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Cole Phelps: super-cop and part-time tour guide.

Despite learning some interesting facts about life in 1940s Los Angeles, such as no men were ever murdered, and most murder suspects had tiny feet, the meat of Rockstar games’ police-em-up, LA NOIRE is in its interrogation scenes. A bit like how the first 30 minutes of the A-Team were contrived to lock them in a garage with some watermelons and a combine harvester, each section in LA NOIRE is designed to get you in a darkened room with a semi-recognisable actor.

There’s not much to be said for the rest of it; the virtual recreation of LA makes for a glossy and beautiful locale to explore, but it’s really something of an empty shell (there’s probably an interesting point to be explored here, but it requires someone on a higher rung of the intellectual ladder to make it, so unless they drop something, I’ll move on). In fact the world on display is so lifeless that it only really serves to undermine the steps LA NOIRE takes in presenting itself as serious adult entertainment.

For example, Detective Cole Phelp’s leisure time appears to involve stealing cars and taking himself on a sightseeing tour of the city – earning ‘Detective Points’ for driving past notable landmarks. Similarly, a frantic chase after a suspect can often result in quite a large fine if you happen to run over several innocent citizens. Non-player character lines are repeated to such an extent that it feels like you’re in a virtual recreation of Groundhog Day, as opposed to Chinatown.

It’s clear that the interrogations are where the developers put most of their resources, something that’s all but confirmed by the pre-release hype. And while the facial animations are undeniably impressive, the biggest disappointment is in the performances themselves – which is perhaps a backhanded compliment to the strides LA NOIRE takes to bring itself in-line with cinematic entertainment. The problem is that the competent performances take a back seat to the game mechanic, which requires pantomime levels of subtlety and nuance to enable the player to ‘read’ the characters.

Take a look…

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You’re engaged in an interrogation with someone who was in the pilot of Lost but found more success in the series Heroes, before it became crap.  You’re listening to what he has to say but, like most people in LA NOIRE, he’s already run away from you, his tiny feet propelling him down narrow alleys like a plaid-clad gazelle. You check your notebook for contradictory evidence and then he pulls this shit on you…

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Now, is he telling the truth? Judging from his expression you think ‘probably’, but the next question prompts this expression…

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For some reason you suspect he’s lying but where’s the evidence, Detective? Time for another question…

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BAM! You have the evidence that the game requires you to use. Welcome to jail, ‘scheisse-vogel’.

/Mild trolling.

It’s not a complete game breaker but the facial animations are about as subtle as a hippo driving a flaming steamroller into a fireworks factory. As mentioned, it may be to the game’s credit that the biggest flaws are more to do with the direction of its performances than any kind of game mechanic (the repetitive ‘wash, rinse repeat’ detective work may be a flaw, but perhaps that’s what police work is actually like?) but it’s disappointing to find out you’re engaging in an experience that’s more like Brian DePalma’s take on The Black Dahlia than Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of LA Confidential. The earlier Heavy Rain may have been more like a top-shelf erotic thriller, but it took bolder steps and the pay-off was a game and narrative that was infinitely more engaging and surprising.

It’s possible for games to tell more mature and engaging stories without the need to slavishly follow a template established by other media. Red Dead Redemption is a pretty good example: it told an engaging tale while embracing the fact it was a videogame and did so without hampering the players’ ability to plough their own furrow. Perhaps if LA NOIRE didn’t run away from its true nature – like a TV actor sprinting down a back alley – we would have seen something truly special. It’s a surprising step backwards from Rockstar games, so let’s hope the recently announced GTA V take two-steps forward. Their track record should be more than enough to keep virtual notebooks in pockets.

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