Compelling actor performances make you forget that you’re playing a game as cutting-edge motion-capture technology tracks every look askance of 1940s Hollywood murder suspects.
What really is the next step for videogames? It’s truly hard to imagine, unless you’re content with familiar scenes transformed by 3D. Well, how about decent acting and strong cinematic direction – captivating drama that doesn’t just involve driving fast or shooting your way out of trouble? What if sublime characterisation didn’t take a backseat but was your primary reason for taking part?
Journey into the mind of a killer
This is where ‘L.A. Noire’ steps in; the latest from Rockstar Games, creators of console blockbusters ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’ and ‘Red Dead Redemption’. But whereas previous Rockstar experiences offer open-world exploration and emerging action-packed set-pieces, in ‘L.A. Noire’ you’re mostly drawn to investigating the psyche of the Los Angeles public linked to a series of despicable crimes. As newly recruited Detective Cole Phelps your success depends on linking clues and interrogation technique.
It’s the latter consideration that propels ‘L.A. Noire’ into a whole new entertainment stratosphere. As the US TV series ‘Lie to Me’ starring Tim Roth established, inviting an audience to crime-solve by scrutiny of a person’s unconscious communications can be riveting entertainment. It’s not just about what suspects say, but how they unwittingly tell it. And to carry this off the show requires top-notch actors to keep audiences guessing each episode. Similarly ‘L.A. Noire’ depends almost entirely on its proprietary MotionScan technology to capture actor performance like never before in a videogame. Crucially you see the person’s face as though it were filmed. Goodbye to emotionless expressions, hello whatever the heck that raised eyebrow and loose-hanging jaw might mean.
On the case.
Record the series
You could almost consider ‘L.A. Noire’ to be a DVD boxed-set drama series except in this one you’re taking part. The game comprises more than 20 ‘episodes’ lasting roughly an hour apiece as the core experience, each ‘episode’ served as a case for Detective Phelps to solve while a much bigger plot takes shape. We have been promised true interactive drama for many years on consoles, but finally this appears to be the real deal and with the emphasis on genuinely great drama.
Ahead of the game’s launch on 20 May 2011, we got our chance to visit virtual yesteryear Hollywood and experience hands-on the tasks facing Detective Phelps. Rockstar Games showed two early case files to us: ‘The Silk Stocking Murder’ and ‘The Red Lipstick Murder’. The latter was a hands-off recap of the detective skills at our disposal before heading out to solve our own case with the controller.
Breaking it down, ‘L.A. Noire’ very subtly, if not occasionally a tiny bit vaguely, guides you toward clues at crime scenes and provides simple tools to make sense of them later. We’d bullet-point the core gameplay structure as Examination, Destination, Drive, Interrogation, and Extrapolation which amusingly gives you EDDIE as an acronym. Not that this relates to anything at all, sorry.
Okay, let’s get to work
During Examination sequences Phelps searches areas for clues that may include the body of a fresh murder victim before ranging out to account for items dropped, footprints, and bloody trails leading to more evidence. This is Crime Scene Investigation, basically, for which you need to chill out and take your time.
Tension-building background music indicates when you’re close to something important. A high-pitch piano tinkle lets you know that you’re practically on top of it. The process of holding objects in Phelps’ hand and turning them around is what generally leads to clues – the contents of a handbag, a solitary blood-splattered shoe, divorce papers… hmm. Some objects serve as physical puzzles, such as a cigarette lighter resembling a globe that must be twisted to line up all the continents.
Give me a clue here
If you’re stumped it’s worth turning to Detective Phelps’ partner Rusty Galloway for a steer – he’s either hovering around a sweet spot or will advise on how to proceed at the press of a help button. This helps prevent literally heading up the wrong garden path. Physical clues are sent to the lab, incidental observations are jotted down in Phelps’ versatile notebook, inside of which, among other things, are the recommended next Destinations to follow up on leads.
At this point it’s down to the player how best to move the case forward: go directly to the suspect, or spend more time visiting associated scenes for more background such as a local bar where the victim was last spotted. There’s no time pressure, so your Destination could also be all of Hollywood, best explored in any available vehicle (it’s okay, you’re a cop) with Rusty there to guide you back on course after satisfying your sight-seeing needs. There is a point to Drive time other than admiring the views – landmarks added to your map boost a supply of Intuition Points that may be called upon to illuminate crime scenes for clues, and ad-hoc “calling all cars…” bulletins for nearby incidents.
Oh driving? Yeh, I can do that
As with ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’, driving- skills are challenged extensively in car chases that lead to the apprehension of nervous suspects. Doesn’t mean they’re guilty, of course, just that they have reason to run. Such incidents might also lead to a punch-up or gunfight, both of which are handled well in the game with easy-to-grasp controls to trade blows or take down targets. Once apprehended this leads us neatly to Interrogation technique and the major unique selling point for ‘L.A. Noire’.
Rockstar Games hired talent from the same agency serving the producers of ‘Mad Men’ to bring the corruption of 1940s Hollywood to life via its characters. And this means face time with the myriad personalities involved feels authentic; so good that a conversation with an elderly landlady can prove just as humorous or tension-building as a more overtly confrontational episode with a surly bartender.
During Interrogation you, as the player, must be aware of absolutely everything that Detective Phelps has encountered up to that point that may be relevant. To keep this less daunting, Phelps’ notebook provides a shortlist of questions that will lead you onto the next stage should you react correctly to the answers given. Each answer can be judged as the truth, a lie, or give cause for doubt. If the suspect’s position is guessed correctly this makes solving the case easier because they’ll usually disclose the name of a person or point to a new location.
Hooked on forensics
The difference between doubt and an all out accusation depends on evidence. Doubting urges suspects to talk further about their involvement or lack thereof. But this can be inconclusive. If Phelps is in possession of evidence, including such details as time and witnesses to support an alibi, this can be presented as conclusive proof that somebody is guilty or hiding something. We were surprised at just how good the actors conveyed the grey areas, where ‘over acting’ on the suspect’s part was just covering up, rather than actual bad acting that could spoil the gameplay.
Indeed, sometimes your suspect can be so crafty that you may wish to use some Intuition Points to filter out the least pertinent questions in Phelps’ notebook. The main thing is that the game remains helpful without removing the illusion that your guile and intuition is what’s moving the case along.
And so to Extrapolation; the stage at which you are juggling many components relating to the case. Although Phelps is busy working across five department desks, chief among them homicide and vice, you’ll be relieved to learn that loose ends are tidied up before moving on to each next stage.
Each interview is treated as an opportunity to score as highly as possible with your questioning. The downside is that if you don’t ace all the answers you’ll probably have to play through the game again for better results. But on the positive side a suspect that remains open to questioning indicates more to discover. There are red herrings in terms of evidence at crime scenes, but with suspects you’re always making progress. How you go about it makes each play-through unique.
School of hard knocks.
The Hollywood landscape just changed
‘L.A. Noire’ is great entertainment, to tell it straight. The combination of witty dialogue, top-notch acting and of course amazing new MotionScan technology delivers something unique. How about that – a genuine first in how long? Yet it doesn’t feel like a gimmick, rather a mature new direction that ushers new opportunities for interactive drama of all kinds.
In fact this so good that we can already picture games that no longer require bar brawls, car chases and gunfights just to hold our attention. We’d look forward to downloading / streaming new episodes for a small fee every week. We might not be talking Oscar territory just yet, but the line between BAFTA Videogames and the BAFTA Film and Television awards are getting blurry.
‘L.A. Noire’ is released 20 May for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, published by Rockstar Games.