"Who you gonna trust? Who? I made that decision a long time ago."
Well, actually, I made that decision a few minutes before I booted up L.A. Noire, the latest Rockstar Games experiment with open-world universes that play out like interactive movies. That's when I decided, with the kind of grit only a young, war-scarred veteran can wield, that I wasn't going to trust anyone. Not my partners on the beat, not my plot-device of a wife, not the countless "persons of interest" whose slimy paths would cross mine on the streets of Hollywoodland, and certainly not the guys who developed the game.
A city full of greedy, opportunistic bastards looking to prey on anyone -- and in particular, young and innocent would-be starlets -- deserves a detective whose bullshit meter is always, and I mean always, cranked to 11. They were all liars. And it was my job to call them on it.
It made for some interesting situations in an expansive game where huge chunks of the action are predicated on the player interrogating suspects like a 1940s version of Tim Roth, looking for body-language clues that they're lying like a three-dollar Oriental rug. With each hard question comes a button-push -- truth, doubt or lie? -- but my choice was always a simple no-brainer: Slam the Y button and yell, "DON'T LIE TO ME!"
Some suspects squirmed and broke down. I had enough F-bombs and insults dropped on me to fill 10 Lewis Black Comedy Central specials. My supervising officer threatened hellfire and brimstone and worse. And -- surprise -- it didn't get me anywhere at all.
In games from the developer Bioware -- think Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic -- taking a cynical, jerkish approach to the universe around you has a measurable gameplay impact, in that if you alienate your party members, they're less likely to do what you want them to, and you'll probably end up with a very different ending to your game than if you'd played Mr. Sunshine and given everybody rainbow unicorns and bottles of Coca-Cola.
In Rockstar's L.A. Noire, choosing to disbelieve, antagonize, and in some cases, physically beat the smirk off every low-life informer and shady movie mogul just earns you a trip back through the interrogation process again, until you can guess which response and which piece of evidence the developers intended you to select to move the story forward. L.A. Noire's developers even set you up with "intuition points" that you can spend to eliminate a possible answer, or ask the advice of the community of players who've already wrung confessions from their respective perps and moved onto the next step in catching the Wolfman killer.
So this is how gumshoes break open their cases? By deploying the clever, groundbreaking mechanics of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? (Regis Philbin, LAPD on line two.) Even the densest detective can quickly see that the mechanic is really just like one of those choose-your-adventure books we used to flip through as kids. Albeit one with amazing production values and the most incredible facial recognition software we've ever seen.
L.A. Noire gets so, so many things right, from pitch-perfect homage to classic movie thrillers to some of the snappiest writing and voice-acting we've ever seen in video games, delivered through a groundbreaking graphics system that makes you feel like you're interacting with actual human beings instead of pixelated cartoons. That all this is paired with a dumbed down version of 20 Questions feels like big ol' a flat tire on a perfect classic convertible.