I've always thought that I'd make a great detective. After playing L.A. Noire, however I realize that I came to that conclusion not because I have some natural affinity or particular aptitude that would make me great for the job. Rather, I think I'd be a great detective because I love watching Columbo and Murder She Wrote and I've seen a crapload of episodes of each. Look, I never said I had any common sense, did I? And now that I think about it, that lack of common sense is yet another mark against me becoming Columbo: The Girl Version Who Is Not Mrs. Columbo or Murder She Wrote: The Young Version anytime soon. But! With L.A. Noire, I can totally live the dream through video games, just as playing Tomb Raider allowed me to finally fulfill my dream of having a long, braided ponytail.
It's 1947 in Los Angeles and you're Cole Phelps, a decorated war hero who continues the fight at home by joining the police force. After displaying some initiative as a beat cop, Phelps is fast-tracked and becomes a detective in the traffic division. As he solves cases, Phelps earns promotions and a place in different squads, such as homicide and vice. 1940s L.A. wasn't the picture of purity even on the good guys' side, however, and Phelps quickly learns that corruption runs both deep and high.
As Phelps, you work a variety of cases- more than 20 of 'em- that will have you chasing suspects on foot and behind the wheel, engaging in shootouts, and, most importantly, investigating crime scenes, interviewing witnesses, and interrogating suspects. It's in the question-and-answer phases that L.A. Noire displays its "revolutionary new facial animation technology" that allows for characters to furrow, smile, swallow, and blink their way to the list of cleared individuals or, in some cases, to the gas chamber. It's up to you to decide who's lying, who's telling the truth, and who's falling somewhere in between. Some tells are easy to detect: a calm facade can give way to shiftiness and zero eye contact if you ask the right question. People who believe their own lies can be as calm as those telling the truth, though, and as you might expect, things get more difficult as the game advances. Throughout, you can use "intuition points" to assist in finding clues or questioning subjects.
I fumbled my way through many an interview, not following leads properly or choosing the wrong piece of evidence to back up my accusations when I called someone a liar. Sometimes, truth be told, this wasn't my fault: at times, questions and replies just don't match up, and sometimes "evidence" isn't evidence at all. There were crime-related locations I never visited, and clues I never found. No matter how diligent you are, though, every case comes to an end. On more than one occasion I sent the wrong person to jail; through a conceit I found alternately clever and infuriating, there are several instances where the player knows more than Cole does, but still the detective soldiers on. You know you're pursuing the wrong leads and looking at the wrong suspects; if Phelps and his partner could make the same connections you do, lots of time and pain could be saved. There are confines and limits to the game, however, and Phelps does what he wants in several instances whether you like it or not.
L.A. Noire certainly follows many of the Rockstar Games tropes. In addition to the main case files and storyline, there's lots to do in Los Angeles, from finding every make of car to answering calls for assistance during the numerous street crimes happening throughout the city. As is always the case with a Rockstar game, it's highly unlikely you'll nail a 100% completion on one playthrough. Sure, most of it is treasure hunting for achievement nuts, so bear that in mind.
As expected, the graphics are top notch. The facial animations are remarkable, and you're sure to recognize several of the actors whose likenesses and voices have been utilized. It's a strange trip through uncanny valley in L.A. Noire: while much of the minutiae of human emotion has been captured, there's no escape from the soullessness behind the eyes. It's disconcerting. Intriguing, but disconcerting. The environments are fantastic- 1947 Los Angeles has been meticulously recreated from the "Hollywoodland" sign on down to every street corner. As an L.A. resident, I got my nerd on over plenty of landmarks and locations I visit frequently, and I even managed to find the corner where I live.
Combat controls and gameplay, often a weak point in Rockstar titles (I'm looking at you, Grand Theft Auto), were actually a dream. Rather than shooting wildly into the air and getting perforated to death during shootouts, I found the duck & cover system easy to manage and aiming was a snap. Driving was even better, very intuitive and responsive.
If I had one complaint about L.A. Noire- and I do have one, here goes- it would be that Cole Phelps makes for an incredibly bland leading man. Flashbacks to his stint in the marines during WWII show that his golden boy / war hero persona may be hiding something darker, and while I've no problem with a hero, an antihero, or simply a conflicted man, in the end Phelps is...well, boring. I just didn't like him. It's not simply that he did unlikable things, it's more that he was totally Dullsville. After the stellar development and writing behind John Marston, reluctant hero of Rockstar's amazing Red Dead Redemption, I was hoping for a bit more from their next star. By the time all the events of the game came to a head, I didn't care because I didn't care about him at all. He was far from being the most interesting person in the game. In fact, he was one of the least interesting people in the game, despite his dark past. I just hate feeling that way about a character whose shoes I'm supposed to fill for hours and hours.
I suppose that the gameplay is really the thing in L.A. Noire. It's fun to work the cases, despite the fact that none of it is "fun", you know what I mean? It's all rather grim, and even much of the trademark Rockstar gallows humor is unfortunately M.I.A. throughout. The overall picture never quite gels as dramatically as you'd hope, and the whole thing wraps up with more of a whimper than a bang, although maybe that's the point. The wheels of progress grind onward, life goes on and the such. In the end we all play our parts for good or ill or somewhere in the grey and that's that. All I know for sure is that I am destined only to be a FAKE detective. Believe me, I'm as shocked as you are- especially considering some of the TV shows waiting for me in my Netflix queue.