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LA Noire: A movie masquerading as a game

LA Noire is an incomparably beautiful work. Its high-definition facial detail, unparalleled lighting animation, and physics are things that no video game or movie has ever created in such magnificent scale or detail. But it’s also something that can hardly be considered a game at all. Rather, LA Noire is more suited for the silver screen than your home theater system.

Games are meant to be played and interacted with, but LA Noire is designed to be watched. This is not a critique, necessarily, but it’s a distinction that needs to be made. LA Noire‘s most immediate ancestors are board games like Monopoly and Life, games that offer the player a very select list of options that force the game’s movement. Make no mistake, despite the autonomy that LA Noire feigns, there is no purpose greater than solving the predetermined case. Despite including street crime cases that can be “solved”–this typically involves a rooftop shootout and the postmortem calling of an ambulance–or the ability to free ride around 1947 Los Angeles, there is no discernible reason to do anything other than drive to where you’re instructed, question who you’re supposed to, and eventually solve your case: I rolled a 12 and landed on Park Place. Should I buy it or just roll again? Repeat.

The game’s actionable features include driving to a location, looking at things (important things are written down for you in a notebook, unimportant ones are disregarded; you’re not able to make this determination) and questioning people. This cycle repeats itself until you’ve found your way to the killer/mastermind/arsonist/etc., only to be repeated in the next case. In an effort to break this status quo, the designers added chase scenes (both on foot and in cars), physical confrontations, and shoot outs, all of which fail to hide the eventuality of the situation. When engaged in a gun fight, the game auto-locks on enemies, because action heroes don’t miss. On-foot chase scenes require no real-time skills other than avoidance of obstacles, many of which your character will involuntarily hurdle or climb if you run into them. And in some instances, the environment will react in cinematic, preplanned ways; that bridge didn’t crumble because you stepped on a switch or took too long, but because you stepped on it at all, and it’s thrilling to watch your character narrowly avoid a catastrophic fall.

LA Noire isn’t even paced like a video game, least of all the sandbox games that developer Rockstar is known for (the Grand Theft Auto series) and this game invariably draws comparisons to. You can hijack any car on the street but they’re all similar in function, handling, and speed, to say nothing of the incentive of keeping your police car in shape (when you’re in a police car, you receive radio dispatches informing you of nearby street crimes). And when you are in transit, your character and his partner have important, relevant-to-the-story conversations about evidence in the case, where to go next, and reflections on where you just came from. It’s scripted, and not in the typical video game sense, which uses repeat jargon to fill down time. Everything a character says is important. The game also conditions you to act in accordance with real-world mores. When questioning people, they quickly shut down if you accuse them of lying too frequently. And slowly combing over crime scenes is not the kind of activity you expect to be doing in a video game. Because of this, for example, you subconsciously drive slowly around the streets of Los Angeles, rather than terrorizing it as you might in similar games.

The real windfall is the detail and presentation, which are both unmatched in the world of CGI. A subtle albeit brilliant feature is the customization of each house and storefront. You don’t drive past endlessly repeating McMansions or family-sized ranches. Instead, each building has a unique design, encouraging you to look around and soak in what the game has to offer. And the high definition facial recognition features present an unrivaled experience. LA Noire teeters on the edge of the Uncanny Valley without falling in.

This is a game that will draw far higher critical praise than player support, because it’s not designed for players. It was no fluke that it was featured at the Tribeca Film Festival. But LA Noire is well written and captivating, making it an interesting watch, but it’s the kind of game that needs to be played primarily to say you’ve played and experienced it, not because it will revolutionize gaming.

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