When a game comes saddled with as much hype as L.A. Noire, one is tempted to judge it by an unattainable standard. Does it represent a highwater mark for technical achievement? Does it advance the video game as an artistic medium? These are the conversations lighting up gaming blogs and message boards. But is L.A. Noire any good? That turns out to be a harder question.
You can hardly blame insecure players who are still waiting for some higher power to confer cultural legitimacy on games, especially when Roger Ebert still walks the earth. L.A. Noire seems like a better candidate than most to earn that honor. Set in 1940s Los Angeles, it follows the travails of Cole Phelps, a straight-arrow cop whose investigations keep putting him at odds with some of the city's most powerful figures. Although the storyline is very much genre stuff, the world in which it takes place is our own. Grand Theft Auto–style mayhem isn't on the menu.
L.A. Noire's central conceit is bold, especially for a big-budget game: it's a slow, methodical police procedural. After arriving at a crime scene, Phelps scours the area for clues. (Inspecting fresh corpses is a gruesome task.) He interviews eyewitnesses, follows leads, and, usually, hauls one or more suspects down to the station for interrogation.
Much of your time is spent determining whether those suspects are lying. This can be accomplished by matching up their testimony with the evidence you've gathered, but more often you can tell just by watching the person's face. Detailed facial animations mean you can see every dry swallow and sideways glance. In this case, the hype is real: you really can read the actors' faces, clear as day.
What's not so clear is what you do with this information. After a subject speaks, you have three response options: "Truth," "Doubt," and "Lie." The first two don't always mean what they should. Sometimes they're just distinguishing between a soft touch and a strong-arm. Selecting "Lie" works only if you have solid evidence that contradicts the statement, but the game's tenuous logic doesn't always make sense even in retrospect. It's frustrating to get an answer wrong and not understand why, but not as bad as getting the answer right and not understanding why — which happens almost as often.
When L.A. Noire goes to the well of standard action-game tropes, it suffers. Although the interrogation scenes are varied and surprising, the action scenes tend to play out the same way over and over. Fistfights, shootouts, and car chases all follow a template from the beginning to end, with varying degrees of competence. And when Phelps has to shadow a suspect on foot, the result is a spectacular bellyflop of a stealth sequence in which his quarry appears capable of seeing through walls.
L.A. Noire is ambitious enough to be taken seriously. As a whodunit, it provides a cerebral satisfaction that's missing from most high-profile console games, and its advances in character animation set a new standard. But with its stiff, awkward, abundant action sequences, it's far too often guilty of playing to the cheap seats — and badly, at that. This is not a step forward for the medium; it's just the same old story.