"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.
L.A. Noire is very much the brainchild of Brendan McNamara, founder of Australian developer Team Bondi. McNamara has been nurturing the rather ambitious project since 2003, assured in his belief that the distinct magic of film noir detective stories could make a compelling gaming experience. The story is set in Los Angeles in 1947, a time when the post-war boom was emerging, ushering in a new era of glamour, wealth and dark criminality. Main character Cole Phelps, played by Mad Men's Aaron Staten, has returned home from World War II, where he fought in the fierce Battle of Okinawa in the Pacific War and gained a Silver Star for bravery. Back in the US, Phelps joins the Los Angeles Police Department and is immediately fast-tracked to detective (following a tutorial section spent as a beat cop). He is very much a 'by the book' sort of hero, always preferring to use his detective nous rather than willingness to break the rules.
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.
There are immediate similarities to GTA in the game's basic elements, such as the third-person controls, circular on-screen mini-map and core driving mechanics. However, at the crime scene things get very different as the player must rely on their senses rather than their reactions. Police officers on the scene informed Phelps that the driver of the car was June Ballard, a rather slippery B-movie actress married to Guy McAfee, an underworld figure based on a real-life person. The passenger in the vehicle was Jessica Hamilton, a young aspiring actress sufficiently injured to require hospital treatment. Ballard claimed that they were drugged by a movie producer, but Phelps always relies on the evidence to do the talking.
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.
All pieces of evidence can be picked up and handled to find their real truth. For example, a model shrunken head was picked up and manipulated in Phelps's hand until reaching a sweet spot, indicating that it had been used to wedge down the car's accelerator. Some of the clues will be red herrings and it's up to the player to work out which pieces of evidence should be followed up. All clues are logged in the in-game notebook, an essential tool enabling the player to recheck evidence, track objectives and also manage the interrogation system. Satisfied with the evidence, Phelps headed over to quiz Ballard about the crash, requiring the player to ask a series of questions from the notebook and respond to the answers given.
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.
L.A. Noire features an open-world version of LA which is not 100% accurate to the period, but is pretty darn close. The city feels complete and immersive, with possible similarities to the fellow post-WWII world of Empire Bay in 2K's Mafia II. Buildings, vehicles and people feel well recreated with a good attention to detail. Rockstar describes the game as "open-world with a linear path", stressing that it will not be a sandbox in the true GTA sense. Players can drive anywhere and, as they are a cop, do pretty much whatever they want. There will also be incentives to explore the city, such as side missions announced over the police radio that can be tackled at any time. However, there is a general focus that Phelps is "always on the case", meaning it would be out of keeping for him to disappear off for a game of pool, or go shopping while deep in an investigation.
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.
Similar to the GTA games, the process of tailing a target from a vehicle or on foot requires maintaining just the right distance to stay in touch but not be detected. However, the game adds a new facet to the surveillance as Phelps sneaked up to overhear Ballard's conversation on a pay-phone in a cafe. He sat down at a booth and held up a newspaper to listen covertly to her talk, as she asked her nefarious husband to set up a hit on Bishop at his apartment downtown. From here, Phelps had to speed across town in the car to save Bishop before McAfee's goons finished him off. Upon entering the building, the player jumped into the melee combat system, which Rockstar readily admits is "rudimentary" at best. Punches and grapples seemed pretty pedestrian, with limited real complexity. However, Rockstar believes that the "fundamentals are all there" for a compelling melee system, so hopefully Team Bondi will sort that out before the finished game is released.
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.
The chase was now afoot for Bishop, the prime suspect in all this mess, but McAfee's goons were also hot on his trail. Phelps travelled to a broken-down movie set to arrest his man, but Bishop immediately fled, leading to a mad chase through the set, jumping over broken steps and climbing up ladders. After cornering the suspect, Phelps readied the arrest, only to be interrupted as heavily-armed criminals swarmed in, triggering one of the game's third-person shooter sections. Shooting bears all the hallmarks of GTA or Red Dead Redemption, including snap-to-aim targeting and enemies denoted by red dots on the mini-map. There are the usual range of rifles, shotguns and pistols, and the shooting seems solid and satisfying. It was here that our demo came to a close, under the usual excuse of "big plot spoilers" ahead.
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.
In closing, L.A. Noire feels not only like a brave new step for Rockstar but also a potentially significant leap forward for video gaming. Last year's Heavy Rain really showed that gamers are happy to engage in so-called menial tasks if the drama and weight behind them gives the process meaning. L.A. Noire, with its heavy focus on detection, observation and careful consideration, could well build on the success of Quantic Dream's groundbreaking title. However, the real challenge for the game will be in its sense of balance - can the individual cases really get the right mix of detective work, action and third-person shooting to satisfy the vast majority of players? Equally, will the overarching narrative have sufficient weight to ensure the focus on individual investigations doesn't make the game feel episodic? These and other questions will be part of L.A. Noire's interrogation when the game makes its case later in the year.
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!