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Cinematic spectacle ‘L.A. Noire’ offers glimpse into gaming’s future

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L.A. Noire - Rockstar Games

Rockstar Games is ready for its close-up.

The company behind game-changing epics like the revolutionary Grand Theft Auto III, the record-setting Grand Theft Auto IV and the riveting Red Dead Redemption are best known for giving gamers massive, sprawling worlds to explore -- and, more pointedly, blast their way through using guns, cars, horses, and pretty much anything else they can get their hands on.

But for their next trick, Rockstar is toning down the action in favor of a nuanced approach to storytelling that has more in common with The Maltese Falcon than Die Hard. And it's already being hailed as a massive leap forward for the game industry.

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Due out May 17 for the Xbox 360 and PS3, the heavily-anticipated L.A. Noire is set in post-war 1947 Los Angeles, placing gamers in the well-worn wingtips of a hard-boiled detective out to solve a series of grisly murder cases. Like other Rockstar titles, it lets players freely explore a large, open-ended city in period vehicles and engage in shootouts with enemies.

Its real selling point, however, is the way it uses groundbreaking new tech to turn typically wooden video game characters into what many are already calling the most realistic animated actors ever slapped on disc. One glance at the game's launch trailer and it's hard to argue:

That fidelity comes courtesy of 'MotionScan', a performance capture technology created by Los Angeles-based motion-capture house Depth Analysis. Real world actors -- including heavyweights like Aaron Staton ("Mad Men's" Ken Cosgrove), who plays L.A. Noire lead Cole Phelps -- perform their roles in white rooms surrounded by 32 cameras, each of which captures an astonishing amount of facial detail. Incidental movements like furrowed brows and dodgy glances are all caught by the cameras, and it all translates seamlessly in the video game version. Squint, and they look like real people.

That's a big step for video game development, which has struggled mightily with the "uncanny valley" -- a term describing the 'creepy' quality of robots or other artificial beings that come close to emulating the look and behavior or real humans, but can't quite match it note for note. If you've played any games over the past decade or so, you've likely experienced the phenomenon. Eyes stare vacantly. Mouths don't synch perfectly with speech. It's an eerie effect that has had developers stumped for years, and it's one of the main reasons video games sometimes fail to emotionally register with consumers in the same way as films.

Whether or not L.A. Noire manages to leap over the uncanny valley remains to be seen, but based on early looks it's at least making a case that soon, the uncanny valley will be a thing of the past.

The sophisticated process doesn't come cheap -- each individual camera costs about $6,000 -- but has already begun paying dividends for Rockstar. In April, L.A. Noire made history by becoming the first video game to be named an official selection at the Tribeca Film Festival, which included a live gameplay presentation and a full Q&A. A collection of famous crime novelists (including living legend Joyce Carol Oates) will be contributing short stories based on the game's cases and characters to a forthcoming eBook. And while gamers wait for full reviews, game critics have already labeled its look "amazing" and its technology "mind-boggling." Some have even it pegged as a possible game of the year contender (though recent stunner Portal 2 might have something to say about that.)

That's high praise for an unreleased game, but considering Rockstar's track record, it's not entirely crazy. It's just entirely too early. Expect final judgment on this criminally gorgeous thriller when it comes in for questioning next week.

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