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Rockstar's eagerly awaited crime thriller gets a little closer as we go hands-on...
Having reacted to LA Noire last year as if it was the second coming of Christ, the foremost question in our mind during a recent hands-on was: did we get carried away? Had Rockstar pulled a fast one on us with the application of seductive PR that somehow managed to get through the otherwise impenetrable TVG firewall? Is LA Noire in fact (as one of readers suggested in the comment boards), "Like Mafia II only not as crap, more like a 1940's GTA with the same essential gameplay mechanics of GTA IV." No, no, and definitely not. Let's get one thing straight before we go any further: It's not like GTA IV, it's not like Mafia II, and it's not like Heavy Rain. It is unlike anything you've ever played before. It is unique. Got that? Good. Let's get another thing straight: it's very, very good.
Actually, if you're going to draw any direct parallels then look to TV and Movies rather than video games. Stylistically, LA Noire has a lot in common with AMC's quite brilliant Mad Men. We've spotted at least two supporting actors in LA Noire who play major roles in the TV series, while LA Noire's protagonist, Cole Phelps is voiced and 'Mo-Scanned' by Aaron Staton, who plays Ken Cosgrove in Mad Men. Thanks to the accuracy of LA Noire's MotionScan technology, the in-game likenesses of these actors is uncanny, while the way the tech captures their performances is nigh-on sublime. Predominant fashions of the post-war era bear obvious similarities to Mad Men (e.g. the ample Fedora usage) but perhaps it's LA Noire's exposition of the seedy underbelly to a picture-perfect society that forges the most common ground. The game's depiction of 40s LA through the eyes of detectives policing the corruptive world of Hollywood touches on elements of the 1997 film, LA Confidential as well, so LA Noire is nothing if not a diversely influenced take on the setting and time.
But enough about the overall conceit - it's the gameplay that's really groundbreaking here. Using detective work as a primary gameplay mechanic is a style that's traditionally been limited to point-and-click or adventure games. LA Noire is the first videogame to take those gameplay ideas and transpose them into an open-world, replacing the standard shooting-and-driving action synonymous with other open-world games and replacing them with methodical crime scene investigation. That said, LA Noire's open-world couldn't be further from the likes of Grand Theft Auto, where each dot on the map is a side-mission and every territory has a shop selling an arsenal of weapons. LA Noire utilises what we'd refer to as a tethered open-world in the sense that Team Bondi carefully guides your path through it while also subtly directing the choices available to you along the way.
Missions are replaced by 'cases' and each case starts out with a crime scene. Cole Phelps arrives on the scene with his partner and the first task is assessing the evidence. Where our hands-on was concerned, the crime scene had been erected around a brutally murdered woman with the words "KISS THE BLOOD, BD" written in lipstick across her body. "BD" refers to Black Dahlia, which in turn refers to the real-life murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947. It's a case from which Team Bondi is drawing influence for LA Noire in a series of murder cases across the game's 'Homicide Desk' that bear all the hallmarks of a serial killer. However, Cole Phelps has a hard time convincing his superiors of this - it seems they're more inclined to pass the cases off as copycat murders where killers have seen the Black Dahlia media coverage and tried to cover their tracks by replicating a murder scene. Pinning the murders on people who were close to the victim but lack an ironclad alibi, rather than facing up to the possibility of a demented serial killer, is a much easier task for the old-school LAPD it would seem.
In the case of the 'Silk Stocking Murder' from our hands-on, the crime scene almost seemed to tease us as we scoured the area for clues. We were informed by the coroner that the body was in a similar state to other recent murders: stripped bear, wedding ring removed, brutally mutilated. There was a lack of evidence in the immediate vicinity apart from one or two red herrings (after closer inspection) and a few bits of trash, although the victim was holding what appeared to be half of a ticket stub. Throughout all of this, subtle musical cues hinted when we were near an object of interest or piece of evidence and (as we'd find out a bit later on) a conclusive guitar chord chimed once we'd found all of the available evidence nearby. After some searching, and when we were just about ready to give up and move on, we spotted a small pool of blood over in the distance.
