It's easy to get a peculiar feeling when viewing a new Rockstar game for the first time. It's the feeling that what you're watching might change video gaming. This familiar feeling was creeping up my spine as I sat in a demo booth for L.A. Noire.
Few people would argue against the notion that Grand Theft Auto III changed everything, but it wasn't overnight. GTAIII wasn't a proven success right away. Rockstar reps have said that the game rocked the industry creatively, but it was the runaway financial success of Vice City that made the industry's movers and shakers pay attention.
It was a similar case with the far more story-focused San Andreas. It was more notable for its hidden sex scene than for its wonderful world-building and characters. A few years later, though, people stood up and took notice of Rockstar's achievements in those areas with GTAIV and Red Dead Redemption.
These are a series of one-two punches to different aspects of game design; the only difference this time is that the jab that set up L.A. Noire's cross wasn't a Rockstar game. Rather, it was Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain, a game whose achievements (and failures) in interactive storytelling hardly need recounting.
Now, before Heavy Rain fans get excited or Heavy Rain haters get deflated, it's worth stating that the two games aren't very much alike in most ways. They're very different in terms of gameplay and, especially, aesthetics. Heavy Rain's bleak vision of the modern city is replaced by the glitz and glamour of late 1940s Los Angeles, juxtaposed with the brutality of one of the most violent times in a violent city's history.
However, the two games seem to share some similarities in their design philosophy. Both games like to take their time in telling their story. Neither game is afraid to take the reins off to let you explore the environment – to really let you step into the character's shoes and walk around for a while.
In L.A. Noire we step into the shoes of Cole Phelps, an American soldier returning from World War 2. In an attempt to atone for sins committed in the war, he joins the police force, and quickly works his way up to detective. From that point, there are different "desks" or "beats" that he can work as an investigator, such as Arson and Murder. Each desk, we're told, has six or seven cases that can be worked on, most of which last between 45 and 90 minutes. L.A. Noire developer Team Bondi actually pulled some of these directly from the pages of old Los Angeles newspapers, though of course changed the names of those involved.
In the demo I was walked through, Phelps was working the murder beat.
The Red Lipstick Murder
She was a pretty young thing. You could vaguely imagine that without the missing part of her skull, the smears of blood, and if she still had warm blood to bring life to a smile... she might have been a looker. Not so pretty by the time we arrived on the scene though. She lay on her back, spread out completely nude in a park with playgrounds nearby. Letters were written in red lipstick on her stomach.
Rockstar didn't spare us the gory details either. We not only saw the body up close and personal, but we were asked to slowly and meticulously inspect it for clues and cause of death.
We'll have to wait until the retail release to find out exactly what happened in this grotesque murder, but we were treated to 30 minutes or so of the build up. Along the way, we followed a trail of clues that smacked of an old adventure game like Broken Sword.
In the park by the body, we found a globe about the size of Phelp's palm. After solving a quick throwaway puzzle of lining up the continents, it popped open and was revealed to be a lighter from a local nightclub. As for how on Earth the killer managed to lose an object of that size and sophistication, we're not really sure.
The cut-scene that preceded, showing the woman being murdered by a silhouetted man, had her being yanked out of the car, so it could have fallen out of the car then. L.A. Noire didn't seem to burden the player with the specifics of where clues came from. Hopefully, the clues won't all be so heavy-handed. That said, it would be very interesting if some of these obvious clues turned out to be red herrings.
The clue started us on a path of growing intrigue as the story wound its way between new characters and crime scenes. It would be a waste of time to recount the entire story we were shown, since it didn't have a conclusion of any kind. We were left with our lingering suspicions and doubts. Each character we met seemed to tighten our grip on the killer. The most interesting aspect of the experience was the interview system we used to engage these personalities.
Team Bondi's amazing animation was on full display here, actually succeeding in turning facial animations into gameplay. When you ask people questions, they'll react in a certain way. Sometimes it's obvious that they're lying, since they won't look you in the eye after their response. Other times, you might just notice a subtle tic that tips you off. You'll have to read their voices and expressions in order to figure out where they stand. Are they trying to hide something? Or are they just deeply saddened by the news of the murder?
L.A. Noire isn't just about slow interrogations and clue-gathering: there's a fair amount of action to balance things out. Our particular case was much slower-paced and included just one fist fight just as the demo closed. However, other press materials have shown Phelps blasting through bank robbers that just wouldn't give in, and smashing into cars on the streets of Hollywood.
The time for L.A. Noire's extremely long development – over five years, by some accounts – to come to an end has almost arrived. On 20th May – 17th May in North America – Rockstar and Team Bondi will find out if this expensive labour has been worth the trouble. On this evidence, it could well have been.