"For heaven's sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself." That cheery message was scrawled in lipstick on a mirror by serial killer William Heirens in 1945, right after he had brutally stabbed a woman to death in her apartment. A photo of the chilling cry for help is just one of the gruesome pictures depicting murder, rape and exploitation used as reference material by Team Bondi for L.A. Noire, a new third-person action game published by Rockstar. Crime has featured regularly in past Rockstar games, particularly in the Grand Theft Auto series, but it has usually been wrapped in humorous, tongue-in-cheek presentation. L.A. Noire strips everything back to brass tacks - stylised, yes, but certainly the dark underbelly of 1940s Los Angeles rammed home with both barrels. Digital Spy joined Rockstar for a hands-off session to see how this intriguing prospect is shaping up.
Rockstar is very open in admitting that L.A. Noire is a "significant departure" for the publisher, as the game takes a more considered and slower-paced approach to the action genre. It certainly features various action sequences, such as car chases and third-person shooting, but the vast majority of time will be spent doing police work; following up leads, surveying crime scenes, interrogating witnesses and seeing through the veils of deception to find the truth. Essentially, the game doesn't feature missions; instead the player takes on cases on different desks of the police force - such as traffic, vice and homicide. Each desk brings the player a new partner to work with and a whole new set of problems. In a hands-off demo, Rockstar showed off a case called 'The Fallen Idol' on the traffic desk close to the start of the game. After a briefing from the desk sergeant, Phelps set out to investigate a car that had careered off the road and smashed into a Coca Cola advertising hoard, conveniently right across the road from the police station.
Moving to the stricken vehicle, Phelps met county coroner Mal Carruthers, a constant ally in his fight against crime who gave an initial briefing on the crash. Exploring crime scenes in L.A. Noire involves paying close attention to the details, but the music also plays a part. Any time there are items to uncover, the soundtrack strikes up and gets quieter when the player moves too far away. A particular piano line also indicates that Phelps is close to a key piece of evidence. In this case, things were easy as the contents of Hamilton's bag was laid out - a torn pair of panties and a letter from her mother indicating that she had run away from home to pursue a dream of stardom, aided by her auntie June.
Asked about the drugging allegations, Ballard gave a dismissive response, with her facial features and body language screaming that she was telling porkie pies. The player can react in three different ways - 'believe/coax' to take the soft approach, 'doubt/force' to put pressure on the subject and 'disbelieve/accuse' to use hard evidence to put them on the spot. Care must be taken to judge the right interrogation approach for each situation, but the game will never penalise a wrong decision. After picking the 'doubt/force' approach, Phelps cajoled Ballard into giving up the name Mark Bishop, the producer who she claims was behind the drugging. He then asked about Jessica Hamilton, to which she gave another evasive response. However, this time Phelps used the torn panties as evidence to 'disbelieve/accuse' her, causing Ballard to reveal that Hamilton was at a casting with Bishop. Phelps also discovered that Bishop had offered Ballard a part in a movie, but then withdrawn the offer, making her less than happy with him. Having got everything he wanted, Phelps decided to head over to the hospital to quiz Hamilton.
At the hospital, the doctor confirmed that Hamilton had been drugged with choral hydrate, and also raped. Quizzing the girl required the same interrogation approach, but this time Phelps adopted a less aggressive tack. Digging beneath her initial answers and using the evidence, the detective encouraged Hamilton to reveal that Ballard took her to the casting, where she was given a drink by Bishop and then it all got hazy. Her only distinctive memory was a mermaid on the front of the building as they drove up. Leaving Hamilton to her still-undeterred dreams of stardom (as if being raped is not enough to leave well alone), Phelps spotted Ballard at the hospital and decided to follow the actress, triggering one of the game's action sections.
After dispatching the goons, Phelps found that Bishop was not at home. A search of his apartment and an interrogation of his wife revealed that the producer has a penchant for pretty, young girls. It also led to a building called Silver Screen Props, which has a distinctive mermaid on its roof. Any addresses, names or other information gained can be checked by calling Records & Information, an "in-game Yellow Pages" holding details on anywhere and anyone in the city. Marlon Harwood, the prop store owner, proved to be a completely hopeless liar who readily admitted to operating a dirty casting stage at the back of his shop, including a rather gross two-way mirror room allowing film directors to prey on innocent hopefuls. Under interrogation, Harwood revealed that Bollard had asked him to film Jacobs raping a drugged-up Hamilton so she could use the footage for blackmail (see what we mean about pulling no punches?). Harwood was right up to his neck in the case, but he was also a vice informer, meaning Phelps had to reluctantly let him go - for now, at least.
There will be plenty of action set pieces in L.A. Noire, but obviously this is not the game's real focus. Instead, the immersive story and detective mechanics will take centre stage, requiring brains rather than brawn from the player. Around 340 characters appear in LA Noire, most of which have been filmed using a new motion capture technology called MotionScan, which uses a circle of 3D camera to track facial movement and acting performances. The script is some 3,000 pages long, equivalent to two 24-episode television drama series. Cases can take anything from 30 minutes to two hours to complete and the game will be very much about tackling individual objectives within an overarching narrative. Rockstar used the comparison of a seven-part drama series, in which all episodes have a complete narrative, but there is also a big storyline binding them all together.
L.A. Noire will be released on Xbox 360 and PS3 in the spring. Are you looking forward to the game? Add a comment to the space below!