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L.A. Noire is a wonderful amalgam of cop drama, adventure game and open-world playground. Tension melts into schizophrenia and suspense as I lose myself in the game, even if I am taken out of the world on occasion by an army of tiny issues.
From the moment I first heard about L.A. Noire I was excited and nervous for it in near equal measure. Developer Team Bondi's focus on procedural police work as a driving force behind the game play, with a huge reliance on facial expressions, fascinated me. However, the knowledge that it would be blended with a Rockstar open-world game was troubling. I remembered the duality of most Rockstar game protagonists, how regularly running people down made them seem like sociopath, and wondered how it could blend with the fiction of being a cop.
My concerns certainly felt justified as I ran down my first civilian as LAPD detective Cole Phelps. A small pop up telling me this was not acceptable behaviour for a police officer felt under whelming as a second and third hapless civilian bounced off the bonnet of my 1940's Chevy. My suspension of disbelief was further ruptured as I ran the old boiler into a wall and found myself dragging a driver from their car in order to continue my leisurely drive around the city.
No matter how much I tried I was unable to reconcile Cole's straight-laced police persona with my actions in the game. What the game let me do and what Cole would believably do were two separate things. If this Cole I created was real, he would be a man to be feared.
Moving into the investigative sections I am spared Cole's duality for a moment, as I'm drawn in to the drama of the cases. Each case is presented like an old cop drama, and while I get clues from the short introductions, Cole gets nothing.
Starting from scratch his first task at a crime scene is building an idea of events. As he does so discordant music begins to play, it is a necessary but flawed conceit designed to allow me to know when an area is picked clean of clues, leaving me with no doubt that I have all the tools I need to continue my investigation.
Every choice becomes filled with tension as I try and read the expression in front of me.
I am partly thankful for the help, but it robs L.A. Noire of what should be one of its greatest selling points, the fear of failing by omission. I would have preferred to miss evidence and be faced with uncertainty as I struggled in cases, rather than combing maps for clues waiting for the music to stop.
After examining the scene and finding every piece of evidence (as well as every empty beer bottle) L.A. Noire comes alive as I question witnesses. Using 3D facial capture technique Team Bondi have been able to show every subtle expression in their cast's performances, and it is impressive.
This is more than graphical trimmings though, interrogations rely on this facial fidelity and force you to scrutinise suspects carefully to decide the on best line of questioning. A glance to the left, a swallow, is it a lie or the stress of the situation.
Mistakes close possible paths forward but never stop the game. Making the right (or wrong) conviction is left to my skills as an investigator. Every choice becomes filled with tension as I try and read the expression in front of me, and each error leaves me wondering if I make as many mistakes dealing with people in real life.
There is a schizophrenic aspect to Cole's rendering in the game.
Perversely it is the technology's success that is also its greatest problem. So convincing is the illusion it creates that anything-unnatural breaks the effect. There is a schizophrenic aspect to Cole's rendering in the game, his temper flares in response to an answer before abruptly cutting to a new calm line of questioning as the game struggles to keep up with the conversations increasing drama. It's a necessity evil of the system, but one that makes Cole's uneven demeanour feel all the more crazed.
But all my negativity towards L.A. Noire (and Cole's insanity) stem from its strengths. It's because I'm lost in the experience that any jarring element seems so problematic. More often I'm so absorbed that I forgot I'm even playing a game.
Team Bondi are magicians who managed to keep my attention away from their deception with engrossing story and performances. It is only when something is so apparent I can't miss it that I realise it isn't really magic but a clever illusion, which is no less of an achievement.
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