L.A. Noire Preview: Investigating the Detective ThrillerBy Christopher Monfette - Posted Nov 18, 2010
L.A. Noire has been a long time coming, announced seemingly forever ago with an impressively atmospheric launch trailer only to be followed by an ominous and foreboding silence. Like some half-shadowed figure standing in the lamplight of a gin-joint street corner, flicking a cigarette lighter to shed some occasional illumination across its face, the title has felt, perhaps appropriately, like the object of some film noir mystery. But which was it? The Real McCoy, or just another Johnny-Come-Lately? An enigmatic dame, luring you in with false promises only to leave you wanting in some shallow grave? Or a real heavy-hitter, waiting for the right moment to emerge from the rain-soaked alleyway and make its move?
Up until recently, it was hard to tell, but in a lavish hotel room overlooking the majestically lit skyline of Los Angeles, we had our first in-depth experience with the game and walked away feeling distinctly noirish. In fact, the dime-store narration has yet to leave our heads. We’re smoking in style. Our pregnant wives are drinking martinis. Every closed door marks the entrance to some seedy back-room; and each young girl we see is a starlet, blinded by dreams, betrayed by the city’s Chinatown filth.
L.A. Noire is the video game equivalent of every James Ellroy novel ever written, nuanced into a single narrative set in 1947 Los Angeles. The country is booming, having emerged from the Great Depression into a time of equal financial growth. Hollywood is rapidly shifting into its Golden Age. But in the aftermath of World War II, hardened soldiers are attempting to return to their normal lives, bringing the haze of war along with them, and with the country’s eyes turned elsewhere, or inward, corruption is becoming rampant.
You play as Detective Cole Phelps, a returning G.I. with a distinguished – although potentially questionable – service record, assigned to the LAPD to put a clean-cut face on a highly scrutinized department. But don’t expect to be working the Homicide desk from day one. No, you’ll rise up through the ranks desk by desk, beginning with the Traffic beat, investigating the various cases you’ll encounter along the way. While a broader story unravels, the cases in L.A. Noire are generally self-contained, offering their own distinct challenges and set-pieces while providing players with a vast range of gameplay experiences including crime scene investigation, evidence collection, interrogation, tailing, car chases, shoot outs and more.
It might be easy to assume that because L.A. Noire is an open-world crime game published by Rockstar, you’d be roaming the city streets, shooting up civilians, skirting the law and generally becoming as corrupt as humanly possible. This time around, you’re actually penalized for going too far outside the law, rooted in the pin-striped suit and wide-brimmed fedora of a man committed to serving up justice. But fear not! All the driving, chasing, shooting and hard-boiled badassery you enjoyed from Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV is here in plenty, except evenly integrated into the ebb and flow of each individual case.
But the core component of L.A. Noire is the city itself, a staggeringly beautiful recreation of late-40’s Los Angeles, brimming with the small, historical details that ultimately make any open world believable. Whether it’s trolley wires criss-crossing above the street; vintage cars speeding by at a brisk 30MPH; or the classic advertisements for real-life products that litter the billboards and buildings, there is a genuine sense of place in L.A. Noire. And while players will be able to an answer randomly generated calls – thefts, bank robberies, etc. – or discover off-the-map cases by simply driving around the city, you’ll no doubt find yourself wanting to hop into a Ford only to spy the glamour of Old Hollywood or the seedy side of Downtown modeled in startling detail.
All of that, however, simply sets the stage for a series of crimes – many of which have been modeled after, or are, in fact, entirely based upon, real-life cases – ranging from brutal murders and blackmail mysteries to horrifying assault investigations. And the key to solving each of these will be a keen sense of observation. Driving and shooting aside, L.A. Noire demands quite a bit of intellect from its players. At each crime scene, you’ll have to search for key pieces evidence, picking up clues, turning them over in your hands, and trying to determine if they’re at all significant to the current case. Each item you find will add more interrogation options for each witness, opening up entirely new paths of investigation. The more thorough and observant you are – and the greater your ability to counter some bold-faced lie with the corresponding bit of evidence – the more likely you are to solve the case correctly.
Interrogation is a huge part of L.A. Noire, not simply by virtue of listening to dialogue options and calling the occasional bluff, but due in large part to the jaw-dropping MotionScan technology used to bring each character to life. The faces of each real-life actor have been meticulously mapped and applied directly to the character model, offering an astounding realism of expression. Never in a game has a lie been more obvious as when the actor in question darts their eyes to the side, searching desperately for some made-up response. A sharp eye and a discerning ear are as likely to lead you through each interview as the facts themselves, deciding when to believe, accuse or press a witness, and when to confront them directly with proof.
In our brief demo, we were taken through the first stages of a case called, “The Fallen Idol.” When an established actress and a young starlet are both nearly killed in an auto accident, murder-most-foul becomes apparent upon the discovery of a film prop wedged beneath the car’s accelerator. What seemed at first like a merely an accident suddenly becomes the tale of a sexual predator, a high-profile movie producer using a back-alley prop-shop to film the sexual assault of wide-eyed young actresses. Add some blackmail into the mix, as well as a few hired guns, and the whole affair concludes with a massive car chase and an epic shoot-out on an abandoned movie set.
This single case was fairly investigation-heavy, an element that fans of older adventure games will no doubt celebrate, but the concluding action set-piece also offered a welcome sense of variety. We’re assured that while each case will feature some blend of the game’s core mechanics, the ratios will depend largely upon the story being told. In truth, L.A. Noire feels very much like what a classic series such as Police Quest might eventually have evolved into had the genre not stalled out in the late 90’s. And in an age of endless shooters, the idea of being forced to use our minds to piece together the elements of some grander puzzle is an encouraging thought, indeed.
With a release date of mid-2011, L.A. Noire has emerged from the shadows as a real contender, bringing the polish and flare of Rockstar’s best material to a hungry crowd of gamers looking to exercise their brains. We cannot wait to see more.
Here’s lookin’ at you, kid…