Grand Theft Auto is a household name. It is among the most famous and recognizable video games of all-time, up there with Mario and Zelda and Tetris and Minecraft. Unlike the others, though, Grand Theft Auto is unabashedly rated M for mature.
But what would happen if Rockstar went a different route?
Part of GTA’s mystique comes from the recurrent boogeyman-ing it endures whenever there’s an inexplicable act of violence or discussion about what’s wrong with kids these days, often accompanied by clips from the latest entry in the franchise showcasing its trademark anarchy steeped in cop killing, mass shooting and vehicular manslaughter. GTA V has been a chart-topper for so long you wonder how it’s even mathematically possible for there to still be customers out there eight years after its release.
Rockstar Games is more than Grand Theft Auto, of course. The studio has cultivated a massive fanbase with help from IPs like Max Payne and Red Dead Redemption, too. And although those series are not GTA, they still have quite a bit of blood, guts, and mayhem to offer.
But what if Rockstar pumped the brakes on the murder machine for an experience that was plodding and slow-paced and unconventional?
They did. And fans weren’t thrilled.
L.A. Noire is celebrating it’s ten-year anniversary on May 17, and time has been kinder to Rockstar’s ode to Olde Timey Hollywoodland than fans were at launch. It dropped one year after the release of Red Dead Redemption, offering players the chance to play as Cole Phelps, a war hero-turned-detective in 1940s Los Angeles. Its open-world L.A. was not the playground for carnage fans had come to expect, however. Instead, players had to actually act like a cop and solve crime instead of causing it. You couldn’t spontaneously mow people down in your car or unleash a hail of gunfire at random.
The chief mechanic of the game wasn’t action, but nuanced investigations that required patience, observation and critical thinking. State-of-the-art facial graphics allowed players to study suspects eye contact and other cues to suss out lies and half-truths. You could get it wrong, and often did. Failure was common, a frustrating result from a studio known for letting you do whatever, whenever, totally consequence-free.
The initial reception was mixed, a far cry from the universal praise Rockstar normally received. A lot of fans were disappointed at this new direction, myself included. I hated the game upon release and, even though I finished it, wrote it off as Rockstar’s worst.
Now, things are different. In part, I’m older (unfortunate) and wiser (fortunate). Like many gamers, I have had my fill of open-world sandboxes the last decade, and revisiting L.A. Noire felt like a breath of fresh, smoggy air.
It’s hard to uncouple the praise for games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Disco Elysium and not see where L.A. Noire was trying to go. It fails when it tries to be a Rockstar game and spreads itself thin across an open — but largely empty — world. It succeeds when you’re doing the things few games attempt to do. Interrogations are more compelling now because I haven’t seen countless iterations of them. Crime scenes are deeper and more interesting now that I’m not trying to sprint-and-prompt-smash my way through them.
On top of this is some damn fine writing and a perfectly captured noir movie vibe bolstered by an Oscar-worthy score. What L.A. Noire lacks in sandbox action it makes up for in narrative atmosphere. If you’re someone who considers yourself a gaming aficionado, a digital epicurean with varied tastes and an inkling for industry history, then L.A. Noire is a must-play. It’s not perfect, but that's the price paid for taking risks.
You’ll never play anything quite like it, which is reason enough to give it a go.
L.A. Noire is available on PlayStation, Xbox, Switch, PC, Vive, and Oculus.