage in a nervous, twitchy conversation with a mildly sleazy individual at a fruit market. Initially allowing our dislike of his sketchy behaviour to fall by the wayside, we eventually uncover a piece of evidence that implicates him directly, and a brief spell of fisticuffs ensues, which is then superseded by a haphazard car chase across a masterfully re-created patch of downtown 1940’s Los Angeles.
It’s very easy to get a buzz from scenes like these when they appear in well-made movies, but excitement of this kind is extraordinarily rare in videogames. When the dust-up cinematic segues back into the traditional third-person gameplay perspective, and the villain’s car speeds out of view, it would have been very difficult for us to stifle a “Get him!” style outburst if our virtual pedal wasn’t already firmly placed on the metal. Although knocking a pedestrian over in GTA and then having to consequently evade the police was always a situation that was worth avoiding, because Staton’s performance as Phelps is so on-the-money, and his (and your) reputation goes so rigidly against the grain of the majority of squalid chancers who surround you, when we accidentally knock over an innocent bystander during the chase, it almost hurts.
Similarly strong performances from the supporting cast mean that you’re not just invested in yourself either. During one early conversation, we unjustly (and rashly) accused a tearful, grieving man of murder, which almost made us want us to re-start the mission from scratch; if only so that we could continue to uphold the illusion of Phelps’ role as the indomitable hero. Once completed, each case can be accessed via the main menu and re-played individually; but whilst the opening few chapters are largely comprised of self-contained stories, the majority of the latter half of the game is structured to accommodate an overarching narrative.
Broadly speaking, L.A. Noire’s gameplay is split into three different tiers; the actions sequences, the crime scene investigations and the interrogations. The fundamentals of the first category will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever played a Rockstar game, and surely need no introduction. In comparison, the crime scene investigations are serene and almost tranquil, and designed to be tackled at your leisure. You’re very helpfully guided through these parts in a handful of smart ways; for example when Phelps moves close to a concealed clue, a small piano cue plays on the soundtrack to alert you to its presence.
You’re also guided very subtly by things like map design and the general placement of the clues. This is so deftly done that it never feels as if you’re following a rigid path, and even when we pursued an intermittent trail of blood splatter down a narrow backstreet, because the clues didn’t only appear on the ground made a distinct difference. When you want to investigate a clue, Phelps can either kneel down to examine various parts of it in detail (if the point of interest is a corpse, say, and can’t be moved) or he can pick it up in order to examine it closely. In both instances, the transition from third person to a tight over-the-shoulder camera is extremely smooth. And in both style and content these moments are reminiscent of Norman Jayden’s first few scenes in Heavy Rain, only slicker and far more user friendly.
If the structure of The Silk Stockings Murder is indicative of the L.A. Noire experience as a whole, the interrogations are going to make up for over half of the entire game. Tutorials promise to ease you into the experience very gently, but it is genuinely startling when you begin to grasp just how deep and sophisticated the interrogation system really is. Getting your head around the fact that each encounter hasn’t been mindlessly siphoned off into one of two groups – in which you can either use your instincts, or the evidence that you’ve amassed – may not happen immediately, but you’ll slowly realise that the real excitement comes from using the evidence that you’ve amassed in conjunction with your gut.
You’re never rushed into making a decision, and although you aren’t penalised for making a bad call (there isn’t really such thing as a wrong answer) nothing can match the buzz that you’ll get from coordinating your resources properly and going on to earn a perfect rating afterwards. If you’re ever unsure of how you want to deal with a particular suspect, a printout of your entire conversation with them is instantly accessible via Phelps’ notepad. L.A. Noire will probably end up being the kind of game that couples and small groups will end up wanting to play together, and because of the overall quality of the production, observing other people playing it is almost as entertaining as playing it yourself.
Your progression through the game is mirrored by your progression through the ranks of the L.A. police force, from your servile beginnings as a lowly beat cop, onto positions in traffic and vice, and finally onto arson and homicide. With each spot on a new desk comes a brand new partner, and judging by how universally disliked Phelps is by most of his fellow lawmen, instances of sabotage are certain to arise at some point. Rockstar’s new obsession with blending extensive historical accuracy with the pulpy pop culture of a specific period – a concoction that was so invigorating in Red Dead Redemption – already looks like it has paid even greater dividends here.
Watch the L.A. Noire trailer here: