IT was a piece of piddle, solving murders back in the 1940s. All you needed to do was spot the same clues in every case: a matchbook, a size of pair eight shoes and a bloodied wrench. Arsons were equally as easy. Just find an electrician with a mosquito coil in his boot, and lock him up.
This, of course, is bull – or as the Yanks say, horse. You wouldn’t think so, though, playing LA Noire. But ignore the negative tone, because this game, once it gets going, is an experience you probably shouldn’t miss.
Set in 1947, you play Cole Phelps, a young detective making his way up the greasy pole in the cut-throat world of the LAPD. Think TV series The Wire, but set 60 years before.
Starting off on patrol, you move through the traffic department, homicide, vice, and finally arson, solving 21 cases in all. It’s fairly straight-forward: Go to a place where a crime has been committed, look for clues, ask questions, accuse people of lying, chase/shoot/fight someone, use a nearby telephone to find the next location, drive there, and start again.
But that ignores the effort that has gone into making the game feel authentic (would you expect anything less from the makers of GTA?)
The huge sprawl of LA, gloriously drawn, is packed with detail which represents perfectly the city – and post-war America – at a crossroads. New-builds are being thrown up for returning soldiers; young actors and actresses are being drawn to the still-in-its-infancy Hollywood; German escapees are trying to fit in among widespread anti-Hun sentiment; and all the while, everyone is trying to get ahead, often by whatever means necessary.
Every location, every landmark in the city, has been nailed, the period detail is stunning – even the selection of cars is bewildering, with 95 in all, and a trophy for getting behind the wheel of each one.
Amid all this, and central to the plot, are the characters. The script is so well crafted as to draw you in, to make you, if not care about Phelps – an anal, by-the-book detective – then at least believe in him, and those he comes across. You meet drug dealers, dodgy politicians, bent cops, cowboy builders, creepy perverts…all of them convincing.
The main reason is the excellent voice acting, with stars of the small-screen enlisted to give the pixels life.
And this whole web is intertwined with an enormous, confusing-at-first back story, involving Phelps’ time as a soldier fighting the Japanese. It’s replayed in Lost-esque flashbacks, and only really comes together two-thirds of the way through, so be patient.
The depth of the game is dazzling.
Its USP though – its raison d’etre, if you will – is the facial recognition. Remember how impressed you were when all of the baddies in Goldeneye 64 had the faces of the programmers who made the game? Well this is the equivalent for 2011.
When you question suspects, you have to asses whether or not they are lying, or hiding something, judging by clues you’ve found, but also by the way their eyes move, how they touch their face, how shifty they look. They have made a game so close to life that minute details allow you to pick out a murderer, or an arsonist, or a drug dealer. It’s as close to being cop as it’s possible to get, so far, in a computer game.
It’s a long, engaging narrative, and a refreshing game, amid all the shooters, and party games, and sequels, we’ve seen this year. You’ll get bored of the driving. Luckily, you can make your partner drive, skipping to the destination. You’ll get annoyed at sometimes wandering around, pressing X over and over, in the hope of finding a clue, when you hit a dead-end. And if there is a bigger criticism, it can feel repetitive, applying the same techniques, over and over. But then, that’s what real policing is probably like, probably.
There are side-quests, which are unnecessary, but which allow you to explore the expanse of the city some more. They are fun at first, but there are 40 in total, meaning they become a drag, and at times, a bore. And it’s a slow game, with infrequent fast-paced action, rather than a belt-and-braces thriller.
These are relatively minor quibbles, however, in one of the most impressive, and ambitious, titles of 2011.