Rockstar's L.A. Noire is the best game I have played this year. Period.
What makes it so good? Well, Rockstar did very few things wrong.
The open world, the level of detail in both sight and sound, the entertaining story, the animated cut scenes and the fluid game play are all what we have come to love in other Rockstar titles, including the Grand Theft Auto franchise and Red Dead Redemption. It's the type of game Rockstar has proven to master again and again.
But here's what makes L.A. Noire different: It's a game for the good guys.
Team Bondi, the developers, has taken publisher Rockstar from a life of committing crimes to one in which it solves them. And it works.
You play as Cole Phelps, a decorated World War II veteran who fights crime on the streets of Los Angeles during the late 1940s. Phelps starts out as a beat cop, but he quickly becomes a detective, and you help him climb his way through the ranks to traffic, homicide, vice and then arson.
Rockstar could have made this a game of cops and robbers or some type of inverted version of Grand Theft Auto in which you bust drug dealers, but it's much more than that. In L.A. Noire, you literally have to think like a cop.
You scour the crime scene for evidence, hunt down witnesses and keep track of developments in your notebook. Everything you do brings you a step closer to — or further from — cracking your case. When you're at the crime scene, the controls vibrate to let you know when you need to check out a piece of evidence. This gets rather tiring after a while, but it's a good concept.
Talking to witnesses is a crucial part of the investigation. It also can prove to be the trickiest. L.A. Noire uses a technology called MotionScan, which captures facial expressions made by the game's actors. You have to read their facial expressions and determine — or pretty much guess — whether they are telling the truth, potentially withholding a detail or two, or lying their pants off. You have to pay attention to every wrinkle or twitch, as well as any hint of awkwardness or discomfort.
There were times when I nailed it. There were times when I failed miserably, and I got chewed out by my boss for nearly botching the case. But you can't just throw out an accusation; you have to back it up with evidence. And if you don't have anything that's incriminating, they will shut down on you.
This part of the game is clearly L.A. Noire's best feature. It's among the many reasons why this game is so fun. But it also is among the reasons you absolutely cannot play while texting, talking on the phone or listening to music. Distractions are a recipe for disaster.
In addition to the realistic interrogations, the game uses real actors, including Mad Men's Aaron Staton and Heroes' Greg Grunberg. The game uses the true streets of Los Angeles, and some actual historic sites are in the game. The murder cases are tied to the real-life Black Dahlia killings.
Overall, the controls are simple and just like any other Rockstar game. You can drive through the city or make your partner take the wheel. That's nice when you don't feel like taking the time to drive to a crime scene.
The game does have a few hang-ups. You will get random calls about other disturbances in the city, and responding to them causes a delay in your case. Quite often, those calls lead to some type of police chase, by foot or vehicle. It almost always results in you putting a bullet in the criminals. Some of these calls are entertaining, but it wears thin after several hours spent playing the game.
My last gripe: for as open as Rockstar worlds have been, this one is a bit more controlled. You can't veer off the beaten path and become a rogue cop, causing mayhem and shooting innocent people. You can run them over, but that comes with a penalty once you wrap up your cases.
And as beautiful as the city is in this game, it's not quite as interactive as previous Rockstar titles. The little nuances in Grand Theft Auto, such as going to the gun shop and picking out a gun, always kept the juvenile in me amused. In Red Dead Redemption, it was being able to go to the bar in the Wild West, play a few hands of poker, get hammered and then sleep it off. But you don't even have a home in L.A. Noire. You just do police work all day and night.
All told, L.A. Noire is a good and entertaining game. Very few games are perfect, but even with its shortcomings, this one makes a pretty good run at it.