One part Mad Men, two parts L.A. Confidential, Rockstar's latest is all set to change the face of gaming.
Use the maps to pinpoint locations when searching for landmarks
Published on May 18, 2011
When it comes to game development we'd never be against anyone doing something just because it was there. Say, like climbing a technological mountain. So if Rockstar had simply wanted to use fancy facial capture techniques to give L.A. Noire a more cinematic look, then that would be fine by us. It is, after all, a mesmerizing thing to behold.
But what's great about L.A. Noire's facial capture and animation is that, while not absolutely essential, it enhances the gameplay in a never-before-seen way; you, as a human with experience of communicating with other humans, can use your judgment and gut instinct to tell if someone is lying or not.
So accurate is the technology, that complete expressions are captured and reproduced in game. When we say complete, we're talking about blinks, twitches, eyebrows moving, pursed lips... It makes Heavy Rain's faces look like rubber masks.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. L.A. Noire takes place in 1947 Los Angeles – a setting that makes a perfect backdrop for a Rockstar game. This is a Los Angeles that evokes movies like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential; it is a place of post-war optimism tinged with Hollywood scandal and, of course, heinous, bloody crimes. It was during this period that LA experienced its highest crime rate in its history.
You play a character called Cole Phleps. He’s a war veteran trying to reorganize his life in LA after the war. He chooses to join the LAPD and, during the course of the game, will work across a number of desks including Traffic, Vice and – naturally – Homicide, taking and solving all kinds of different cases and crimes.
Phelps is played by Mad Men’s Aaron Staton – you’ll recognize him immediately with L.A. Noire’s facial recognition tech. And with the brilliant MotionScan, there is no hiding for actors in games anymore. Aside from being a test of your facial reading skills, MotionScan is also a test of each actor's skill. Is that actor playing a character that is good at lying? Or is he playing someone who’s nervous under interrogation? Either way, it won’t long before we, as game critics, will be rating actors' performances as movie critics do.
Anyway, reading a character's face is vital in L.A. Noir's interrogation sections. Successfully (or otherwise) coaxing or challenging information out of a suspect will open up or close down avenues of investigation; the way that each investigation plays out will depend largely on your ability to decide when it's best to play the good cop and when it's best to play the bad.
You do this by first simply asking a question. Lines of inquiry can be opened by searching for evidence or questioning other witnesses – but more on this in a sec. Once a question is asked, an answer will be given and you'll have four ways of responding: believe/coax, doubt/force, disbelieve/accuse or you could simply challenge the witness by presenting them with a piece of evidence.
So if you think the witness is telling the truth, you may want to agree with them, hoping that they will give you more information and if you think they're holding something back you may want to force the issue, hoping that they'll crack. Even though there are right and wrong ways to respond, you'll always get some informaion, how much though will massively change your investigation.
These sections are all about getting this information – and the crime scene is where you'll begin this process. L.A. Noire cleverly uses musical cues to firstly let the player know that there's evidence in the vicinity and secondly to let him or her know that they've approached an object that's worth investigating. It's a subtle approach that works infinitely better than, say, using glowing objects or – god forbid – some kind of sci-fi glasses. Any such objects can be picked up and examined for further evidence, this evidence is then logging into your notepad for future reference.
The notepad in L.A. Noire is one clever device. You'll need it to interact with people, record evidence and making sense of all the complex information that you'll acquire. You can also use it to review and cross-reference information, just like a real detective might. It's an essential tool in your investigation which will help you keep track of L.A. Noir’s complex crimes.
We asked Rockstar what would happen if all lines of enquiry were to be closed down – if this were to happen then the game would find other ways to point you in the right direction. Your partner might prompt you to revisit a crime scene or re-interview a suspect, or you might get a message over the radio prompting you to get to a new crime scene.
There are numerous ways to reach the climax of each crime but, ultimately, only one ending: finding a solution to at crime. However, different players will experience different journeys.
You could, for example, arrive late at the scene of a crime and miss capturing the perpetrators - but then these perpetrators would leave evidence for you to find or witnesses to question that would get you back on track.
L.A. Noire's 1940s Los Angeles is more of a backdrop than a sandbox play area; don't expect to go off gallivanting on vigilante missions, or go cruising looking for stunt jumps, it just wouldn't fit the tone of the game. You'll get side-missions radioed to you mid-investigation and these will be entirely in keeping with the piece (you'll go after petty crooks or stop hold ups) and they will never distract you for too long and can be completely ignored should you so choose.
For a Rockstar game, L.A. Noire has an unusually somber mood to it. Gone is Rockstar's trademark playful wit and in its place is a grown up mood that's more Chinatown than Anchorman. But this new-found sobriety is entirely in keeping with the dark, ultra-violent and complex nature of the crimes; James Elroy would almost certainly approve.
There's a lot more to reveal, but L.A. Noire could be the best movie/game crossover we've had yet. It was telling that when, after an hour of interrogation and crime scene investigation, we reached the climax of our investigation: a classic car chase and shootout. It was at this point that we were back on familiar gaming ground with GTA-style driving mechanics and Red Dead-style cover shooting. LA Noire is not poorer for the inclusion of this action – far from it, the variety is important – but the dividing line between new and old was obvious. It just goes to show though just how fresh and distinct the investigative sections of L.A. Noire are.
L.A. Noire represents a potentially massive leap forward for the genre and not just from a technological standpoint either. L.A. Noire is a fascinating example of what can happen when science and art meet in the hands of some very talented artists, coders and performers: the creation of original and challenging entertainment of an outstanding quality.