Adam Matthew enters the world of gritty crime; utilising his detective skills to investigate the long-awaited L.A. Noire from Team Bondi and Rockstar. Read on for his full impressions...
Every dirty deed you do is smeared on your face for all to see. Sometimes it’s in a literal sense; you’ve had a night of debauchery and passed out near a mate and a permanent texta. But even if phallus Picasso isn’t around to mark you as a sinner, your murderous intent, bare-faced dishonesty and pissweak fear is always etched on your epidermis, subliminally. In either scenario, your dickery is indelible.
Never before has that phenomenon held such importance in a videogame as it does in L.A. Noire; a Rockstar title home-grown right here in Bondi. We recently had the pleasure of experiencing a demo of the game, and though the familiar DNA of GTAIV shines through in some areas, this new IP oozes a visual magic that, quite frankly, nobody has ever seen the like of before. Team Bondi’s camera-based facial capture system (MotionScan) is nothing short of game-changing and though this detective story will, by its nature, draw you in, the truth is you’ll be emotionally invested after the first few lines of spoken dialogue. Our only concern with the tech: how can we ever go back to Mass Effect 2?
The case we were shown was set during the section of the game where our protagonist, Cole Phelps, is still a flat-foot working the “traffic desk”. Nevertheless, this crime we become involved in proved to be bit more heinous than a moving violation – it was more like the sexual kind. Phelps and his partner, Stephen Bukowski, are asked by their shift manager to go and check out the scene of the crime, which, suspiciously, is right outside the Central Police headquarters.
We take the two minute drive up and around a nearby escarpment that overlooks the station and proceed to get our old-school CSI on. Two actresses, veteran June Ballard and young wannabe Jessica Hamilton, have Thelma and Louise’d their car off a cliff and into a large Coca-Cola billboard. Needless to say, neither dame feels refreshed by the experience. Any misogynistic, 1940s era assumptions we have about “dizzy broads and cars” are erased when the attending uniforms reveal that the occupants were drugged.
As we make Phelps cast an eyeball over the scene of the crash, a jazzy tune fades in which is L.A. Noire’s way of saying ‘the game is afoot’ and that there’s evidence in the area to be eagle-eyed. Stumbling close to an interactive element earns us a light tinkle on the ivories, which is the proverbial 'you're hot, boiling hot!' indicator. Sure enough, we discover two items that make our suspects look even more suspect: a movie prop head that has been used to wedge down the accelerator, and the younger actresses’ handbag hides a pair of torn panties. With both items it's possible to physically rotate and twist them in Phelps’ hand to find extra points of interest.
Pro tip: take a long time inspecting the panties and the people demoing alongside you will give you a weird look. Apparently there’s such a thing as too thorough.
Every tidbit of information Phelps has gained up until this point is automatically scrawled into his notepad and these info chunks become weapons in the interrogation phase. We decide to grill the has-been actress, Ballard, who is also the ‘main-squeeze’ of local mobster Guy McAfee. We don't need a degree in horse-whispering to tell that she’s a hostile old nag who’s desperate to blame the incident on some movie producer called Mark Bishop. Throughout the conversation we study her amazingly life-like face for some emotional ‘tells’. We’re also given four decision prompts where we can either 'believe', 'force', or 'accuse' with her statements. The first option requires little effort, but the other two will make you go to your notepad to produce proof to backup your gut-feelings. Our Rockstar guides had all the right answers for this quiz, so it's not entirely clear what happens if you cock this section up.
We get what we need from the horrendous old lush and decide to head over to see the hospitalised younger witness. This affords us a much longer car ride than before and gives us a better opportunity to drink in the sumptuous visuals of L.A. Just as Team Bondi’s new tech captures the smallest of facial details; their level designers have gone to similar lengths with the minutiae of the greater game-world. The streets are positively stuccoed with advertisements and OCD attention to detail. Nixon’s election campaign plasters the wheel covers of taxis and his gaudy banners (along with suggestions to ‘drive safely’) thread the streets like a fragile spider-web of naivety. Every little touch has been thought of too; from the traffic lights that jack-in-the-box with ‘Stop’ signs, to the miniature fireworks of the sparking trams alongside us.
