In some peopleâ€™s opinions, Rockstar's raison d'Ãªtre has been to court controversy. Games like Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt attract as much attention for their violent (or otherwise offensive) content as they do for any other reason - justifiably, perhaps, in the case of Manhunt but a distraction and shame when true for the excellent GTA.
The recent Red Dead series, then, was something of a departure for the company. Sure, it's still got some violence in it, including some dodgy achievements, but the point was clearly to create a cohesive and compelling experience, rather than something that would convince mainstream media to market the game for them.
So as the next game from Rockstar, how does L.A. Noire fit into the strategy? We recently got a sit-down with the game, during which a big section of the game was demonstrated to us, followed by us playing through an entire chunk of it ourselves.
As previously discussed, the game's striking MotionScan animation technology (referred to as "performance capture", rather than animation as we have known it until now) complements the game's core gameplay and allows for new types of gameplay to emerge. Specifically, players are challenged to determine whether or not the person they're talking to is telling the truth.
This is achieved by an interrogation interface which allows the player to proceed based on whether they believe the person they're interviewing, whether they doubt them, or whether they flat-out believe that they're lying. In most cases any selection will allow the dialogue to proceed, however getting the correct "read" on your suspect will result in more options being available to the player and a greater score at the end of each case. This worked well in the scenarios we played, resulting in me feeling like quite the chump when I got it wrong - a result partly achieved thanks to having an audience, I'm sure!
The game is split up into a number of "desks" (homicide, traffic, etc), each of which is separated further into cases. There's an overarching narrative, too, but each case is sufficiently self-contained that players can bite the game off in chunks, even spread out over a long period of time, without having to remember much about what they've done before.
The presentation at the beginning of each case is complete with titles in the film-noir detective style; large block type and dramatic period music help to both introduce the new phase of gameplay and break it up from the case that you've just completed. The names used, like "The Red Lipstick Murder", also help lock in the pulp-fiction (not the movie, the vintage genre of narrative) period drama feel.
The case we were shown and the later case that we played through were both homicides. The one demonstrated to us in a hands-off introduction was protagonist Cole's first murder. A rapid promotion to the senior position, no doubt as a result of the player's exemplary performance up to this point in the game, sees Cole receiving more than his fair share of jibes and dismissive derision from his partner.
A murder, obviously enough perhaps, this case was a good one to highlight the no-holds-barred nature of the game. After driving to the scene (something which was left up to the player's AI partner, a good option for those that can't be bothered with the twitchy handling of the vehicles or that just want to concentrate on the in-journey dialogue), we were confronted with the naked, beaten body of a young woman. Nothing (and we mean nothing) is hidden behind carefully placed props or evidence tape, with the almost brazen nature of the presentation adding to the realism crafted by the facial animation.
After arriving at the scene, the player's goal is to explore the environment and attempt to discover as many clues as possible. There are items here that serve no value but are worth finding regardless - you can tell apart the valuable and the not so, thanks to clever systems that help guide Cole through the (frequently large and occasionally complicated) crime scenes. There's only limited user interface used during these sequences, with the game relying on things like controller vibration and musical cues to lead the player around. It's a smart system and it works well, although we did find ourselves occasionally spinning around on the spot trying to trigger an interactive element thanks to the game's requirement that you're standing in the exact-right location to interact with objects.
Once you've found enough clues, which you may get prompted about by your partner if you're having trouble, you'll open up a new location in your notebook. This notebook, much like for a real detective, is the central store and reference point for anything important when working on a case. If you're not sure what to do, taking a peek in here will often give you an idea. You can use it to set your next destination, for example, which will then allow you to tell your partner to drive you there (or guide you there yourself, should you choose to take the wheel).
The combination of ultra-realistic facial animation "performances" and more traditional videogame technology, like that seen in GTA (etc), makes for a striking visual package. There's no way anyone will ever be confused as to which game they're playing or watching. It does, unfortunately, bring about the uncanny valley phenomenon, although you do get used to it.
The game's strongest aspect is shaping up to be the narrative, with the game playing much like the oft-maligned interactive movie, in as much as the story and characters are an incredibly important part of the overall package. Interacting with people is fun and, we suspect, would be even more so in a social situation where you can debate the nuances of the performance and the guilt or innocence of the suspect with your friends.
Ultimately, our hands-on has left us desperate to play more of it - it's an experience you don't quickly forget. If you're looking for another GTA-style game, look elsewhere but if you're interested in experiencing something new and exercising your brain cells, L.A. Noire is coming to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on the 20th of May. We will, of course, bring you our full review as soon as possible!
The Good: Incredible facial animation.
The Bad: Floaty vehicle controls.
The Ugly: L.A. Noire is set in the Uncanny Valley.