L.A. Noire Hands-On Preview

21 Mar 2011  by   John Robertson
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Rockstar are not known for doing things by half. When they set out to provide us with a game about gangsters, they serve up Grand Theft Auto. When they tackle the old west, they deliver Red Dead Redemption. Now they turn their sights to 1940s Los Angeles – a time of violence, glamour and enduring fashion trends – and, again, it’s not done by half.
LA Noire may not be being developed in whole by Rockstar’s in-house studios, but, it’s clear that Team Bondi has embraced the same ethics and commitment to quality. Like other Rockstar efforts, LA Noire is stylish, distinct and oh so very interesting.
And yet, it stands alone. This is not merely GTA or Red Dead dressed up to look like Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’. Where GTA has gunplay, Noire has investigation. Where Red Dead has exploration, Noire has interrogation. Even when Noire does tread closer to its publisher’s other siblings, it still feels very different; exploration and gunplay are handled in a very different way.
In many ways, Noire feels like it has more in common (and has taken more inspiration from) classic point and click adventure games – especially from the likes of The Last Express. The goal here is to collect and absorb information, use that information to generate leads and follow up on leads to solve crimes. Where it feels most like The Last Express is that things are not cut-and-dry, you’re never punished or failed for taking a specific path.
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Indeed, there are no right and wrong paths, only different ways to arrive at a conclusion. Even during the short two-hour session we were treated to, it’s clear that no two players will experience the same game and that there are any number of ways to solve a case. One player may find a clue that helps provide answers during an interrogation, another may miss the same clue entirely and have to find another way of obtaining information.
The overarching story will always be the same but the way in which it’s uncovered will not be.
Noire’s gameplay (at least, from what we’ve played thus far) falls into three distinct categories; investigation, interrogation and action. This really is a detective game through and through, investigation is a slow, methodical process of separating important clues from useless information, interrogation requires a good knowledge of the case and the evidence (all handily available in your notebook) and action only takes place as a last resort. Throughout the course of our demo, protagonist Detective Cole Phelps never once unholstered his firearm. Never even hinted at it being a possibility.
This refusal to dumb the experience down and throw shooting gallery after shooting gallery at you (the fashionable way to approach a third-person game nowadays) is immensely refreshing. Indeed, Noire at times doesn’t even feel like a game in the traditional sense, instead playing out like a piece of interactive fiction more closely linked with Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity or John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon.
Characters feel like real people being acted by real actors as opposed to (as is too often the case) a set of intertwined animation sequences saddled with inept dialogue and even more inept acting of said dialogue. Much has been made of the facial motion capture process but, until you see the results in action, it’s difficult to grasp how effective it is and just how good it looks.
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During interrogations, characters will give away whether they’re lying through subtle shifts in body language, a change in tone to their voice or even the words they’re speaking; a direct answer to a direct question is probably truthful, whereas skirting around the issue or buying themselves time by ‘umming’ and ‘urring’ probably means they’re lying.
A lie doesn’t always equate to a guilty party however, those being questioned may simply be trying to hide other information about themselves that they don’t want to get out or, in one such example during our demo, not want any negative publicity brought upon their boarding house business.
Aside from numerous interrogations and a couple of investigations, our demo also offered up a couple of ‘action’ scenes. One, a fist fight that lasted no more than a minute (focusing on counter-punching rather than button bashing) and, two, a short car chase in which we blew out our suspect’s tires. The car chase lasted perhaps two minutes. Again, this is a game that focuses on narrative and detective work first and traditional ‘gamey’ elements second.
The in-game environment of Los Angeles exudes almost as much personality and realism as its inhabitants. Cars, billboards, fashion, businesses are not only drenched in the harsh glare of the California sun, they’re soaked in the exuberant optimism of post-World War II America. Everything has that kitsch, trendy essence of 1940s Americana about it. The kind of essence embodied by Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart and Dean Martin.
While Los Angeles is an open-world location in the sense that you can drive anywhere at any time, the structure of Noire is episodic; each case plays out in a specific order and at certain times of the day, according to the kind of atmosphere the writing team want to impress upon the player. Anyone hoping to drive around and tackle ‘missions’ in whatever order they choose (a la GTA) will be disappointed. As I said before, Noire can seem more like interactive fiction than a videogame (if the two are indeed distinct mediums) and, as such, key events play out in a pre-ordained sequence.
What’s also nice is that Noire doesn’t fill the screen with text, giant multi-coloured arrows or other tools typically assigned to provide the player with information. Noire’s cues are more subtle. The music will stop playing when you’ve found all of the important clues a crime scene has to offer, the control pad vibrates when you’re near a potential piece of evidence and, rather than a crude path of paint on your mini-map, directions to your next location can be acquired by asking your partner who’ll tell you, for example, where you need to turn at the traffic lights.
All of this further adds to Noire’s sense of drama and displays its inspiration from the cinema and point and click adventures of yesteryear. And yet, despite its aged muses, it feels original and inventive; taking old ideas but putting a new spin on them and making them its own.
As ever though, the test will be whether the investigation-interrogation-action formula can sustain itself outside of the confines of Rockstar’s luxurious demo room when we get our hands on the final retail code and tackle LA Noire in its entirety.
One thing’s for sure however, if the full game plays half as well as Detective Phelps’ suits look good then we’re in for something special.

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