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Rockstar and Team Bondi's long-awaited crime thriller finally gets the full reveal treatment and TVG soaks up the goods...
Every now and then in gaming, a concept comes along that makes you totally reconsider your preconceptions of gameplay within specific genres and settings. It doesn't happen very often mind you... usually it's a case of, 'Here's a game with guns - it's set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland; here's another game with elves and dwarves - this one's an RPG; you drive cars in this game - it's got nitro boosts and vehicle modding'. The innovations seem to creep along at tiny increments from one triple-A blockbuster to the next as fashions establish themselves, such as bullet-time shooters or the now seemingly defunct World War II setting. But then, once in a blue moon, there's a flash in the pan; a videogame that reinvigorates your fascination and faith in the medium. LA Noire is one of these games.
It really would be hard to place the game in any established genre. Is it a typical Rockstar open-world game? Far from it - in fact, despite an open-world setting, LA Noire's storyline appears to be the sole propellant - meta-games and shopping opportunities won't be big players. So perhaps it's an action game of sorts then? Not really. While there are shoot-outs and driving sections to break-up the various 'cases', the bulk of the gameplay appears to come from a totally different crime mystery angle. LA Noire is dialogue driven in ways that very few games have even come close to realising; it takes crime mystery investigation far above and beyond the likes of the point-and-click, and then seasons all of this with the action of a heavily directed open-world title. It's like Mafia II-meets-Broken Sword-meets-Heavy Rain then, although such a contorted analogy can't really do LA Noire much justice even if it is one of the few ways of describing it.
This gameplay concept is then all wrapped up in an intriguing story and setting the likes of which gaming has rarely touched on before. LA Confidential is an obvious parallel to draw here, but it's an accurate one nonetheless. Set to a backdrop of late 1940s LA, the plot driver behind Team Bondi's recreation is a city that's going through massive economic growth but, at the same time, is blighted by a seedy, corruption rich underbelly. Factors such as returning soldiers from World War II who are struggling to assimilate back into society, provide the perfect culture for crime to corrupt the glitz and glamour spearheading the Hollywood image. It's a game world that's trademark Rockstar, then - once again the publisher is holding up a mirror to society that uncomfortably reflects its various ills, although this time it's of an era that's widely remembered through morally rose-tinted spectacles.
Cole Phelps is one of these returning American GIs, although he manages to slot constructively back into society with a job at the LAPD. You'll take on the role of Phelps in the game as he rises up through the ranks, solving cases (LA Noire's equivalent of missions) across various desks from Traffic to Vice as the game progresses and promotions are dished out for solving each case on a specific desk. During our first look, Rockstar demoed a case from the Traffic Desk called 'The Fallen Idol' where Phelps arrives on the scene of a crime to find a car that's been driven off the side of a cliff with two Hollywood wannabes inside. Immediately, we were treated to the bread and butter of LA Noire's gameplay: crime scene investigation and interviewing the people involved.
A brief sweep of the crime scene revealed a few key pieces of evidence - audible cues kicked-in whenever Phelps searched in the right areas, while his Traffic Desk partner, Stefan Bekowsky and the City Coroner were then on hand to help decipher any evidence found. First-up was a shrunken head (the 'Idol') that was wedged under the accelerator - clearly this was no accident. Picking up the evidence and roatating it using the thumbstick to find a sweet-spot then revealed more information and possible clues. A second piece of evidence took the form of ripped underwear - evidence of a struggle or possibly abuse. Of the two passengers involved, one sat nearby in a seemingly shaken state while the other had been taken to hospital for treatment, so Phelps set about interviewing the woman nearby - a B movie actress by the name of June Ballard.
After each line of dialogue from the interviewee, Phelps was left with three different response types: Believe (Coax), Doubt (Force), and Disbelieve (Accuse). June Ballard turned out to be quite a spiky and stubborn customer, so a strong line with her was the best way of getting to the truth. Each character has subtle tells or giveaways in their facial expressions that are signs of lying or deception. Rockstar showed us how there's a perfect path of getting the information you need out of each interviewee - chose the correct responses or questions at the required cues and you'll receive all the information you need; go with the wrong line of questioning and you may need to find a longer way around to the relevant information.
Following the interview, Phelps and Bekowsky were suspicious of June Ballard and tailed her as she left the crime scene. Elements of stealth came into play as Phelps had to follow Ballard into a shop and listen-in to a conversation that she was having with her husband, a mobster by the name of Guy McAfee (who was a real-life LA gang member at the time). Ballard's phone call confirmed Phelps' initial suspicions that she knew a lot more than she was letting on and, from here, the case took on seedier turns with each passing revelation. We won't go into the details of how the case unfolds for the sake of plot spoilers at this early stage but suffice to say that bare-knuckle brawling, a car chase, and a climactic shoot-out add spice to a plot that rivetingly unfolds with each new piece of evidence uncovered and suspect interrogated.
As you move from one location to the next, Phelps' notebook (an interactive menu that stows all the case's relevant info) proves invaluable. You can backtrack over the dictated notes of previous interviews, view your list of acquired evidence, and remind yourself of any people involved in the case. Evidence can also be coupled with specific interrogation questions, so that you can Disbelieve (Accuse) while referring to the shrunken head in Phelps' questioning, for example. While it was hard to tell from a first-look demo, it certainly seems like there's a lot of scope for the story to glance down alternative plot lines depending on the decisions that you take and the lines of questioning used. We'll need some hands on time before this becomes clear, but the early signs certainly point towards high levels of interaction in the story at this stage.
Similarly to Rockstar's use of Euphoria technology with GTA IV, Team Bondi seems to have found a perfect marriage of its MotionScan tech with the kind of character interaction seen in LA Noire. You need only take a brief look at last week's trailer to see MotionScan at work, with the impressive levels of detail that it adds to characters' facial expressions. Put simply, Team Bondi is achieving this by taking 360 degree video recordings of actors' faces as they recite dialogue for the game. The upshot is real-time CGI footage of the actor as they perform lines, which means that the voice-actor for Cole Phelps is a spitting image of his in-game character. It's certainly a considerable step forward from conventional mo-capping, which Team Bondi is only using for body movement, and the tech really does play a critical gameplay role in the various tells and giveaways afforded to characters during interrogations.
LA Noire is not only raising the bar; it's setting a new bar entirely. Rockstar and Team Bondi's long-awaited crime thriller just became the most scintillating prospect of 2011.
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