When we finally reach the hospital (though we could have quick-tripped there by asking our partner to drive) it's plainly obvious that the in-door sections have witnessed the same degree of detail. There are myriad of medical and office supplies stocked behind the reception desk, the scene is lit with a perfect ‘noir moodiness’ and there's even a low blanket of cigarette smoke hovering in the waiting room. This is the ‘40s, pal. Doncha know cigarettes make your Q-zone healthy?
After an extra mild interview with Jessica Hamilton, we turn her lies and facial expressions against her to make her admit that she’s been sexually assaulted. Two things to note here: this particular exchange required Phelps to be much less of a hard-ass, and if you’re a gamer with the memory of a goldfish on roofies – like we are – it’s possible to re-read all the previous conversations that have lead you up to this point. After spotting contradictions and screaming “objection!” like Phoenix Wright in a fedora, Phelps has Jessica reveal that the last memory she had was of an 'audition' at a warehouse.
Taking the detective initiative, we decide to return to the crime scene and tail June Buzzard (Ballard) to see what she does next. What follows is a civic-minded stalking mission that ends with us following her into a coffee shop. We sidle into a booth opposite the payphone and pull up a newspaper. Once again we're amazed by how much detail is in the indoor environments, as the coffee shop is a veritable nutsack full of nuance. The incidental paper we're holding looks quite readable - hell, when we spin the camera around, the book some guy in the booth behind is reading looks readable - and every NPC in the room (folks we'll probably never even need to interact with) have the captured faces of a real-life, performing actors. The end credits for this game will need two hours to scroll through.
Managing to tear ourselves away from our graphical, nerd-boner reverie, we overhear June mention that she wants her husband to take care of Bishop and she even gives him his address (which we tap into our 1940s 'iPad'). In the interest of spoilers, we won’t give away the solution to the case, but we will say that our investigation uncovered an organised ring that tricks aspiring young actresses into becoming sexual treats for seedy Hollywood hep cats. It’s dark and gritty stuff, even more so when you take into account that all of the cases in L.A. Noire have been drawn from real-life police files from the era.
L.A. Noire is certainly a more cerebral experience compared to GTA IV, but that’s not to say we didn’t cut a little rug with Cole Phelps. The first shenanigan involved reaching a witness before two no-good-nics could get there before us. This involved a traffic-slalom in a heavy Chrysler while Bukowski hung out the window and tossed lead salad at our pursuers. True, the Chrysler didn’t run the quarter-mile like an Infernus or a Coquette, but it handled admirably and shredded apart in a visceral manner. After testing to see whether pedestrians and telegraph poles were still fair game for a bumper (hell yes), we gave the mobsters an almighty shunt that sent their top-heavy jalopy cart-wheeling down the street in spectacular Hollywood fashion.
The second rush of adrenaline came in the form of a shoot-out on an old Hollywood set. Phelps is a distinguished WWII vet and he can certainly handle himself in a gun fight thanks to some mad cover mechanics. Though popping out of cover will snap a chest-lock on any enemy near your reticule, the mid-to-long shots with an M1 Garand require some free-aim finesse. Being a HUD-less experience, Rockstar is using a regenerative health system that’ll bleed out the colour palette should you have all the tactical subtlety of Yosemite Sam.
All told, our demo left us with nothing but good opinions on this new IP. The emotionality that is achieved with MotionScan is simply breathtaking, not just for the technical wow-factor, but also because Rockstar has hired some truly talented actors. L.A. Noire is deliberately designed to be of a slower, more considered pace than what we’ve seen from previous Rockstar productions, which may mean ‘little Johnny Kill-Frenzy’ may not warm to this immediately. But, you know what? He can bugger off. As a dark, mature thriller aimed purely at adults, we strongly suspect L.A. Noire of having some serious Game Of The Year potential. Make a note of this game, it’s important.