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The summer break offers the opportunity to sit back, relax and return to some of the best game titles from the halcyon days of times past. I feel like I'm cheating slightly in using a three-year-old game for a retrospective, but it is one of my all-time favourites, so when LA Noire cropped up on the Steam summer sale, I couldn't help but give it another go on PC.
LA Noire is a game like no other. Set in 1947 Los Angeles, it's a detective game in which the player takes on the role of a new LAPD officer, Detective Cole Phelps. The game, developed by the now-defunct Team Bondi, has everything - not just from a gaming perspective, but from a historical one too. Set during the growth of one of America's burgeoning post-war cities in a climate of prosperity and feverish excitement, Phelps is an honest policeman who looks to clean up the streets of LA.
Phelps goes through stages, working on five different 'desks' at the LAPD, ranging from traffic, to arson, to homicide. At first, he comes across as straight-laced and desperately lacking a sense of humour, with a sense of arrogance and superiority about his nature. However, as the plot develops through a series of flashbacks, Phelps' story is revealed to be more complicated; he is an ex-marine war veteran who recently joined the police. The game follows his rise up through the ranks, followed by his subsequent fall from grace, and ultimately, the story arc concludes with his untimely death.
Beneath the bright neon lights and excitable electricity of peacetime Los Angeles, while America builds its legacy, there's a world of crime and corruption which Phelps works against. The game plays out over 21 cases that include theft, fraud and murder. The main focus of the gameplay is upon investigation, with the player having to find clues to solve crimes. The game doesn't end if clues aren't found; it throws up eleventh-hour evidence or witnesses to help Phelps to solve every case. However, the more clues are uncovered, the more options become available, with the storyline adapting accordingly to fit. It's dynamic and unique.
To solve the cases, Phelps has to interrogate suspects and witnesses through RPG-type scenes. He asks each character a string of questions, and using intuition and the evidence available, the player has to decide whether to believe them, doubt them, or accuse them of lying.
It's here where LA Noire really excels, because observing the facial expressions of the suspects is crucial for cracking each case. LA Noire uses 'MotionScan' facial-recognition technology to create incredibly realistic faces. Rather than pure animations, they are created using scenes played out by real actors, with technology recording every move from 32 different angles to capture facial expressions. This makes gameplay a delight, and it is part of a wider graphics package which is simply top-class throughout.
There are plenty of features throughout the game which make it great on so many levels. The developers have authentically recreated the LA skyline of 1947, with cars from the time and captivating depictions of the high streets and housing estates. For me, the playlist is also brilliant, with authentic 1940s songs blaring through the car radios. There's also a quirky option which allows you to play in black and white, which just adds to the 1940s feel of things. For a history geek like me, it doesn't get much better. It encapsulates the excitement of the film noir era brilliantly, and there's a nostalgic charm about the whole game.
No doubt, LA Noire has some formulaic elements to its cases, but it doesn't detract from the experience overall. There were rumours a couple of years ago that a sequel may come to fruition. Unfortunately, Team Bondi went into administration in August 2011 and was liquidated soon after, which seems to put an end to the matter. Regardless, LA Noire really is an excellent game.