The plane touched down on the tarmac. A slow breeze was in the air. It was hot, damned hot. Cars in the distance seemed to float without moving. The city of sails shimmered in the heat. Los Angeles had come to Auckland.
And it was Rockstar Games that had brought it here. They had set up in the Hyatt hotel and had decided to let us inquisitive folks here at NZGamer.com have a sneak peek at their latest game – L.A. Noire.
L.A. Noire is an interesting title. And it’s interesting for two reasons. The first is that it symbolises Rockstar’s games’ gamble with the revival of the modern adventure genre. The second, and arguably more important reason, is that L.A. Noire really pushes the technology boundary. L.A. Noire looks set to revolutionise the relationship between motion capture animation and gaming.
And that’s important. It’s important because L.A. Noire is all about people. Bad people, good people. Morally ambiguous people, people with problems. The title is a microcosm of 1940’s Los Angeles, and all the glitz, glamour, gore and grime that went with it. In tinsel town you needed to be able to tell truth from fiction. And faces don’t lie.
L.A. Noire follows the career path of Detective Phelps, a war hero who earned his stripes in the battle of Okinawa. Phelps is a clever guy, and the department has fast tracked him through the ranks. That’s ruffled some feathers, but Phelps is a vet. He can handle it. Pretty soon Phelps is off the beat and into a suit. It’s up to you to help him, along with a variety of different partners, to solve some of Hollywood’s most troublesome cases. And each case is based on historically accurate events, grounding the new title in time and space.
This title is a bit of a sea-change for Rockstar. For once you get to play as a cop. But that doesn’t mean things are nice and rosy. At its core L.A. Noire is a dark, violent, detective thriller. The team from Rockstar took me through one of the early missions, “the Fallen Idol”. It was a pretty grim tale: attempted murder, statutory rape, blackmail, money laundering and underworld crime bosses all featured – and this is one of the earliest missions in the game.
Up ‘til now Rockstar has been tight lipped about the mechanic of the title. But central to its gameplay is some solid detective play. Old school veterans of adventure titles will be familiar with the question and answer style of investigative gaming. What makes L.A. Noire new and different is that your questions (and their answers) manifest themselves physically in the gameplay. When playing through “Fallen Idol” there were countless times when a guilty actresses eyes gave her away, or you could see the frustration in Phelps’ face. That’s new, and it’s interesting.
The great thing about this mechanic is that sometimes you’ll read it right and sometimes you won’t. Perhaps part of this titles challenge will come from getting that perception right. Because it will vary in difficulty, some of L.A. Noire’s cats are pretty hard to read – and they’ll all have something to hide.
The amount of attention to detail that was on display was obvious. Seriously impressive results could be seen – even from preview code. And it was not just confined to key players. Over three hundred actors have had their closeups done. That’s impressive for a film; it’s almost unheard of for a game.
However, what Rockstar also demonstrated was that this title was not just a nice looking version of twenty one questions. The detective mechanic is there if you want it, and it forms a large part of the game. But more classical elements are also present. There are car chases, there are shoot outs, or if you’d rather immerse yourself in the world Rockstar has reimagined for you, free roam is at your beck and call. When exercising this freedom there a range of things to see and do, from responding to dispatch calls – all the way to just driving around 1940s LA, which Rockstar assured us was nearly one hundred percent accurate.
Audio plays a big part of L.A. Noire – mysterious piano notes play when you’re close to clues, and your partners in crime(solving) are there to give advice or to push you in the right direction. Ambient noise is shaping up nicely, even in the combat department. Some of that forties-era weaponry packs a punch, and it looks like Rockstar has managed to capture that well. In the preview screening some background dialogue was a little repetitive, but it’s early days yet.
L.A. Noire has been set up to provide gamers with a whole gamut of Noire experiences. But in a way the choice of the word Noire in the title is a little misleading. For fans expecting some kind of Maltese Falcon carbon copy, think again. The look and feel of this title is not grainy black and white nitrate stock. In an odd way, it’s more modern than that. Think Se7en, L.A Confidential, or even Mulholland Drive. But even with that modern bent, the game is still firmly rooted in that amnestic post war period, hats and all.
There’s a lot in this title. And it was obvious from the gameplay shown that Rockstar still has a little bit of smoothing out to do. But its early days, it will be done when it’s done. In particular it will be interesting to see how the studio deals with the challenges presented by the Uncanny Valley. They’ve done a pretty good job so far, but those hallmark facial animations are, after all, animations. Although from the gameplay presented, it didn’t seem to be much of a problem – each case’s storyline and sense of mystery was enough to suspend ones sense of disbelief.
Rockstar has always been a studio that likes to push the envelope. They like to be ahead of the curve. L.A. Noire is shaping up to be a filmic title that does just that, and drags gaming kicking and screaming into the immersive world of motion scanning cinematics.
So there they were, just the kid and the doll. Silhouetting Claude Rains, watching as the plane left the airstrip. But they hung on to the choice they made. And it looks like Rockstar will too. They’re onto a good thing.