LA Noire preview

LA Noire, the new game from Rockstar Games and developer Team Bondi, will come as shock to long time fans of Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption and their ilk. This is a game that asks you to enjoy pulling out your notebook and rifling through the evidence, and to watch the facial expressions of the LA lowlife you interrogate. Are they lying?

While you might be used to simply shooting them in face to find out, LA Noire asks you to do things a little differently. Will it work? We got an early look at the game to find out.

At a hands off demo this week, we were shown an early build of the PlayStation 3 version of LA Noire, which is due to ship in the Spring. If you’ve seen the trailer above you’ll be as shocked as we were to find out two things about the game: Rockstar readily admits it’s not an open world sandbox game, despite the huge 1940s LA setting, and that the fighting is “rudimentary” at best. And yet despite that, LA Noire looks set to be one of the most noteworthy games of the year.

You see, while there are brief sections of duck and gun shooting you might be used to from playing as Niko Bellic or John Marsten, they’re not the main aspect of the game. In fact, much of the challenge has been removed from them: you get unlimited ammo for your pistol, and your health regenerates after time, a la Uncharted or Call of Duty solo campaigns.

Instead, the focus is on good ol’ fashioned detective work: hitting the streets, quizzing the right people, spotting the right clues and joining all the dots before a killer strikes again. Will it work? From what we’ve seen, it’s certainly far more intriguing than the police work in 2010′s Heavy Rain – which really did feel like work.

The mission we were shown is drawn from early in the game, right after the protagonist, a returning GI called Cole Phelps, is promoted to detective (A short stint as a traffic cop serves as a tutorial to the game’s controls) in 1947. Missions are taken from different department desks (Vice, homicide and so forth), and this one, “Fallen Idol”, sees you investigating the circumstances behind a mysterious car crash – two women were drugged and pushed over the edge of a cliff. They survived, but have no memory of what happened – or so they say.

While there’s a noticeable episode feel to the game, like Alan Wake, we’re promised an overarching narrative – and with the Houser brothers’ stamp of approval on the game, we’re expecting a corker. However, Rockstar isn’t giving any info out on that just yet, even cutting the mission short before the concluding cutscene.

But even so, we’re still treated to a rollercoaster ride that involves gangsters, high speed car chases, shootouts, conniving molls, naive teens who’d do anything to be a star, and and a truly gruesome “casting couch”.

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You start the mission heading over to the crime scene – conveniently right across the road from the station (You can fast travel to locations in the city for later missions by having your partner on a case drive). There, Phelps finds that one of the women is being treated for a minor injury, and is able to question here and inspect the crime scene.

Interrogation and scouring the scene of the crime is the real meat of the game. The latter works surprisingly well considering you’re essentially playing a game of hot and cold. Fitting jazz music pipes in when you need to start investigating, and piano chimes kick in when you find an object of note – you can inspect the objects too for details on them.

When you find one, a record of it automatically goes in your notebook, and you can use this evidence when questioning suspects. When you’re questioning, you can use three approaches, triggered by different buttons: believe/coax, doubt/force and disbelieve/accuse. The idea is to judge a person’s facial expressions and replies, and then choose the correct approach – for instance, if you accuse someone, you’d better have evidence to back it up in your notebook.

The chimes ring to suggest correct routes, but Rockstar is keen to point out that LA Noire won’t stonewall you at all: wrong responses might result in you being given only some of the information, meaning you’ll have to visit more locations to find the next clue. Eventually, you’ll always get there, but don’t worry if it sounds too easy: you can always be shot, fail the case or fall to your death.

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Rockstar has made a huge deal out of its new Motion Scan technology, which creates eerily realistic renders of actors, and is integral to this interrogation gameplay. Certainly, Aaron Staton (Not the only actor from Man Men who pops up in this mission) is instantly recognisable as Phelps, and there’s no sense of being stuck in the uncanny valley.

So many human inflections and gestures seem to have been included – it’s far more subtle than we expected. People don’t telegraph when they’re lying in the same way: one will roll their eyes from side to side, while another suspect will gulp, almost imperceptibly. We missed the signs on more than one occasion, until a Rockstar rep pointed them out. Certainly after playing this you’ll ever wonder why you put up with the wonky facial animations in Fallout.

Visually the rest of the game looks stunning: even on an early PS3 build (Rockstar’s last game, Red Dead Redemption, had noticeably superior graphics on Xbox 360), the empty lots and parched and faded art deco streets of Hollywood look mesmerising. Light bounces off the curved bonnets of cars, and the heat shimmer of tarmac in the distance gives the game a distinct feel – this is Chinatown, kid.

While no one could ever accuse Rockstar of failing to mix it up when it comes to genres (This is a company that put out a game entirely devoted to table tennis), there’s no doubt LA Noire represents a new type of game entirely. A bold, and impressive one – but one we fear might have little replay value. After all, once you’ve solved the case, you’ve sold the case, right? And no one’s ever made a game where you actively enjoy looking in a notebook before.

A Rockstar representative was keen to assure us this was not the case, pointing that missions can play out differently each time you play them – for instance, in this one, while we intercepted a pair of goons snooping around and handcuffed them after some fisticuffs, arrive too late and the henchmen you meant to cut off will already have been and gone, lifting the evidence.

Even if this isn’t enough to tempt you to play it through again, from what we’ve seen so far it looks like LA Noire could easily justify its price for one fascinating playthrough. We’re promised a hands on session with a newer build of the game in the coming weeks, so stay tuned and we’ll be sure to update you on how the game is progressing.

LA Noire is out this Spring for Xbox 360 and Sony PS3.

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