Freeze, punk!

Rockstar do a couple of things poorly, and a couple of things adequately. Then, there are the things that they do well. And, my friends, these last are the things that have made them the videogame giant they are.

But let’s have a look-see, shall we? Just for the sake of consistency, let’s take them in order. The things Rockstar generally do poorly in their games. Well, the shooting sequences tend to feel a little unpolished even in GTA games, where busting off caps is a major part of the gameplay. Oh, and developing optimised PC versions of their console mainstays. That’s another thing they don’t do very well. It’s easy to play any Rockstar game and wonder if they are even aware of how much power today’s PCs have over today’s consoles, because their ports are, for the most part, exactly the same.

They also do a few bits adequately without really wowing you. I know this is perhaps related to the console port thing, but graphics have never really set Rockstar games ahead of their competitors. Sure, they’re OK, I suppose, and they certainly have their areas of excellence (more on this in a bit), but you’re never going to really describe them as ‘jaw-dropping’.

But none of that is stuff that would make you rush out and buy the latest GTA, or for that matter LA Noire. Now, onto the secret ingredient. The reason we all love Rockstar games so much.

Firstly, man can they tell a story. Ever since Vice City, they’ve sucked us in with their masterful dialogue and twisting tales of love, betrayal and the seedy underbelly of modern society. The voice acting rarely dips below stellar, and the fusion of humour with grim seriousness – never an easy proposition – is pulled off sublimely. The other thing is that there’s always a tremendous sense of place. I’ve not even picked up GTA: San Andreas in years, but if you were to drop me in Grove Street now, and told me to drive to the Las Venturas strip, I could easily do it without a map. They’re places that come to life, partly through the telling of the stories but also through meticulously researched real-world studies which are then imaginatively recreated in-game. You know if you’re in a seedy area or a well-to-do suburb as soon as you arrive, and it’s all conveyed through little touches like litter-strewn alleys, rose arbours and neon-lit shop signs.

So welcome to LA Noire. The first thing that you’ll notice is that it’s built – very obviously – on the GTA IV engine. So much so that at first it feels like a simple re-skin. But don’t be fooled. Most of your GTA IV skills will be transferrable – running, shooting and driving are essentially the same – but LA Noire requires a lot more from you. See, it’s a game which offers something which is, to me, like air to a drowning man. It offers originality.

Well, almost.

You’re cast in the role of patrolman, and later detective Cole Phelps, and it’s up to you to solve mysteries and crimes on the streets of 1940’s Los Angeles. The chief will assign you to a case, and you’ll head down to the crime scene with your partner and examine the evidence for clues before interviewing witnesses, chasing up possible leads and eventually making arrests. Each and every mystery follows this basic pattern, while managing to be separate and unique from one another. Just like watching cop dramas on TV. Sharp eyes and deductive reasoning are required, and if you catch someone in a lie, you’ll need to back up your accusations with evidence you’ve previously collected.

Much has been said about the new facial graphics and animations, and it’s true that there is a big leap here from anything we’ve seen before. People express feelings clearly on their faces and you’ll learn to identify with the main characters, who are distinctive from one another in ways that videogame characters have struggled to portray before. Shifty-eyed witnesses might give themselves away, and mock-outraged protestations of innocent might be transparent lies, if you’ve got the skills to tell. There’s an element of poker skill here – can you tell who is bluffing?

The investigation and interview techniques are varied and interesting, and for the most part pretty slow-paced. However, once in a while (okay, actually quite frequently) a suspect will run, and you’ll need to get after them, either on foot or in your car. Sometimes you’ll need to shoot at them or train your gun on a fleeing suspect to convince them it’s futile to run from the long arm of the law. Other times you’ll chase them through an alley while your partner brings the car round to head them off.

I can break it down for you like this: If you’ve ever sat through a cop show, and enjoyed it, then you could find something to enjoy in LA Noire. Gameplay is really similar to GTA IV, but way more thoughtful. Sometimes, like the great TV detectives, you’ll have it mostly in the bag, but there’ll just be one small detail that doesn’t add up somehow, and you’ll find yourself muttering , in true Poirot style, things like ‘the one thing that will reveal this cast to me is what kind of washing powder the victim had used on his socks…’

So I mentioned that perhaps its originality is not total. Way back in the day, there was a series of point-and-click adventures called Police Quest (from which the SWAT games grew) that played in a similar way, in that you’d examine crime scenes and the like. But this is way more sophisticated, much more accessible and just far more fun. This is very much a game you can play with a friend, sometimes it’s good to get advice from someone else who might notice something you missed (which is why detectives have partners).

LA Noire is unique among modern games. I have to forgive Rockstar for a pretty lukewarm port to the PC (faces aside, graphically I was expecting way more from this) because they’ve obviously started with a solid and imaginative idea and sort of attached the game afterwards. Most of the fun comes from investigating the plots of the various cases, trying to figure out means and motive, and just generally ‘playing’ a TV police procedural where you make the decisions instead of Columbo, and this is something which works in precisely the same way on the PC as it does on the Xbox.

A quick word has to be said about the dialogue and voice-acting. We’ve reached a watershed here. Gaming now has dialogue and acting that is on a par with TV shows, if not movies. The scripting in LA Noire is every bit as good as that of a TV cop show. This, again, isn’t something we’ve really seen before.

With my partner, Lieutenant Chillaxe in the driving seat, I had no problem with the LA Noire system requirements. But they are pretty a mean-looking bunch: 8GB RAM and a Quad-Core recommended, not to mention the graphics card! This isn’t a game for the lightweight PC. Nor should it be, as the graphics innovations (including 3D Vision gaming, which sadly I didn’t get a chance to try out) should really be experienced at full-tilt, even if the basic background graphics could probably survive a little downwards tweak if absolutely necessary.

I’ve got to tip my fedora to Rockstar for doing something new. Now I better try to get all of this blood washed off my hands…

Phelps loves his job so much he even decorates his flat with blood splatters.