So, recently I’ve been getting back into L.A. Noire. I reckon I first played the game back in 2012. So, five years on from my original playthrough of the game, how does the game hold up? Also, what was the effect of L.A. Noire on the wider games industry, as at the time of release it was both wildly ambitious and occupied a slice of the cultural landscape for that year.
So, some background. L.A. Noire was released in May 2011 on consoles, and November 2011 on PC. It was developed by Team Bondi and published by Rockstar Games. With Team Bondi being a Sydney-based company, it may be the largest game that Australia has ever created. However, just months after the game was released, talk of mismanagement and lack of proper attribution left a stain on the company’s reputation and unable to find a publisher for their next game and facing the downward turn that the Australian games industry had taken, the company filed for liquidation and closed its doors.
So what is L.A. Noire? Well, as the name suggests, it’s a detective game. Set in the 1940s, with all the trappings of the film noir genre. One thing that makes the game stand out is the tech. Motion capture is somewhat common in games. What L.A. Noire did that no other game did was its faces. I don’t fully understand it, but they used this technology called MotionScan wherein dozens of cameras are placed around an actor to capture every subtle acting movement, capturing a performance completely. It’s similar to how Andy Serkis’ CG roles are captured somewhat. Everybody got Gollum’d essentially.
This is something that no game had done before and no game has done since. Mostly because it’s so damn expensive. The reason L.A. Noire pursued it was because the developers saw the facial capture system as being essential to the experience of being a 1940s detective, particularly when it came to interviewing witnesses. With that said, let’s talk about the gameplay. There are four aspects to L.A. Noire’s gameplay. The driving, the shooting, the interviewing, and the investigating. The driving and shooting are clunky (Not helped by my issues with using a gamepad on PC and the right thumbstick just straight up not working) but the games excels with the interviewing and the investigating.
When it comes to the interviewing and the investigating, this is one aspect where the game excels. The game is finely crafted to make you feel like the lead detective in a long-running tv series. The game doesn’t quite feel real all the time, but I reckon it doesn’t need to. It feels like playing through all the media that inspired its creation. Cases have clues and answers. The only time you can’t solve the case is when the plot demands that the case go ‘unsolved’ as it were.
You play as Cole Phelps, a good but unwavering detective who soars up the ranks of the LAPD and seems to piss off every corrupt city official along the way. The process of going from desk to desk with a new partner each time feels like seasons in a tv series. I suppose it helps that the cast is filled out with characters actors who you’ve probably seen on TV. Investigating involves canvassing a crime scene for clues pertaining to the case. My only bugbear with this feature is that clues are often marked at a crime scene and when not investigating a crime scene it quickly becomes obvious what is and isn’t important. However, I think that mostly works for the feeling of being a detective without capturing the monotony.
The interviewing seems to be the feature that was touted at launch but has been somewhat mocked in recent years for the facial animations being somewhat overwrought. Personally, replaying the game I often get the feeling that I’m repeating the same mistakes that I did five years ago. My driving has vastly improved though.
So, what do I wish gaming would take from L.A. Noire. Well, nothing quite since has captured the feeling of canvassing a crime scene. In VR, investigating a crime scene could be even more immersive. I wish more games tried to grab the trappings of strong genres like film noir. More noir games would be nice. All these aspects could be taken by the indie space without the need for the exorbitantly expensive facial capture system of L.A. Noire. The notebook as a port of call for all your information is a stroke of genius and I wish other games could tell me at a glance what the state of play was when I jump back in.
L.A. Noire feels unmoored in the history of gaming. Aesthetically it feels most similar to other Rockstar titles. However, it’s hard to think of a game that sunk its teeth so deeply and effectively into a narrative world like that of 1940s Los Angeles. L.A. Noire is a monolith of superb writing and pitch-perfect aesthetic choice in such a way that I can’t think of a game that so effectively apes the media it is using as inspiration. Let me know in the comments and on social media if I’ve forgotten a game that works the way L.A. Noire works. I’d love to dive in and check it out.