film noir - noun; a motion picture with an often grim urban setting, photographed in somber tones and permeated by a feeling of disillusionment, pessimism, and despair.
-- dictionary.com, based on the Random House Dictionary
Noir is a state of mind. It is a cinematic style. It is a literary style. It encompasses a diverse grouping of indicators, genres, and treatments. Noir is hard to define, but easy to recognize. It is L.A. Noire.
On May 17th, 2011, Team Bondi and Rockstar Games released, for the PS3 and Xbox 360, L.A. Noire. And the gaming world will, or at least should, never be the same again.
First, a little background of where I'm coming from.
I love the noir style. From films such as The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and The Third Man to The Big Lebowski, L.A. Confidental, The Black Dhalia and Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, I love the films that show the seedier side of the world. So, too, do I love the books and short stories many of these movies are based from, as well as the plethora of fantastic, hardboiled crime fiction that has yet to be captured on the big screen. Ever since, as a child, I watched The Third Man with my father, I have been drawn to this cinematic schadenfreude.
Then, in 2004, I heard rumors of an adventure game encapsulating this style coming to consoles. It was being funded by Sony Computer Entertainment America. It then got pushed back into the then "next generation" of consoles. That sealed it. I vowed that, by the time this game came out, I would own a PS3. Later, February of 2010 to be exact, it was announced for the Xbox 360. Nevertheless, it was always a PS3 game, so deep down I wanted it for that system. And at 12:10 am, on May 17th, 2011, I bought the PS3 version of L.A. Noire.
Now, as many of you may know, since late April, the PlayStation Network has been down. Unfortunately, since I bought the PS3 version of the game, I can't speak to the extra missions or outfits that were given away at launch during this playthrough. They won't be accessible until, as all reports are leaning towards, May 24th. When that happens, I will play it again, shooting for 100% completion. Until then, know that this finished playthrough focused on completing the main storyline of 21 cases and collecting all 13 newspaper flashbacks (more on that later). I did not explore overmuch. But I did immerse myself in the story being told, and what a ride that was.
L.A. Noire takes place in 1947 Los Angeles, amid reassimilating GIs from WWII, the burgeoning Hollywood film industry, and the booming land development of the area. The gameplay style takes influence from open-world, sandbox type games such as Rockstar's own Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead series, and mixes adventure gaming tropes throughout. The primary protagonist is Cole Phelps, a returning veteran from the Pacific Theater of WWII, decorated with a Silver Star and reassuming his role as a beat cop in the Los Angeles Police Department. He is determined to "right the wrongs" committed during the war, and is a strict, by-the-books cop who closes cases with alarming alacrity.
Traveling through the, almost magically, faithfully recreated city, you must help Phelps investigate and solve numerous crimes; first a support for the detectives of the LAPD, then as one. You move through Traffic, Homicide, Ad Vice and Arson as the story progresses, taking on the various crimes assigned to your department.
The controls are almost identical to other Rockstar-published games. The left analog stick controls movement, the right controls the camera. The directional pad scrolls through choices, while the face buttons are situational. Very familiar controls for familiar gameplay styles. As you interrogate, each face button serves as your reaction to the previous statement: Truth (you believe them), Doubt (you don't feel like they are telling the whole truth, but have no proof) or Lie (you have proof to back up your doubts). Streamlined, seamless and familiar.
The writers at Team Bondi better win an award. The plot of the game starts off almost banal, your stereotypical "police procedural." It presents you with the common stereotypes of the genre, normal settings, prerequisite voice-over ... and then tips it all on its side. The character development, even early on, is mind-blowing. The cases, at first, seem common enough ... until you keep seeing the many-faceted conspiracy unfolding. As you progress through the cases, you are treated to the present day (gameplay), what happens in the shadows (in a clever "behind the headlines" style as you pick up various newspapers), and what happened in the past (WWII flashbacks between each case). The story unfolds masterfully, keeping your interest piqued while always leaving you wanting to know more. Even minor characters feel like fleshed-out humans, enough so that one can only imagine what the games design Bible must look like. By grounding it all in the reality if 1947 Los Angeles, it presents an uncanny window into that era. And it does it exceptionally.
You can thank a company called Depth Analysis and their MotionScan technology for this category being called "Acting" instead of "Voice Work." By using state-of-the art motion capture technology alongside 32 surrounding cameras, not only do the actors bring their voices into the game, but their very faces. Having not watched Mad Men (yet), I can't accurately judge how well Aaron Staton has been presented as the main character of Cole Phelps. But when I saw, instead of heard, two actors I am familiar with in the game, it impressed upon me how truly amazing this technology was. While investigating a murder, I began to interrogate a Person of Interest named Hugo Moller. I hadn't really been paying attention when he showed up on scene, and when I looked back to a facial close-up of the character, I was staring right at Greg Grunberg, of Heroes and Alias fame. It was eerie. The mannerisms, the small facial tics ... spot on. Later, you meet with wealthy land developer Leland Monroe, portrayed by none other than John Noble, of Fringe and The Lord of the Rings fame. And wow. It was almost like watching an episode of Fringe set in 1947 Los Angeles. The sheer number of credited cast is mind-boggling for a video game (over 300 credited in the game manual). And they were all in the game.
Andrew Hale (of the band Sade) has composed a masterful score, filled with jazzy horns and somber pianos. I am, in fact, listening to the soundtrack as I write this, to keep in the mood. As amazing as the score is, complementing it is the licensed music, authentic to the era, that plays on the car radio (which unfortunately you could not change stations on) and throughout the city on public radios in shops. Not only that, but there are actual clips from The Jack Benny Program, The Charlie McCarthy Show, and The Bickersons (starring a young Don Ameche). Rounding that out are commercials and news broadcasts headed up by Lazlow, of GTA fame.
Not only are there 21 main cases to solve (where you can get from 1 to 5 stars, depending on your effectiveness while solving the cases) and 13 newspapers to read for the main storyline, but there are 95 different authentic cars to drive, 50 golden film reels to discover, 30 landmarks to visit, 40 street crimes to aid in stopping/resolving, numerous weapons to fire, and a "boatload" (pun is intentional, but you'll only get it after playing the game) of DLC containing 20 police badges to help level you up quicker and extra outfits, weapons and cases. There is also "Black and White" mode to play with, placing a monochrome filter on the game for the added noir feel. And plenty of trophies/achievements for those who are into such things. There will also be added content through the Rockstar Social club. Plenty to keep you coming back for more noir. Oh, and stick around post-credits ... it's worth it.
This game is easily one of my favorites of recent times. It may grow to be my favorite single game of all time, on repeated playthroughs. Only time will tell. But I will say that this should be considered a frontrunner for any "Game of the Year" discussions. Between solid, tried-and-true gameplay interspersed with unique adventure game mechanics and a revolutionary new motion capture technique, not only with this game turn heads at film festivals (such as the Tribeca Film Festival, where it was shown as a 60 minute film) but also gaming awards worldwide.
Hopefully Team Bondi and Rockstar will grace us with plenty more "Noire" in the future, but for now ... do yourself a favor. Go out and get a copy of L.A. Noire. Don't get left in the dark. (Subtle pun there, as noir = black ... heh.)
See ya next Punday! -- Michael
*All images are PSP sized wallpapers from Rockstar's official L.A. Noire site.