The latest from Rockstar Games, creator of the Grand Theft Auto series, is a gloriously and painstakingly realised vision of Los Angeles in the hardboiled era. But LA Noire is a little thin on actual gameplay.
LA Noire breaks new ground in computer games
Hype is something Rockstar Games must have become accustomed to. Ever since it burst on to the scene with the genre-defining and game-changing Grand Theft Auto series, this little developer has been the Judd Apatow of the video game world, almost unable to put a scruffy pump wrong. And through a few, let's just say "less than family-friendly" themes, it has managed to gain a lot of headlines in the process.
Since its latest offering, LA Noire, was released in the UAE last week, it has been flying off shelves by the cartload. It's not the first Rockstar release to generate the sort of buzz you might expect from a major Hollywood production, but this one blurs the lines between video game and film more than anything before it. Right from the opening credits, it feels like a big-budget movie. Thankfully, considering the price, this one lasts considerably longer.
Available for the PlayStation3 and Xbox 360 platforms, LA Noire blends the hardboiled crime novels of Raymond Chandler (it even has a throaty narrator) and the film noir look of LA Confidential within the 3D game world of Grand Theft Auto.
It is set in a stunningly crafted post-war 1940s Los Angeles, and you play Cole Phelps, a returning war hero making a big noise in the LA Police Department. Starting on the streets, you move from case to case, rising through the ranks to Homicide and Vice (and getting smarter three-piece suit and hat combos as you go), covering everything from blackmail, drugs, corruption and the odd traffic offence (which unravels into a huge trail of conspiracy and murder). Each criminal misdemeanour you're assigned to becomes gradually more complex, involving vital clues, car chases, fistfights, gun battles and interrogation sessions. You must examine dead bodies for evidence, build up cases against suspects and speed around town in an impressive number of gorgeously rendered motors from the period.
The graphics, instantly attention-grabbing and the main focus of the buzz, are simply astonishing. Los Angeles - clad in Art Deco architecture - is unlikely to have ever looked better. Many gamers will probably find their jaws on the floor the first time they see the street lights flicker off the car bonnet as Phelps cruises the city at night, or at least smile with appreciation at the distinct, animated creases in his jacket during chase scenes.
More impressively, new technology in the form of MotionScan has been used to capture performers' expressions, giving the faces a far more convincing feel than anything else on the market. And with plenty of television actors (many from another remarkable period piece: Mad Men) providing the faces, you're likely to spend a fair amount of time wondering where you've seen them before.
Giving you a chance finally to attack your popcorn, the cut scenes, which appear in between most cases and help build up much of the back story around the central characters, are impressive enough to have the average first-time glancer believe he or she is looking at a film.
But stunning graphics don't make the game. And, unfortunately, it's the gameplay where LA Noire doesn't quite live up to the excitement. Each individual case is fun - especially those that involve gunfights and/or car chases (which are most of them) - but are linked by a story that after a while feels like a control freak with little time for messing around.
Whereas LA Noire might look at first like Grand Theft Auto with tweed jackets and neat haircuts, it lacks the freedom that made GTA so instantly playable. Because you move from case to case with a sense of utmost urgency, there's little time in between to explore the city so painstakingly and magnificently designed. Even when you have a go at the mini-games (generally involving scraps with ne'er do wells) that crop up across town, you feel like you're neglecting your duties because there's a murder or something like that to be solved.
The number of things to interact with is also disappointingly small. GTA allowed you to take the street and pretty much assault whomever you pleased (not an essential part of the game, but among the most enjoyable elements), but with LA Noire, outside of the actual cases there's very little you can get involved in. While you search for clues, the game does occasionally scatter a few unimportant items around that you can pick up, hinting at all-out interaction. But after a while, being so infrequent, these come to seem like things that are there solely to show off the clever graphics engine as your character rotates an object in his hand and then puts it down again.
Much of the fun (and controversy) in Rockstar's previous output arose from the fact that you play a distinctly unlawful chap and, as such, you can do anything you please. But with LA Noire focused on an annoyingly moral and law-abiding policeman, these options are out of the question. You even get told off for bumping into other vehicles (which you'll want to do, given the dearth of other naughtiness available).
The lack of unprovoked grievous bodily harm aside, LA Noire is still a vastly impressive creation that further pushes the boundaries of gaming. The graphics alone are worth a visit, and the storyline, bar a few odd additions (Phelps's troubled past doesn't seem very important), is as absorbing as you'll find in a game.
But in developing something that strides towards the film world more than anything else, LA Noire has unfortunately neglected the all-important role of the gamer. Rather than playing an important part in helping direct its course, in LA Noire you feel like a bystander, with your success or failure in each case irrelevant to the overall storyline. Hopefully there'll be a sequel but, fingers crossed, with gameplay as central as the story. And that you play LA's baddest criminal mastermind.
LA Noire is available across the UAE, and the retail price for both Xbox 360 and PS3 is Dh299.