If any of you out there have ever attended a major convention with a significant game presence, you know that anytime Rockstar is in attendance you can count on two things. An excellent game to show off, and a forbidden fortress of mystery to hide it in. PAX East was no exception. This time around they were offering glimpses of LA Noire, and we braved the wraparound lines to see the good stuff.
The first thing we noticed about this game, even before being ushered in to the roped off “no cameras beyond this point” section, was the astounding facial animation. Screens showcasing the smooth, fluid, and DETAILED depictions of the actors were hard to miss, and had us mesmerized. One of the major weaknesses of even the highest budget games with the best graphics available has always been the facial animation. At best it is sluggish and jilted. At worst it is some sort of horrifying uncanny valley stuff, like Zombie Tom Hanks from Polar Express. That was not what we were seeing here. The actors, who we will go into later, were speaking and reacting in a way that was downright natural.
Once we got inside, we learned that the breakthrough facial animation is thanks to a new technology called “Motion Scanning.” Not to be confused with motion capture, motion scanning does more than simply record the position of little dots on the face, it records the WHOLE FACE. From the squint of the eyes to the way the lips slowly peel apart when you begin to speak. The end result of the process is so precise that you can literally lip read the in-game, non-cut scene characters. As a side effect, the actors behind each performance don’t just voice the characters, they PLAY the characters. You don’t have to try to figure out who plays what part, the actors are instantly recognizable, and not just because the graphics are so good. If you are a fan of good television, these are people you’ll know immediately. More than one member of the cast of Mad Men shows up on the streets of L.A., including Aaron Stanton (aka Ken Cosgrove) as the game’s principle character, Cole Phelps. Perhaps even more impressively, there are 400+ characters in the game, and they are ALL motion scanned, not just the key figures.
These actors are cast in a tale that plays out in one of the most impressively authentic settings yet to be found in a Rockstar game. As the name would suggest, the plot is centered in Los Angelos in the late 1940’s. Unlike the GTA series, you start the game with all 8 square miles of LA available to you, and that’s not the only difference. For starters, you play a cop, and not the renegade vigilante type, either. You know a thing or two about throwing punches, and you’ve always got your trusty sidearm, but if you find yourself doing a lot running and gunning, you aren’t going to make it very far. Your job is to solve crimes, not kill bad guys. As such, you will be working your way through cases organized into five “desks” within the game, starting with burglary and working your way to the coveted homicide.
Gameplay is highly open ended and extremely procedural. Rather than burying you under tool tips and tutorials, the case we were treated to wove the instructions seamlessly with the setting. Subtle audio cues let you know when there is something nearby that can be investigated. Your partner will linger near items and people of interest, and even begin investigating on his own. Tips and clues work their way into conversations, and even standard conveniences like trip skipping are folded into the setting by allowing your partner to drive.
At every crime scene you will have clues, either in the form of physical evidence or testimony. Physical evidence is manually investigated by you, actively twisting and turning objects and scrutinizing the limbs of corpses. On that note, this game is not for the faint of heart. Within the first few minutes of the demo we were given, we were looking at the brutal remains of a murder based upon the real life “Black Dahlia” case. Full frontal female nudity on a bludgeoned corpse. Don’t say you weren’t warned. The handling and investigating of found objects reminded us a bit of Shenmue, which is seldom a bad game to be compared to. Unlike many games with an investigative aspect, not every item or person you encounter is relevant to the case, so you’ll have to really use your brain at times to keep yourself on track. If you find yourself getting lost, though, you can always consult your notebook. Taking the place of the in game menus and journal system, the book contains any information you need to solve the case, but only if you’ve discovered it.
Adding to the police procedural feel, and revealing the purpose for the aforementioned motion scan techniques, is the most unique aspect shown to us: Interrogation. You see, this isn’t a game where you can skip through the dialogue and have the key points summarized for you. The way in which a character reacts to and answers a question is a source of vital information. A direct answer and a look in the eye are likely signs of truth, while evasion, hesitation, and shifty glances imply otherwise. You are given the choice to declare each statement truth, doubt, or lie. Truth is entered as evidence, and a lie is confronted, but lies can only be confirmed if their is evidence to support your belief. Accusing an honest man of lying can cause him to become angry and uncooperative, while believing a lie can lead you down the wrong path. In the event you screw up badly enough, the precious information that you could have gleaned could be lost forever, requiring you to find evidence some other way. If you do well, you earn points that improve your rank, something which we are told has gameplay advantages down the line, such as “intuition points” that help with interrogations.
Considering that Rockstar has made its money thus far with open world sandbox games that have effectively infinite replay value, we were curious to know how this game would handle that aspect. Surely once you’ve solved a crime you are done with it, right? Well, past cases are replayable, and you are scored, so there is that. Also, as we said, each case has multiple paths to completion, so it will take several plays to fully explore the game, and even then there are unassigned cases scattered about the town for you to find.
Set for a May 17th release, the game looks good. Definitely not for the GTA aficionado looking for a few more cars to jack, L.A. Noire seems to be raising the bar of the medium, both technologically and thematically, by finding ways to include more faithful reproductions of the artists performances, and by finding ways to legitimately integrate this into gamplay.