May 25, 2011

L.A. Noire : Rockstar Grows Up

If you want to play a game where you portray a detective — and constantly inspect dead, naked ladies with your hands — while tracking down suspects, then "L.A. Noire" is your welcome mat.

"Noire" is a very glorified detective thinker, featuring many movies' worth of stories, film scenes, characters and twists.

You drive the streets of 1940s Los Angeles, solving one case after another. Some cases could easily consume an hour or three.

You start each mystery by scrutinizing a murder scene, grabbing a corpse's head, arms and pockets (if the corpses aren't nude), and looking for clues.

Then you search the surrounding area for incriminating matchbooks, bloody knives and so forth.

From there on, cases consist of interviewing witnesses and persons of interest.

These interviews are what the game is all about. Rockstar Games filmed scores of actors with 32 cameras rolling at once. This gives each interviewee's face rich dynamics that no game has presented before.

This matters, for you must pay very close attention to darting eyes, wrinkled foreheads and peculiar blinking to gauge whether someone is fibbing.

If you accuse an innocent of lying, he will clam up. If you accuse a suspect of lying, you better have collected evidence to shove in that person's face to support your claim.

You must think of "L.A. Noire" as the product of Rockstar, creators of the uber-violent "Grand Theft Auto" series.

"Noire" does look somewhat like a "GTA," but only in that it recreates an entire city and long stretches of cinema. It isn't a "GTA" shooter, although there is a smattering of shootouts, car chases and foot chases.

I give Rockstar a slow clap and a "bravo" for growing up — for writing, directing and producing a story-heavy, taut thriller that's almost moralizing.

And this game looks amazing, hewing to the aura of noir and neo-noir films, circa Fedoras and pay phones.

Fantastically, Rockstar has learned lessons from previous Rockstar flaws by letting you effortlessly flash-forward quickly to crime scenes without backtracking, and giving you a few cheat options for sticky situations. There are also shooting side missions.

"Noire" isn't for the feint of language, derived from the era. Since this is the 1940s, racist-jerk cops spew archaic slang, African-Americans hold terrible jobs, a Jewish suspect acts from his experience with anti-Semitism, and one suspect resides in a "hobo camp."

"Noire" is a most ambitious detective puzzler (evolutionary, not revolutionary). It's not exactly joyous, but it is intriguing, succumbing to just one occasional stumble (when buttons suddenly get less responsive).

Also, if you know anything about real-life detectives, you'll realize your character is a clumsy interrogator, but this is noir, not reality.

"Noire" does not serve as a distraction from your hectic life, as games are wont to do. You must stay on your toes.

If while gaming, you look down to pet your cat, you will get totally lost. For that reason, I pay rapt attention. Therefore, my cat despises it.

("L.A. Noire" by Rockstar retails for $60 for Xbox 360 and PS 3 — Plays intriguing. Looks great. Very challenging. Rated "M" for blood, gore, nudity, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs and violence. Four stars out of four.)

Doug Elfman is an award-winning entertainment columnist who lives in Las Vegas. He blogs at http://www.lvrj.com/columnists/Doug_Elfman.html.

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