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Los Angeles is a crazy place, and I don’t say that in any lofty metaphorical sense. I mean that literally. If you lived here you would be privy to a host of stories that range from the mundane to the insane, told by people of similar qualities. We have played host to some of the best real life dramas ever to be broadcast on the national news. And, you would think that after all these years Los Angeles would have figured out a way to settle down. But what’s funny is that the more things change, the more they stay the same… Los Angeles is a city defined by change so much as it is defined by roles and archetypes. Corrupt politicians, police officials, and Hollywood scandals have and always will be part of the landscape. And living here invariably makes you either numb or cynical to it. Maybe that’s why I dissected L.A. Noir so meticulously… feeling like simply living in Los Angeles somehow qualified me to offer that much more of an expert opinion on the subject matter, or the game at large. And dissect I did.
There is something engaging in playing a role in something that plays so much to the history of the city that you spent most of your life in. LA Noire let me navigate the streets of LA with some modicum of predictability, and it let me see a lot of the city before it became the behemoth that it is today. Places like Pershing Square, where I have spent considerable amounts of time, and the tunnel that cuts through Hill St, that has been used in hundreds of films and television shows. These things are home to me, and seeing them through the looking glass of time is very cool.
With that being said, Cole Phelps is a moron. Or rather you can make him be a moron. You can play the role of the dumbest gumshoe to ever walk a beat, and still manage to wrap things up nicely. You see, the game comes equipped with a fair amount of hand holding when it comes to evidence collection… this comes in the form of vibrating controller prompts, musical cues, and audible observations from the man of the hour himself, Cole Phelps. As if these things weren’t enough of an assault on the senses, there is the unceremoniously manic manner in which Phelps conducts himself while prowling through any individual’s psychological make-up. Cole Phelps’ interview demeanor is insane… in one moment he is the pinnacle of assertiveness, a forceful detective eager to slap the silver bracelets of justice onto someone’s wrists, on even the flimsiest of accusations. And in the next moment Phelps is a blubbering, stammering, apologetic, sissy, who can’t back out of a line of questioning fast enough for fear of some perceived offense on the part of the person receiving the berating just moments earlier. This is a direct result of your line or lines of questioning, and depending on the question you ask, you can illicit these responses out of Cole’s interview subjects, and Cole himself. It’s a bizarre sort of paradoxical thing that exists only in this game, if only because so many other things shine about the human interaction in LA Noire, that they have brought a focus to the micro problem that exists within it. The facial expressions, the nervous twitches, the giveaway signals of the uniquely human ability to convincingly lie to your face… they’re all here. Those moments of jaw dropping accuracy are something to behold, if not marvel over.
The hollow moments arrive in between those great ones. As I mentioned before, they happen in moments of error that you can’t always account for. I had a surprisingly pristine track record with questioning in the game, but then I would get a question wrong, and the response from both the character and Phelps bothered me enough to explore it. I then began to live a life of constant ignorance, and became the single dumbest detective that Los Angeles had ever seen. It didn’t matter, nothing changed except I was now exposed to a myriad of bizarre responses that confounded everyone in the room. Questions without evidence, witnesses not crumbling or folding under pressure, but giving me increasingly quizzical looks as I repeatedly asked them the most obscure, and tenuously connected questions possible. And still, I marched on. I couldn’t be stopped. I was like some kind of idiot dynamo, never failing to find a final resolution (albeit as sloppily as possible) to every single case the LAPD could dish out. Even when the game attempts to give you the true “Black Dhalia” experience, and test your mettle, the ultimate outcome is that it doesn’t really matter.
There’s a terrific story that pumps the heart of this game though, and the characters that populate it are interesting, and funny enough to keep you feeling the appropriate emotional response depending on the scenario. But without a doubt the biggest thing that helps this game, is the sheer believability of the performances that has been made possible by the technology employed here. Never before in my life have I ever seen faces so nuanced with emotion, or so rife with subtext. There truly is an honest attempt to replicate the conditions that make basic interpersonal relationships possible, and when it works it really truly works to a level that will astound the most jaded of gamers, old or new. But then there are the inescapable moments of truth when it fails, and when those moments manage to break through to the surface the result is a little less than pretty. Add in the fact that at the end of the day, your skill as a detective won’t inhibit your ability to finish the game, or even solve cases unless you turn some of the hand holding completely off. At the game’s default difficulty setting, even the most casual gumshoe will be able to see his way through to the end of the game’s not surprisingly well crafted narrative.
La Noire is a lot of things. It’s a great detective story that is set within the most faithful reproduction of my city from it’s very own Golden Age. It is also the single most convincingly human experience that has been portrayed in a game thus far, and it’s very bold in the bulk of the subject matter that it touches. At the heart of the story, Cole Phelps is a man much like any soldier coming home today and trying to find a place of poignant redemption in the face of horror that was committed during a time of war. War changes a man, and scars him, and makes him brittle in the face of his own cowardice or avarice, or it tempers a man and turns him into something more. Like a crucible. At the heart of LA Noire, there is a valiant effort to translate those emotions into something palpable for the larger gaming public.
I want to be clear about something here. LA Noire’s gameplay never really struck a chord with me. The side missions were seemingly meaningless, the cases and their resolutions oftentimes seemed obvious to me, but the method for questioning to connect the things that I knew as a person controlling Cole Phelps, into it actually becoming Cole Phelps accurately representing those things? That was a little less clear, and sometimes felt contrived or too complex, or too simplistic, etc. However the major redeeming thing this game does well is weave narrative in a very close depiction of a film noir release. These things weren’t perfect for sure, but the craft behind them, and the want to do these things within an industry like this is genuine gritty American determination that results in a product that while isn’t perfect, does enough different from the rest to escape an excuse to miss it.
LA Noire is available now for XBOX 360, and PS3
It was developed by Team Bondi, and published by Rockstar Games.
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