The hard-boiled crime story has become so ingrained in our culture that most Americans know all the cliches even if they've never read a Raymond Chandler novel or seen a Humphrey Bogart film: the world-weary gumshoe and the calculating femme fatale, the corkscrew plots and existential gloom, the jazzy soundtracks and bent camera angles. From "The Maltese Falcon" to "Pulp Fiction," film noir continues to fascinate.
Even video-game creators have been drawn to these dark streets, dating back to '80s classics like "Deja Vu" and "Police Quest." ''L.A. Noire" (Rockstar Games, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99) is the most ambitious attempt yet to create interactive film noir.
Developed by the Australian studio Team Bondi, "L.A. Noire" is a lavish tribute to the detective melodramas of the 1940s and '50s. Its epic tale of corruption and redemption draws from dozens of films while being moving in its own right. As a game, however, it's not entirely rewarding.
The protagonist is Cole Phelps, a World War II hero who signs on with the Los Angeles Police Department in 1947. Phelps moves up the ranks quickly, from beat cop to homicide detective, and ends up investigating a series of murders that bear all the signs of the notorious Black Dahlia killing. He eventually stumbles across a conspiracy involving Hollywood, city hall and California's most powerful business tycoons.
The main story line has 21 cases, and the action consists largely of two activities. First, you examine crime scenes for evidence. This involves walking around the scene until your controller vibrates, then peering at whatever piqued your senses. It's a tedious process.
Second, you interrogate witnesses and suspects based on the evidence collected. This is somewhat more intriguing, since you have to watch other characters' body language and guess whether they're telling the truth, lying or doing something in between. Guessing wrong won't necessarily prevent you from solving a case; the worst penalty is a chewing-out from the boss.
There are some fairly pedestrian shootouts and car chases, but it's the interrogations that display the new technology Rockstar has developed for "L.A. Noire." The developers filmed actors with 32 cameras, translating every tic and twitch to their virtual doppelgangers, resulting in some of the most lifelike faces ever to appear in video games.
Most of the dramatic burden is on Aaron Staton — Ken Cosgrove on AMC's "Mad Men" — who creates a believable character in the seemingly virtuous, secretly tormented Phelps. Other "Mad Men" actors, including Vincent Kartheiser, Rich Sommer and Patrick Fischler, pop up in supporting roles. But it's John Noble from Fox's "Fringe" who chews the most scenery as a rapacious real estate developer.
Film noir fans will have a blast playing spot-the-influence, with scenes drawn from genre classics like "Out of the Past," ''Double Indemnity," ''The Set-Up" and "The Third Man." Two more recent films, however, seem like the scriptwriter's main inspirations: 1974's "Chinatown" and 1997's "L.A. Confidential."
The story in "L.A. Noire" is far more sophisticated than what video games typically offer. But much of the drama is presented in non-interactive cut scenes, suggesting that Rockstar is still wrestling with the balance between storytelling and gameplay. "L.A. Noire" doesn't deliver everything it promises, but it does point in the right direction. Three stars out of four.