L.A. Noire Preview
This year at PAX 2011, Rockstar showed off a solid chunk of Bondi Games' cop drama/action game, L.A. Noire. You might have seen the trailers showing off the game's accurate facial expressions and how they're captured with a huge array of cameras, and you might note that the actors' likenesses are all included - it turns out that this is pretty much a requirement of the technology. All of this wasn't put together just to make more life-like cutscenes, though, as you'll need that added detail when conduct investigations, question witnesses, and interrogate suspects. Yes, there are also action game trappings like fisticuffs, car chases, and gunfights, but those aren't nearly as big of a part of this game as they are in some of Rockstar's other games. In fact, those going into L.A. Noire with the expectation of getting to play a new GTA spinoff might find themselves a little disoriented.
The game takes place in 1947, when Los Angeles was riddled with crime and corruption. You play as Cole Phelps, a young cop who joined the LAPD after serving in the war in Europe, and over the course of the game's 20+ cases (each akin to an episode of a good crime drama show), he'll move his way up from beat cop to detective. Often you start out at a crime scene, and you'll use the tools of the trade appropriate for the era. That means putting your fingerprint-spreading paws all over evidence and even bodies, all without latex gloves - our example was a young woman, probably killed by blunt trauma to the head, laid out naked in a park. You'll collect what evidence and data that you can at the scene, with the possibility that you'll miss some and make an investigation more difficult for yourself. The more obvious evidence has been marked off by the first-responding cops, but you may have to search carefully in some cases to find key evidence. Not all crime scenes are small, either: Rockstar tells us that some extend over whole city blocks.
Once you've collected evidence, you'll keep notes in your journal. This automatically records facts and lets you choose destinations for you and your partner to drive to - and you can "trip skip" any car ride (by making your partner drive) if you just want to move the plot along as quickly as possible.
You'll need to watch people carefully to know when to poke and prod, and when to leave things alone. Each case has branching paths depending on your actions and how you push people when talking with them. For the people you interrogate or interview, you'll be able to decide whether they're lying, telling the truth, or just trying to hide something, and select one of those three options as they make statements. Correct choices move the case along, and poor ones muddle the result you get. If you choose to call someone on a lie, you have to have some kind of factual evidence in your journal to directly contradict the statement, so if you missed something important, you may not be able to push the case forwards until you figure out the contradiction.
In our example, Cole found a lighter at the crime scene of a young woman's death, and the address of a a bar was on the lighter. It turns out that this is a place where the victim frequented. Heading there, the bartender confirmed she was at that bar a couple of hours before the likely time of death, and then we had a little conversation with the bar's owner. He explained a few things about what happened that evening, but only after pushing him in response to a rather shifty-eyed answer from him. Then it was time for a trip to the victim's home, where Cole found a broken window in the back, several red herring items to throw the player off the trail a bit, and one key item, a note with the location of the victim's husband. After a brief interview with the neighbor, we began to understand that the victim and her husband had been fighting recently, and apparently she had a drinking problem that was getting worse.
Then it was time to head to the husband's apartment-on-the-side to question him about the murder. Turns out, this is the first he's heard of it (or so it seems) and he does act like her murder was a surprise, but does he really seem that broken up about it? Cole did the old pencil-on-the-notepad trick to figure out what was written on the previous note next to the husband's phone, and apparently he had recently written down something about "taking care" of his wife. Cole was able to catch him lying when he acted like he had no idea where she was the night before, because the bar owner told us that the husband knew for sure. When Cole shows him the pencil-tricked note, the husband then suddenly elaborates (only just now), saying he wasn't trying to pay someone to kill her, but instead to get her committed to an institution for her alcoholism.
Cole's partner talks a little trash once the cop duo decides that the husband's going to have to take a trip down to the station. The smack talk was apparently too much for the guy, as a fistfight ensues, and Cole has to defend himself by blocking punches, then use his own to put the big guy down. There's a well-thought-out system of timing, offense, and defense in the fistfights, and while it looked quite a bit like the hand-to-hand fights from GTAIV, I was told it actually played very differently. Cole manages to subdue his suspect and cuffs him in order to take him down to the station. From there, the player will have other leads to try and follow, or you will be able to push forwards with the husband as a prime suspect, interrogating him further. Our demo ended there, unfortunately, as Rockstar didn't want to spoil the whole thing.
When I saw some of the earlier trailers for L.A. Noire, I was a little concerned for the animations. The facial work is amazing and captures way more than you expect in most games, including all of the subtle facial muscles and even the Adam's apple moving around in the throat, but the body movements in the trailers didn't always line up well with the faces. (Part of that was apparently because in development, motion capture of the body happens separately from the facial capture system.) But the team at Bondi Games must have done some significant work on it since then, because during the course of the demo, I saw very little that looked out of line, and some of the slightly wonky stuff could just as easily be attributed to character quirks as it could to bad animations.
Even with all this investigation - walking around, exploring scenes, talking to witnesses and suspects - L.A. Noire still offers a sizable amount of action, especially if you go out looking for it. The cases you jump into aren't on any kind of timer, and whenever you take a drive, you can listen to the police radio and respond to crimes in progress, like bank heists, purse snatchings, or fleeing suspects, and you can respond on the radio and join the crimefighting when you want, even if you're in the middle of working a case. We didn't get to see any of this non-linear action during our PAX demo - and frankly, that's not really this game's strength anyway - but apparently you can do these to gain intuition points, which can then be used to eliminate wrong choices during interrogations and witness interviews. (Apparently there's even a way to involve the Rockstar community and see what their responses are to some interview answers, in kind of a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire "Ask the audience"-style feature).
There was a small scripting bug with Cole's partner, and it's a minor, known issue that's getting fixed soon, but what was interesting was that our demo presenter was forced to do a short drive through a part of LA instead of the usual trip-skip. We found out that there are quite a few square miles of the city modeled for people to explore, and even though you won't see a level of detail quite like that of GTAIV's Liberty City, it at least rivals the next best games when it comes to detailed urban areas. Exploring the city and finding special landmarks even raises the player's ranking and intuition, allowing you to make investigations easier.
I also asked about the way the game is delivered in episode-style cases. Are they entirely self-contained, or do they start connecting into a longer plot, much in the way a good serial drama will do despite the basic episodic nature? The answer was a hesitant yes, but I was quickly redirected towards Cole's own growth in skill and confidence as a detective. I'm guessing, by this response, that these episodes are mostly self-contained from an overall plot perspective.
While L.A. Noire impressed a lot of people with its facial animation trailers, gamers were understandably a little hesitant about how it played. Is it just an adventure game masquerading as a AAA action title? Do you actually solve cases, or do you just watch a lot of cutscenes? In all cases, I've found that those doubts can be laid to rest, and the answers are the possible ones: it's both an intriguing adventure game and a reflex-powered action game, and the player needs to be good at both to excel. You do solve crimes based on choices you make, and you have to watch people's facial expressions and body language closely to figure out what's going on. While it's been tough to get excited about so many big-name games coming in such a busy year, seeing L.A. Noire in action made that a lot easier in this case. This is just as big and important of a game as an indie thought-provoker or a major flagship first person shooter. L.A. Noire is set for release this May.