Having moved closer to the blood, it became apparent that it was part of a trail that led all the way up a fire escape and onto the roof of a building. Along this trail, the killer had left clues and evidence such as a necklace that seemingly belonged to the victim and the other half of that ticket stub (revealing the victim's address and name, Antonia Maldonado). Following the lead, we drove Phelps and his partner along to the location; a lodging house owned by a Ms. Lapenti. An investigation of Antonia's room revealed signs of a struggle - items were strewn haphazardly around the place and the bedroom window had been smashed - while court papers indicated that she had been undergoing divorce proceedings with her husband, Angel Maldonado. Confused as to why Ms. Lapenti hadn't reported the disturbance to the police, we took our first opportunity to experience one of LA Noire's interrogations.
At its most basic, this interrogation system works a bit like an RPG's dialogue tree: Phelps is offered various lines of questioning that are met with a response from the relevant NPC. However, you then have the option to believe the interviewee's answer, accuse them of lying, or simply doubt their answer. It's here that the MotionScan tech comes into its own: visual cues in the facial expressions of those your interviewing can reveal whether they're being honest and the subtle tells vary from one character to the next, so it's not obvious whether they're telling you the truth or not. There's effectively a correct response to each answer so, depending on whether Phelps believes, doubts, or disbelieves correctly, he'll be able to get more information from the person he's interrogating and unravel further leads or evidence in the case.
The system works incredibly well and the key is that it really is difficult to get your lines of questioning right. Furthermore, if you get them wrong then there are in-game repercussions that make it harder to unravel the truth and introduce a non-linearity to how the case unfolds. A perfect example of this is where the case led us after we'd interviewed Ms. Lapenti. She'd mentioned that Antonia had been at the El Dorado Bar the night before she was killed, so we were left with two options of where to proceed next: either the bar or Angel Maldonado's house. Opting for Angel's house, we got there to be met by Angel and his brother in a fairly riled-up state. A fist-fight ensued against the two of them, leading to their subsequent arrest and detention.
After inspecting some of the evidence at Angel's house, we found a box of matches from the El Dorado Bar. If we hadn't managed to question Ms. Lapenti correctly earlier, thereby missing the El Dorado lead, then these matches would've served as evidence to reveal the location further along the line. Furthermore, there was also a crate of bootlegged liquor in Angel's apartment from a 'Just Pricked Fruit Market'. At this point the location was unknown to us but, had we gone to the El Dorado Bar before Angel's apartment then we would have received the lead from the barman. Once we did eventually head over to the bar, the barman told us that Antonia had left in a drunken state and walked to the fruit market over the road. Similarly, while interrogating Angel back at the station, it was possible to find out that he'd been angered by the store clerk at the fruit market, who appeared to be ogling Antonia.
It's all evidence of a complexly woven, non-linear case structure and it's exactly the sort of thing we'd been left hoping for after our tentative first look last year. While it's possible to miss quite a few of the pieces of evidence and leads mentioned above if you don't get the interrogations or investigations quite right, eventually you will be pushed in the direction of the fruit market through one lead or another. Once you do eventually reach the market, you're met by the clerk, Clem Feeney who manages to remain unfazed by your questioning. However, a locked room arouses suspicion from Phelps and his partner and they raid it, finding evidence linking Feeney directly to Antonia's murder including her jewellery and a bloodied scalpel that matches the wounds on her body. This is by no means a conclusion to the Black Dahlia murders though... oh no, Rockstar assures us that there's much more to it than this.
At the first look stage, we were enthralled; now, having gone hands-on, we're totally enamoured. It's one thing to present a genuinely innovative gaming concept that redefines styles of gameplay as we know them, and it's quite another to pull that concept off. Rockstar and Team Bondi are doing precisely that with LA Noire and, quite honestly, we can't write enough superlatives to describe how fresh and invigorating it is to play. May 20th can't come soon enough...
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