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Video-game review: 'L.A. Noire'

Joe Stafford

To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, Rockstar Games' summer video-game release "L.A. Noire" is about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake. Or reverse that. About as inconspicuous as a slice of angel food cake lying in a bed of tarantulas.

Because this is one for the good guys, for the virtuous cop on the beat who hears a woman crying in the night and races thorough the shadows to her rescue. Gamers hoping to roam the naked city spreading pointless mayhem are in for a disappointment. This is Rockstar's redemption for the negative karma and excoriating publicity generated by its smash series "Grand Theft Auto," which gleefully encouraged players to snipe the heads off police officers by the hundreds and rewarded 1) picking up a hooker, 2) having relations with that woman, 3) beating her to death with a baseball bat and 4) taking back the money. For now, anyway, those evil days are gone.

Yes, "L.A. Noire" is set in an intricate, living, breathing reproduction of the City of Angels, a la "Chinatown," and yes, you can commandeer a car and roam around smashing into all that loving attention to detail. And, yes, the feel is hardboiled and the crimes scenes appropriately gruesome. Fast-paced action sequences punctate the smooth-jazz pace. But "L.A. Noire" simply isn't meant to be the kind of game that invites an anything-goes rumpus. Creaming a pedestrian or even a mailbox is penalized. Rather, the pacing is measured and the focus is on painstaking detective work, character development and first-rate acting.

Rather than the embodiment of evil, the main character, Cole Phelps, is so squeaky clean even his partner sneeringly calls him a choirboy.

The year is 1947. Phelps, modeled and voiced by actor Aaron Staton, better known as Ken Cosgrove in "Mad Men," returns from the war with a Silver Star and a determination to right the world's wrongs. The player guides him up the career ladder as he works crime scenes, follows the evidence, questions suspects and connects the dots on murders, arsons and vice crimes.

The game's one true innovation, intricate facial mapping, isn't just another pretty feature. Rather, carefully watching the face of a suspect or bystander is integral to the gameplay: Picking out a lie or a half-lie can make the difference between solving the case or declaring to your partner, "I'm stumped." But at every stage, subtle hints serve to keep the player on the scent of the bad guy.

Other than the facial technology, though, "L.A. Noire" innovates only on a broad scale, bringing together a wide range of other game genres into a lovingly crafted world with mind-boggling attention to detail and a flair for innovative gameplay. The writing, dialogue and voice acting all serve the main aspiration of the game, to create a cinematic experience that transports the player into the shoes of the good cop and the milieu of the game world. Humor is subtly conveyed in bits of dialogue, snippets like "I used to be indecisive, but now I'm not so sure" and "How long is a piece of string?"

"L.A. Noire" leaves the player wanting more and could be accused of being a tad short if not for a handful of downloadable cases. Sometimes the cases feel a bit redundant and the long cinematics will leave some players complaining of a loss of control of the action. Some control issues — difficulty in climbing a set of stairs, for instance — also slightly mar the game.

But the experience as a whole is riveting. Sure, we've seen most of these ideas before, but never so well put-together, never so finely polished with love and squalor. Is the game too short? Too scripted? Maybe. But such criticisms feel like quibbles. Rockstar has trumped its own standard with a near masterpiece. Besides, just how long is a piece of string?