Since emerging from the shadows last year, Rockstar's L.A. Noire has been building a steady buzz of excitement. The third-person game, being developed by Australian studio Team Bondi, bravely brings together action gameplay and slow-paced detective work based around some seriously dark themes, such as murder, rape and mutilation. The game is set in late 1940s Los Angeles, a time when America's post-war boom ushered in a new era of glamour, wealth and criminality. Players are tasked with solving a series of crimes written for the game and inspired by source material from the era, including the infamous and brutal Black Dahlia murder. Mostly, L.A. Noire is a game in which the player's ammunition is knowledge much more often than bullets. After a hands-off preview session with the game earlier in the year, Digital Spy went hands on to explore the stylish world of dark glamour, loose morals and grisly murders in L.A. Noire.
Rockstar openly admits that L.A. Noire is a "significant departure" for the publisher, taking a more considered and slow-paced approach to the action genre. The game features car chases, fighting 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. We played the opening section of 'The Red Lipstick Murder', Phelps's first case after being promoted onto the homicide desk following the retirement of a veteran detective. His new partner, Finbar 'Rusty' Galloway, provides a bull-headed foil to Phelps's moral crusader.
Any time there are items to uncover, the music strikes up but gets quieter when the player moves too far away. A particular piano line indicates that Phelps is close to a key piece of evidence (Team Bondi is still tweaking the final tunes to denote new and discovered items). Pressing the X button causes Phelps to pick up an item, which can be manipulated to reveal its real truth. For example, the body showed that the woman's wedding ring had been removed and she had been given a Chelsea smile (cuts leading from the edge of the victim's mouth to her ears), which pointed to the 'Werewolf', the nickname given to the Black Dahlia killer by the press.
One new feature that Team Bondi has recently introduced is the intuition system, which is designed to replace standard difficulty settings. Due to the complexity of the gameplay, it was decided that easy, normal and hard settings just wouldn't work, and so the game defaults to its full difficulty level but players can spend Intuition Points to make things easier. Intuition can be spent during interrogations to remove one wrong answer provided by the interviewees, and they can also use them to find out what Rockstar's 'Social Club' online community did in the same situation, similarly to 'Ask the Audience' in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The third intuition shows all clues in a crime scene to avoid spending hours trying to track down the final item before moving on to the next stage. Intuition Points are earned by locating the right clues and discovering landmarks.
Divorce papers revealed the husband's address, but before leaving it was necessary to interview the B&B owner, Barbara Lapenti. Questioning witnesses and suspects is all about judging reactions and then carefully delivering the right response. The player can challenge 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. It takes time to get to grips with the nuances of the system, as there is genuine subtlety requiring a constantly keen sense of observation.
L.A. Noire plays out in a huge open-world version of Los Angeles. Rockstar would not disclose the exact size of the world, but the map appears of a similar scale to Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV. The city looks fantastic, really bringing forth the aesthetic of the era, similarly to the fellow post-WWII world of Empire Bay in 2K's Mafia II. However, this is very much an "open-world with a linear path" rather than a sandbox in the truest sense, and there is a general focus that Phelps is "always on the case". As soon as we entered the flat occupied by Antonia's husband, a scuffle broke out between him and his brother. The melee combat system has clearly been tweaked since we last saw L.A. Noire, but it is still pretty basic. After locking onto opponents with L2, there are options for punches, dodges and grapples. It's all pretty pedestrian stuff, but certainly an enjoyable enough distraction from the investigation.
However, the investigation was interrupted after the station rang to say that more letters had surfaced from the serial killer playing a part in the game's overarching narrative. One of the letters featured cut out newspaper letters carrying a sinister warning, signed off with the same message pasted on the body from 'The Red Lipstick Murder' - "F**k you BD, Tex". The other featured text from Prometheus Unbound, a play by English Romantic poet Percy Shelley. These two clues do not factor in 'The Silk Stocking Murder', but rather provide indicators as to the wider storyline on the homicide desk, and possibly beyond. We then interrogated the husband, this time being careful to judge his responses more closely. The husband admitted that Antonia went to a bar after their fight, but believably claimed that he did not kill her. The plot thickened once more.
At the El Diablo, the bar owner said that Antonia was drunk the previous night, waving around her divorce papers in celebratory mood. At the end of the night, she headed to the Just Picked fruit market over the road to find a cab, eventually being picked up by a brown Ford coupe. At the market, the owner Clem was a touch resistant under interrogation. He corroborated the story about the brown Ford, but certainly appeared to be hiding something. A search of his premises revealed a back room containing enough booze to keep Keith Richards happy (for a few days, at least), along with a jewellery box with an innovative lock requiring us to match the three dice sides from the note at the crime scene.
One of the most interesting aspects about L.A. Noire is how the outcomes of the cases are perceived by Phelps. Acting as the moral compass of the game, the detective is not always sure about the convictions he secures. Both Clem and the barman claimed that a brown Ford coupe picked up Antonia, but this vehicle was never found. The district attorney may be happy that someone was sent to the gas chamber for the crime, but it's easy to question your own logic, and to wonder whether the right person ended up seeing justice. Why would Clem leave so many clues at the crime scene to get himself caught? Was he set up? And if so, who is the actual killer? In L.A. Noire, it seems, few things are ever particularly clear-cut.
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L.A. Noire will be available on Xbox 360 and PS3 from May 17 in North America and May 20 in Europe.