I keep turning over the question in my head: Why is the Rockstar/Team Bondi crime-drama collaboration L.A. Noire better than its contemporaries?
Even without taking quality into account, previous Rockstar games like Red Dead Redemption and the various modern Grand Theft Autos have always felt too big to fail. After all, it stands to reason that no company could stay afloat as long as Rockstar has if its massive, bloated gaming juggernauts were crappy massive, bloated gaming juggernauts.
You could go the quick and dirty route and shoot a few holes in the competition, and honestly, you'd be hard-pressed to prove yourself wrong in doing so. Too many other sandbox games set in similar eras like Scarface: The World Is Yours and the Godfather game adaptations rely too heavily on name recognition, falling short when it comes time to drop the licenses and pick up the controllers.
But Rockstar's period crime drama is more than just the best of a weak lot. To their credit, the boys at Bondi put a lot of polish on L.A. Noire, and as a result it's hard to judge the game at face value without judging, well, the value of its faces: L.A. Noire owes its extensive development cycle in no small part to the technology used to painstakingly record voice actors' facial movements for later integration into their digital counterparts.
Originally developed by the Australian company Depth Analysis for film-industry motion capture, the MotionScan setup—which includes 32 HD cameras and nine servers fast enough to handle the ensuing avalanche of throughput—turns L.A. Noire's characters from CGI mock-ups into Avatar-style virtual performers. It's almost jarring at the outset, especially with the more recognizable faces, but once you get past the initial "uncanny valley" effect, it settles into what will inevitably become the game's best-known feature.
The vignette-based storyline lends itself to bite-sized gameplay, at least by Rockstar standards. Unlike the bloated magna opera of Rockstar games past, this is playable in short, almost casual bursts. More a collection of serialized episodes than a single grand adventure, the overarching plot is broken up into four major acts segmented further into individual cases, which in turn tend to have their own discrete sections. This makes L.A. Noire easier to pick up and play after a break than previous Rockstar games, which typically require dozens of relatively uninterrupted hours of gameplay or extensive note-taking for best results.
The game handles like a police procedural, and a mostly by-the-numbers one at that. Cases follow a steady cadence—drive to crime scene, collect evidence, take statements, follow clues to next scene, run through a quick side mission, repeat. It's not as boring as that sounds, and even L.A. Noire's simplest measures are still more complex than the average latter-day Grand Theft Auto two-step.
But even then, none of it really comes together until you're already neck-deep in it. The first few hours of the storyline are actually pretty disappointing the first time you play them through, as newly minted detective Cole Phelps quickly rises through the ranks of a post-World War II Los Angeles Police Department, amassing an unblemished case record as impressive as the body count of the criminals he hunts. Los Angeles in 1947, as the early parts of L.A. Noire present it, has murders by the armload, but the ratio of sunshine and lollipops to dirty, rain soaked nighttime alleyways still feels a little off.
About three-quarters of the way in, however, you realize that the game's sunny disposition is just the set-up for Phelps' own long, hard fall from grace. After that door slams shut, the game falls into place as the prequel for the gritty melodrama of booze, broads, and bullets that will likely be L.A. Noire 2.
So unlike the quick cash-ins that preceeded it, what we have here isn't just a game. It's a nascent franchise, lacking only the rich soil of time and money to fertilize it. As the first glimpse into a growing world, L.A. Noire leaves us with more questions than answers—exactly what its creators intended all along.