When a game is described as “cinematic,” that’s usually a reference to cutscenes, voice acting, and plotting. Rockstar’s medium-pushing new offering L.A. Noire does those elements right, but it also achieves that ever-elusive filmic quality: flow. Player freedom is the enemy of a smoothly progressing storyline, but Detective Phelps’ case files are sturdy, flexible narratives that seamlessly guide players from beat to grisly beat.
“Cinematic” is really the wrong word, though. For most of the game, Noire is a case-of-the-week procedural with odd episodes that nudge the overarching plot along. Mad Men’s Aaron Staton (along with a handful of other regulars from the show) lends his mug and acting chops to tales of evidence-trampling reporters, crooked cops, and a shipment of army-surplus heroin that never reached its intended recipient. The story is familiar, especially for anyone with a yen for mobster lore or cold cases like the Black Dahlia murder, but the presentation is anything but. Innovative motion-scan technology realistically maps faces, allowing for actual performances instead of the usual close approximation. More than just a cosmetic boost, this allows for that other rarity in videogames: the use of real-world smarts. Instead of applying videogame logic to puzzles, players have to read body language and voice inflection during the numerous interrogation sequences to separate the crafty from the clueless, and the crime-scene investigation makes for appropriately grim, left-brain work.
There are some hiccups here: The conversation options of Truth and Doubt might more accurately be described as Good Cop and Bad Cop, and anyone expecting one of Rockstar’s big, well-populated sandboxes might be disappointed to find more of a desert. There are optional Street Crime missions and some souped-up vehicles to commandeer, but the emphasis is always on the story, and going rogue and firing on civilians isn’t even an option when you can’t draw your gun outside of missions. Still, those limitations are necessary in a world where failure more often means fingering the wrong suspect—and moving on to the next mission with that weighing on your conscience—than a game-over screen. And if gaming’s holy grail is a thousand stories, well told, L.A. Noire might be the first to come within spitting distance.