In short, it's LA Noire on a tablet with virtual controls, which plays out exactly how you think it does.
The updated LA Noire on OnLive doesn't present a dramatically retooled control method. While it's easy enough to imagine LA Noire working as a point-and-click adventure title of sorts, the OnLive update simply adds virtual controls that match the existing physical setup. So yeah, there's a virtual, unwieldy thumbstick. The confident, swaggering Cole Phelps I remember from my Xbox disappeared, and in his place was a bumbling, confused individual with severe ambulatory issues (I suspect he's drinking on the job).
Coupled with the minor-but-perceptible control lag of OnLive, stopping to investigate clues can be difficult. I found myself spotting clues and then stopping only as I passed them by, forcing me to clumsily turn Cole around, sometimes passing by said clue again. Manipulating clues seems like a natural fit for a touch screen, but rather than offering one-to-one motion, clue manipulation is conducted with a canned gesture (drag up and to the right, hold), which seems like a missed opportunity.
Interrogation works well, with Phelps' questions easily chosen via his notebook. LA Noire's trademark responses of "truth," "doubt," and "lie" work just fine via on-screen buttons, with Phelps again able to quickly select evidence from his notebook. While walking never quite feels right, investigation sections aren't too difficult with a little practice and, after all, players can take as much time as they need.
The same can't be said, however, for chase sequences. While walking adequately mimics analog control for the most part, that flies out the window for running. When chasing a perp, Phelps is either running straight forward or full tilt to the left or right. No matter how subtly I nudged the virtual stick, slight adjustments seemed impossible, causing Phelps to constantly careen from one obstacle into the next, instead of making the minor course corrections I was attempting. LA Noire's liberal use of auto-aim makes stationary, cover-based shooting a snap, though running and shooting at the same time is something I don't even want to contemplate.
If you want to avoid all these headaches, you can always play with an OnLive wireless controller (assuming your tablet is compatible). Of course, you'll have to find a comfortable arrangement so you can simultaneously handle a controller and see your tablet (a stand perhaps), and even then you're basically just playing LA Noire on a tiny TV. Still, it's an option if you have the hardware.
Now, having spent several paragraphs delivering the stunning revelation that LA Noire doesn't work very well with touch controls, I'd like to get back to how undeniably impressive it is. This is a AAA console title running on a tablet (a loaner Samsung Galaxy Tab in my case). As I write this article on a laptop, I could fire up OnLive and pick up the game right where I left off on the tablet, which admittedly is pretty cool. Also, to be fair, LA Noire was never designed with touch controls in mind, and I'm sure Rockstar did what it could short of completely rebuilding it.
As it stands, the touch update is an interesting bonus for OnLive users who already have LA Noire and an Android tablet. For everyone else, it's an intriguing proof of concept that could pay dividends in the future.
This article is based on a complimentary LA Noire OnLive token provided by OnLive. The game was tested on a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 loaned to Joystiq by OnLive.