Arthur C Clarke once wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic. I imagine that’s how anyone who hasn’t played a computer game since, say, Doom or Sonic the Hedgehog might feel about LA Noire. The game, set in the police force of Los Angeles in the 1940s, is both very new and very traditional.
The novelty comes from its unique motion-capture system. Instead of blank-eyed heads parrotting clunky lines at you, LA Noire‘s characters deliver the sharp script with a mixture of grimaces, shifty eyes, nervous tics and eerily recognisable mannerisms. (The likenesses are so good that you can play a rewarding meta-game of “spot the American character actor”: veterans of Heroes, Dexter and Buffy appear.)
The story follows an LAPD officer, Cole Phelps (played by Aaron Staton, Mad Men’s Ken Cosgrove), who is not long back from fighting the Japanese at Okinawa. He’s a by-the-book cop in a motley police department, trying to bring justice to a Los Angeles that’s just as corrupt as that of the films LA Confidential or Chinatown.
The movie references are particularly apt here, because this is a game that aspires, above all, to be cinematic. There’s the budget, for a start — reportedly upwards of $50m — which has enabled Rockstar to create an exquisitely detailed game world, complete with period cars and clothes (not to mention some very period attitudes to race and gender). The music, too, is subtly excellent, with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to drive to and wailing jazz stings to indicate the presence of clues at crime scenes.
For me, however, the most innovative aspect of LA Noire is the maturity of its storyline: there’s none of the sniggering puerility of Rockstar’s major franchise, Grand Theft Auto. Even better, Cole Phelps’s character develops over the course of the story; something that is all too rare with video game protagonists and has inhibited their ability to provoke empathy.
The irony is that what makes LA Noire so good as a filmic experience sometimes holds it back as a game. Despite its huge map and cast of characters, the game is tightly linear. In this, it’s more like a traditional point-and-click adventure, such as Monkey Island, than the more recent — and similarly cinematic — Heavy Rain, where your choices have more far-reaching consequences. Also, the game is sometimes so keen to help you get things right, with sounds and vibrations aiding you to find clues, and your partner chipping in if you’re making a real hash of things, that you can feel like a passenger rather than a protagonist.
Nonetheless, LA Noire is an ambitious and successful game, extraordinary both in what it is and in what it represents for the industry. And there is one key respect in which it differs from a film: in the age of the 90-minute megaplex blockbuster, it demands more than 20 hours of your time to tell a sprawling, dark, mature and intricately connected story.
Helen Lewis-Hasteley is an assistant editor of the New Statesman. She tweets: @helenlewis