With the fourth season of Mad Men frustratingly delayed, The Wire's riddles long solved, and not even Steve Buscemi's suits able to raise the so-so Boardwalk Empire to the Sopranos-rivalling titan moored, it's undeniably time for a new box-set experience of style and substance. But we bet no one expected the televisual hole to be filled by a video game. Rockstar, as ever, has other ideas.
Games have tried to ape the TV show format before, usually with episodic cliffhangers in the likes of Alan Wake and the reboot of Alone In The Dark, which seemed almost crowbarred in for dramatic effect. But none have channelled the ebb and flow of a long-running drama quite so effortlessly as LA Noire.
Fresh from lapping up the last of Breaking Bad, we sat down with our better half as we began LA Noire, and several hours later she was still by our side. At first it was the sets, the suits and the Forties atmosphere that it so perfectly recreates hooking her in. Fifteen hours in, she was still finding clues that our tired but willing eyes were missing, not able to turn in till the box set’s dramas were fully devoured.
Sure, it probably helps that half the Mad Men cast make an appearance, most notably Aaron Staton as protagonist policeman Cole Phelps on an LA Confidential-esque personal mission to clean up the amoral maze that is post-war Los Angeles. There's also a startling similarity between Phelps and Mad Men's Don Draper, superficially black and white characters with a penchant for a good suit and trilby who reveal troubles passed and present through frequent and spoiler-tinged military flashbacks.
An over-arching Black Dahlia-flavoured storyline persists throughout, yet each case has its own title sequence, intro, and completion summary, allowing you to dip in and out in one- to two-hour bursts and almost starting afresh with each return, yet the story has evolved. It keeps the experience structured and ensures you’re always moving forward. It’s undoubtedly the most linear Rockstar game for years, but remarkably this never feels like a bad thing.
Rockstar big cheese Dan Houser once told us that the main character in the Grand Theft Auto series was the city, not the protagonist, and while Team Bondi's Los Angeles is just as compelling a construction as Liberty City, teeming with life, vice and landmarks, it's a testament to the script writing that you never go off a-wandering.
You know the MO: missions getting a bit samey, maybe a quick rampage to get the juices flowing? In LA Noire, it never enters your mind. If early reports of not being able to pull your gun unless fired upon set off alarm bells, fear not: this is not that game. Progression is always key, just to unearth the next case, grisly clue, the next force promotion, the next revelation of your troubled soul.
Somehow we’ve come this far without discussing the tech, but that’s the kind of game LA Noire is - it utilises the cutting edge rather than wearing it on its sleeve; you feel a part of the action rather than just sitting back and appreciating the visuals. Yet since we mentioned it, the MotionScan face mapping undoubtedly helps takes it to this level beyond (see our ‘LA Noire secrets’ behind-the-scenes feature). "Interactive movie" has long been a phrase that can only be sneered, so it's interesting that it's taken an interactive TV series to finally lose the Philips CDi-shaped scowl.
The characters are as real as you’ve ever seen: biting lips, glancing sideways, hesitating at key moments, shutting up shop if probed at the wrong times. It’s even been selected as a film festival entry, for christ’s sake. And while the simple ‘Truth’, ‘Doubt’, ‘Lie’ system initially seems quite simplistic, once evidence is flowing into your notebook (or not, as the case may be) it takes on a deeper complexity – you can know someone’s lying, but it must be backed up with your findings. Searching locations and questioning suspects in the correct order becomes increasingly vital.
Of course, we wouldn’t be T3 without a few grumbles. The expectation that dispatch calls will be relatively local is consistently dashed as you often have to drive miles and miles to complete relatively small side quests. Graphical inconsistencies abound on the weaponry front, too, as you pick up a tasty shotgun on a mission, only for you to be back with a tiny pistol at the next cut scene. And for such a generally stunning looking game, we were also surprised to see some graphical degradation when viewing objects in close up.
Also, for a game that relies so much on you working with a partner, to not include multiplayer is quite astounding – we’d be lying if we said we hadn’t daydreamed about setting up our own T3 crime-busting taskforce. Yet, to use BioShock 2 as a reference point, which turned a stunning single player-only predecessor into an average sequel with a so-so multiplayer mode, we’d rather companies focused on nailing one aspect rather than muddying the whole product. And to be frank, we’re clutching at straws here.
The truth is, we’ve not had this much fun playing a game for years. While the hardcore lot will suggest it errs too much on the side of “interactive movie” - it’s very hard to die and your progression isn’t immediately hindered by flunking missions – we would suggest its ethos, a kind of Grand Theft Auto meets Heavy Rain if you want to be so crude, is a refreshingly open one. This is a rich and rewarding experience for everyone – video game fans, Forties nostalgia fans, tech fans and, yes, box-set fans.
There’s certainly no chance in hell this show’s being cancelled. In fact, a second season must surely be an inevitability.
T3 Video: LA Noire: The story so far
Source: T3 Video