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Mad Men's Aaron Staton stars as Cole Phelps
As I watched Rockstar's PR Manager, Daniel Acker, maneuver a slick detective through a grimy 1940s southern California, L.A. Noire's many inspirations became obvious. L.A. Confidential, The Maltese Falcon, The Third Man — each of these films owns a branch on the L.A. Noire family tree, but they primarily inform the style and not the structure. For that, developer Team Bondi looked to an unexpected source: television's Law & Order.
The mission structure unfolds as a series of cases that come across a handful of “desks." As new detective Cole Phelps, players take on missions from the traffic desk before advancing up the police ranks to access the tougher, more dangerous murder mysteries. Each story ranges in length from 45 to 90 minutes, and the plots are ripped straight from the headlines of the time. If that sounds familiar, it's because television crime dramas have been using that formula since the days of Dragnet all the way to today's Law & Order: SVU.
While the game isn't episodic, each case is set up to feel like a single episode of a police procedural. The level that Rockstar showed at PAX began with a man beating a woman with a crow bar. Without explaining the murder, the scene faded out to Detective Phelps back at police headquarters being promoted to homicide. His first investigation? The beaten woman, of course.
Establishing the case at the beginning of an episode is a common narrative device that any fan of House will recognize. Similar to a show like House, the case/crime will be solved in a reasonable amount of time, meaning players won’t have to delay their gratification for long.
That isn't to say nothing strings one case to the next. A prominent backbone to the plot is Phelps’ attempts to counter his personal demons. He achieves this by righting wrongs in the world as a detective. Another common thread is the famous Black Dahlia murder — many of the deaths that Phelps investigates will have some link to that tragic killing.
Those connections, however, could be imaginary, simple coincidence, or a killer trying to point the investigation in the wrong direction. As is typical with noir stories, the truth is obscured by layers of deceit and contradictory evidence. The game leaves it up to the player to decide if the people that Phelp's puts in jail are truly guilty, or if there is also some deeper conspiracy. By the the time the end credits role, we should know what is real.
The overall game compares to a television season the same way each crime compares to an individual episode. While other games have used a similar tactic before — specifically Alan Wake — Rockstar has taken the metaphor to its logical conclusion. The pacing stands to greatly benefit because of it. It's a creative way to keep players engaged after 10-plus hours, and it also makes picking up the game after a week of inactivity a much easier feat.
The difficulty here lies in Team Bondi’s ability to provide variety from one mission to the next. Will each case be filled with similar evidence? A matchbook with an address on it isn’t very different than a napkin emblazoned with a bar name. If L.A. Noire funnels players down a rote corridor of fact gathering and interrogation, then any excitement the game can claim will be quickly tarnished. I haven’t seen anything in my time with the game to suggest that's a possibility, but Rockstar has only shown me what they wanted me to see.
The internal pressure to live up to the Rockstar name must be intense. Team Bondi knows that they are now representing the company that changed everything with Grand Theft Auto 3 and did it again with last year’s Red Dead Redemption. If L.A. Noire is just Grand Theft Auto with a palette swap, the gaming public will be more than willing to tear it to shreds. A new mission structure is just one of the aspects that set this noir thriller apart from its cousins. If all the design choices are as well thought out, then the game will easily justify its jump to the top of my most anticipated games for the rest of the year.