Arresting Development: ‘L.A. Noire’ Review

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Rockstar Games has a reputation. People see the R* icon on a game box and expect chaos of the first degree. The Manhattan-based company’s pushed the boundaries of portraying sex, violence and postmodern attitudes in their best-known series like Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt, letting players turn whole cities into unpredictable petri dishes of mayhem. So, expectations with Rockstar tend to run towards open-world anarchy.

What’s so different, then, about L.A. Noire is how tightly ordered it is. In partnership with Rockstar, Australian development studio Team Bondi has crafted an experience that focuses with laser-like precision on narrative and tone. Last year’s stellar Red Dead Redemption proved Rockstar could quiet things down and still deliver a strong virtual landscape that grabbed hold of you. While there’s still sprinklings of side quests as in previous games, L.A. Noire represents a refinement of the approach begun with Red Dead–tamping down the noise so prevalent in video game worlds–so players can more precisely live through what the game-makers want.

In this case, you’ll inhabit the life of Cole Phelps, a rookie beat cop returned from service as a Marine officer in the Japanese theater of war. Players guide Phelps through the various desks of the L.A.P.D., having him ascend by successfully solving cases.  Investigations start at a crime scene where Phelps walks through the environment, picking up and examining clues. Clues lead to questions that you ask of witnesses, suspects or other persons of interest. All that info gets stored in Phelps’ notebook. During these chats, you have to interpret the interviewees’ faces and answers and can choose from Truth, Doubt or Lie to move the Q&A along. The new MotionScan technology used to capture performances delivers more nuance than any other widely available facial animation technique. You have to read faces in L.A. Noire and you’re actually able to distinguish worry from anger or a smirk from a frown. If you get all the answers right in an interview, you earn Intuition points. Intuition’s a sort of superpower that lets you find clues faster at a crime scene or narrow down the possible answers from a suspect. It’s also the most video game-like mechanic in this title. At the end of each episode, you get star ratings based on performance and the case notes offer glimpses of details you might have missed. You can make things harder and more realistic by turning off the gameplay hints and audio cues that ping out when you’re next to a clue.

(More on Rockstar Games’ ‘L.A. Noire’ Goes Full Frontal at Tribeca Film Festival

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