Published May 26, 2011Rockstar Games will always be known as the Grand Theft Auto guys, but the house the Houser Brothers built has always had higher ambitions than the political uproar over dead digital hookers would indicate.
Rockstar is actually an auteurist outfit ― almost every game they produce is aesthetic linked and identifiably theirs. In an industry rife with capable but cookie-cutter blockbusters, Rockstar has always forged its own bloody path. Like Quentin Tarantino, they create high art out of low culture while maintaining a distinctive voice despite working with borrowed parts. But while QT's cinematic homages win endless acclaim despite their ultra-violence, the mainstream media still doesn't quite "get" gaming and therefore views Rockstar's games as just that: games. L.A. Noire, however, may finally change that.
For Rockstar's critics who consider GTA nothing but a criminal incubator, the biggest reaction will be that they've finally made a game where you play as the police. But the revolution isn't that they've shifted their protagonist perspective; it's the company's dedication to interactive storytelling.
Past Rockstar games have had ambitious stories, but they were always secondary to the "wow" factor of their open worlds. L.A. Noire's 1947 Los Angeles is as impeccably put-together as GTA 4's Liberty City or Red Dead Redemption's Wild West ― or past-gen GTA jaunts to reasonable facsimiles of '80s Miami, '90s L.A. and '00s NYC ― but this time that's secondary to the hardboiled tale Rockstar is telling.
Admittedly, the narrative's importance reduces a certain amount of the go-anywhere, do-anything spark that fuelled past Rockstar games. The world is open and there are side-missions to solve and the odd collectible to find, but this is a vastly more linear experience. Some critics will complain that we're simply being nudged along a storyline rather than creating our own, and they would have an understandable argument. But that doesn't lessen the game's landmark achievement.
Though there are chases, fights and gunplay to spice up the cases, the gameplay revolves around detective work ― investigating crime scenes and interrogating witnesses. The latter is done by facial cues because the company's newfangled MotionScan tech creates the best digital mugs in gaming history, not least of which is lead character Cole Phelps, a war vet turned LAPD detective deftly acted by Aaron Staton (aka Mad Men's Ken Cosgrove). Other Mad Men alum, and countless character actors, also appear, lending the enterprise a class rarely seen in gaming. The jazz score and ability to play in black & white ramp up an atmosphere, which is already sky-high thanks to the period-perfect details that mark everything here, from the post-war fashions to the film-noir hat tips.
Structurally, it's built like a TV season, unrolling each case like a standalone episode that still ties into the season-long arcs while digging into moral ambiguities. L.A. Noire can stand proud with the best of the genre because it so deftly explores what lies at the heart of both film noir and Rockstar: the corruption of the American dream. (Rockstar/Team Bondi)