L.A. Noire

Arresting entertainment or another failed attempt at chasing down the interactive movie?

It was hailed as a milestone in history of videogame development and a new era for interactive entertainment in the run up to its release. But now that L.A. Noire has finally arrived on shop shelves, does Rockstar Games' latest blockbuster live up to the pre-release hype? And does the game really get us any closer to the arrival of the long-fabled interactive movie?

Drawing its inspiration from 1940s/'50 crime movies and authors such as Mickey Spillane and James Ellroy, the game casts you in the role of LAPD officer Cole Phelps, a patrolman on the crime-ridden streets of the post-war City of Angels. Solving crimes see Phelps advancing up the ranks, first to traffic detective, then homicide, vice and arson investigator, with each promotion providing more and more taxing crimes for you to unravel.

Sin city
While it boasts the same kind of high-end 'triple-A' production values, painstaking attention to detail and cinematic storytelling as Rockstar's recent hits Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire couldn't be further removed from the these earlier sandbox titles. Indeed, despite being based around an open-world map of late 1940s Los Angeles that you can drive around to your heart's content, this is a distinctly episodic and altogether more linear experience.

The game is split into individual cases that gun the gammut from murder to (with suitably lurid titles like Buyer Beware, The Fallen Idol and The Silk Stocking Murder), each of which must be solved before progress can be made onto the next installment. The basic structure of each is pretty similar - there's a stylish cutscene depicting the crime in question (which is a bit of a cheat really as it gifts the player knowledge that Phelps could never have, influencing your approach to the crime), then you get to take control of Phelps and drive to the crime scene, poke around for clues and witness statements before heading off to investigate the new tangents that they open up.

If this all sounds pretty regimented, as with all of Rockstar's games, there's actually a terrific variety in the cases under investigation, and in addition to the painstaking search for evidence at crimescenes, L.A. Noire also squeezes in plenty of action, from foot-pursuits to fist-fights, car chases to shootouts, to tax your reactions while the rest of the game taxes your brains. In addition, while driving to crime scenes you'll often pick up calls for police assitance that – if accepted – lead to little mini-missions such as catching a thief or stopping a sniper. There's 40 to be discovered and though a bit repetitious they provide some fun relief from the main storyline (they can also be enjoyed independently of the main game through a free-roaming Streets of L.A. mode that is opened up after getting to a specific point in the story).

Talking heads
So far, so much like an update of the once popular 'point-n-click' adventure game (with a little added action). But the heart of L.A. Noire is actually a fascinating puzzle mechanic based around some pretty spectacular motion-capture technology and strong performances from the roster of acting talent.

As in the real world, collecting evidence is only part of the process in solving a crime, just as import is the process of questioning suspects. Instead of simply selecting questions and listening to answers you instead get to press suspects and witnesses on whether you believe what they're saying to be the truth, a lie or you simply doubt aspects of it based on their actions and facial ticks during the conversation. It all starts easily enough, but before long you'll feel like you're taking part in a high stakes poker game in Vegas as you study every little twitch and eye movment in the hope of getting the result the police captain wants.

Cinema where?
So is L.A. Noire the future of videogaming? Not really. It's an extrmely accomplished game that builds on Rockstar's reputation for borrowing elements from cinema and combining them into extremely attractive and enjoyable videogames. In this way it often feels a lot like the natural successor to the work being done by Cinemaware on the Amiga and Atari ST through games like Defender of the Crown, Rocket Ranger and It Came from the Desert.

As far as that much-abused term 'interactive movie' goes, it's not really any more of a step forward than last year's intriguing PS3 exclusive Heavy Rain. And like that game, L.A. Noire could never have truly lived up to the pre-release claims that were made about it. But while it's not the radical videogame some may have been expecting, and it certainly isn't without some annoying problems (not least some crippling long load times on the three-disc Xbox 360 version we reviewed - maybe the Blu-ray based PS3 version fares better in this regard?), there's still plenty about L.A. Noire to both admire and enjoy.

Xbox 360 (version tested)/PS3, Rockstar Games, £45 approx, On sale now