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L.A. Noire: the surprise social game of 2011
by Andrew Testerman

“I think I believe this guy,” says Kieran.

“Eh? I think he looks kinda shaky,” replies Regi, sceptically.

“Yeah, he’s totally avoiding eye contact,” I chime in. “What do you think, Renee?”

“Hmmm. Yeah. He’s probably holding out,” says Renee, with finality.

My friends and I aren’t watching some whodunnit movie on Showtime, or reading the latest John Grisham legal thriller — in fact, we’re all watching me play L.A. Noire. Together.

And we’re all enjoying the hell out of it.

If L.A. Noire goes on to echo the breakout success of Red Dead Redemption, the industry press will be filled with dumbfounded stories of its detractors who, in hindsight, were too blind to see the mass appeal that Noire provides. Before I picked up Noire on Tuesday, I was a member of this group. Even now, I’m still not convinced that Rockstar will find true mainstream success with L.A. Noire. Film noir has fallen out of the public eye, at least in the United States, and is hardly a popular genre in entertainment, though conventional wisdom says I might be wrong. I’m also not sure how many gamers will be ready for the slow, deliberate pace at which L.A. Noire moves; in today’s Call of Duty-dominated marketplace, any game that doesn’t involve some sort of firefight or explosion in any five minute span seems downright boring. Last is the 1940’s detective setting, which, in the U.S., has always held only niche appeal, though I’ve always had affection for it. All told, at face value, L.A. Noire does not provide undeniable proof that it will be another massive, Rockstar-sized hit.

What L.A. Noire does provide, though, is a rarity in gaming: an experience that’s just as much fun to watch as it is to play. Noire’s top-notch story, writing, and acting (both vocal and facial) give it the feel of an interactive movie, making the experience more akin to an episode of Mad Men than a Grand Theft Auto-esque story arc, and appreciable to anyone with a hunger for well-told, mature narratives. Though the game could be described as mechanical and repetitive (you’ll look at a lot of matchbooks before the ending credits roll), L.A. Noire’s pleasures are far more inviting than the mechanical gratification of a perfectly-timed headshot or finishing move.

Because L.A. Noire is so inviting, its gameplay lends itself to group participation gaming in a way I’ve never experienced outside the likes of Rock Band and Smash Bros. The game encourages players to be slow, thorough, taking in every scrap of evidence in the hope of catching a suspect in a lie. This turns any casual observer of the game into a first-rate gumshoe, right alongside the person actually holding the controls. “Check the bathroom,” Renee tells me as I peruse a suspect’s house, and - surely enough - after some snooping around, we’re three clues closer to putting the case together.

The group participation lends itself even further to the game’s interrogation scenes. After scouring a crime scene for evidence, players are asked to lead other characters through a line of questioning, and must decide if the witness is lying or telling the truth. This effectively turns the game into Twelve Angry Men Noire, and my friends and I had a blast trying to determine if a suspect was being truthful, or feeding us a triple-decker bullshit sandwich instead. “Oh, hell no!” shouts Kieran after one particular testimony, and flips through our notebook to find a piece of evidence that flatly contradicts the poor schmuck’s story entirely.

Smashing a case wide open with a few well-placed questions is pretty satisfying alone, but with a few buddies in tow, it becomes downright epic. I had no idea how much I would enjoy the game, and even less of an idea how much more I would enjoy it with a group, turning this faux-multiplayer into one of my most-surprising and favourite gaming moments of 2011. I can clean up the grimy streets of Los Angeles all by myself in any number of other games, but only L.A. Noire gives me and my best mates a chance to work at it together.

And believe me, after we’ve had our say, this town won’t know what hit it.

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- Andrew Testerman

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