When you think Rockstar Games, you think "Grand Theft Auto." Or maybe "Red Dead Redemption." Games where strong stories and writing take a backseat to big explosions and gun battles. The company's next game, "LA Noire" flips that concept on its head, emphasizing dialog, voice acting and story progression over everything else. It's slow-paced, thought-provoking and may just be too smart for its own good.
An Interactive LA Confidential
If you saw the 1997 thriller, "LA Confidential," or read the 1990 novel of the same name, you can consider yourself to be fully prepped for the world of "LA Noire." Set in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, "Noire" has you controlling the life of Cole Phelps, a patrolman in the LAPD who works his way through the ranks to become a homicide detective.
A hero in World War 2, the LAPD uses Phelps as a poster-child for the department, which is widely considered to be riddled with corruption. He's clean-cut, inoffensive and plays by the book, which makes him none-too-popular with his fellow officers. Again, if you've seen "LA Confidential," the similarities between Phelps and Guy Pearce's Edmund Exley are uncanny.
An Interactive Crime Novel
"LA Noire" is not an action game. There are action scenes, sure, but more often than not, you're talking instead of shooting. Witness interviews, interrogations, evidence hunting. This is the life of Cole Phelps. Sometimes it leads to a car chase or an alleyway gun battle, but most of the time you're quietly unraveling the case.
I was shown one of the game's cases, of which there are about 20. Titled "The Fallen Idol," it had Phelps first investigating a car crash in the Hollywood Hills. Upon arriving at the scene, you can walk around, looking for clues. It plays out similarly to those investigation moments in "Heavy Rain," but without the fancy techno glasses. This is 1947 after all.
Meeting The People Of Los Angeles
In addition to picking up and examining evidence, you can chat up victims at the scene. This is where "LA Noire" really shines. The facial animations, detail and lip-syncing in the game in unbelievably good. The recently-released trailer doesn't really do the game justice, as there's an eerie accuracy to the way the actors performances where captured. Apparently the game uses proprietary facial scan technology, separate from traditional motion capture, to get every nuance, from the slightest eye roll to the most subtle sneer.
Apart from looking impressively realistic, all this detail is part of the gameplay. When interrogating suspects, you'll have to decide whether they're telling the truth or not. If someone is avoiding eye contact or blinking excessively, these are signs that they're holding something back and that you should press them for more information.
These interview sections bring to mind the "Phoenix Wright" series, where you have to probe and use evidence to force the truth out of people. Since Phelps is a straight shooter, beating the truth out of everyone simply isn't an option. Flattery? Trickery? Verbal intimidation? These are the tools you are given.
A Break In The Case
Interviews with suspects will often lead to more suspects and locations to investigate. Eventually, though, cases will heat up with some action sequences. One of the sequences had Phelps chasing a perp through a massive, Aztec-themed movie set, with daring leaps across crumbling catwalks. The mission culminated in a shootout which used standard cover-based mechanics akin to what we saw in "Mafia 2."
Truth be told, the action bits feel a little uninspired at the moment. Clearly it's not the focus of the game, but considering Rockstar's pedigree, I would hope for a bit more than the standard car chase, shoot-out fare. Hopefully the game has some surprises in store on that front.
'GTA' It Ain't
Even though "LA Noire" takes place in an open city, Los Angeles acts as more of a backdrop than the focal point (as in the case of Liberty City in "Grand Theft Auto 4"). While the city is bustling with pedestrians and traffic, there's not a whole lot to keep you occupied. It's really just something to experience as you go from case to case. It's so de-emphasized, in fact, that you can actually skip most of the driving segments in the game, having your partner drive for you. This should please those who found the excessive driving in the non-interactive city of "Mafia 2" to be a major waste of time.
Rockstar's Riskiest Game Ever?
"LA Noire" has been in development for over 5 years and is reportedly one of the most expensive games Rockstar has ever produced. For such a high-profile game, it's not what I would consider a slam dunk sales success. When dialog and acting trumps the action in your game, it's a toss-up whether the masses will come out in droves the way they did with "GTA" and "Red Dead Redemption." Rockstar is taking a chance on a mature, experimental title that would seem to appeal more to the art house movie crowd than fans of "Call of Duty." We'll have to see whether that bet pays off when the game drops in the spring.