Insert Credit endeavors to suss out where you should be allotting your video game allowance, sifting out a single title from many and crowning it as The One Game You Need to Get This Week. Don’t consider these reviews, gentle reader. Rather, think of Insert Credit as a mix of hands-on time, informed opinion and intuition.
For the week of May 18, 2011, you should insert credit into: “L.A. Noire”.
For the most part, Rockstar Games’ protagonists have been rebels, people who object to the order of society and/or find themselves on its fringes. If they do make their way to the center, it’s by virtue of bloody reprisals and vengeful comeuppance. From the nameless punk criminal in “Grand Theft Auto 3” to put-upon boarding school student Jimmy Hopkins in “Bully,” the outsider status of Rockstar’s hero characters probably accounts for a lot of their fan base. Their games give you a way to buck the system with the consequence of being arrested.
In “L.A. Noire,” however, you’re the one doing the arresting. Police detective Cole Phelps–portrayed by Aaron Staton of “Mad Men”– maintains the status quo of the social order. You play as a rookie cop and climb through the various desks of the Los Angeles Police Department. “L.A. Noire” faithfully falls in with the tropes of the procedural genre: go to a crime scene, find clues, talk to people who might know something about the crime, use found evidence to expose their lies and/or guilt.
As the game’s writer and head of developer Team Bondi Brendan McNamara has offered, it’s essentially a TV show in video game form. “L.A. Noire” privileges the skill of observation more than anything else. As the actors’ MotionScan-captured faces animate with tics and tells, you confront the veracity of their statements. You can even skip out on the chase scenes and gun fights if you’re having trouble successfully passing them.
You might call it bloodless for the way it de-emphasizing the run-and-gun, but the action is merely shifted to the battle of wills between Phelps and the suspects. No, these faces don’t look real. Better animated than in other games? Yes. But real? No. Yet, there’s something hypnotic about the eye rolls and spasms of the Persons of Interest you interview. On the proving ground of criminal culpability, it’s interpretative skill not twitch reflexes that win the day. A lethal headshot will always have its charms but there’s something satisfyingly addictive about throwing a piece of evidence out that explodes a weak alibi. As you play, you earn Intuition. While this feature is present as a mechanic that lets you strip away false answers and find clues easier, it does feel organic to the way a police career might be built. Of course, you’re getting better at busting bad guys. You’re supposed to, right?
Of course, Phelps does run up against a system to buck, that being the rampant corruption plaguing the LAPD of 1947. But, even in his battles against that perversion of service, he’s righteous in a way Rockstar hasn’t programmed into its games before. The MotionScan technology used by “L.A. Noire” is new and presents a gap between the relative fidelity of the faces and the animations of the character bodies. But the odd brand of intuitive tension the game creates elevates beyond being simply a bunch of Murder in Uncanny Valley sequences and into something far more satisfying. Who knew being a cop would feel so compelling?