L.A Noire: Hollywood come in, your time is up
18th Nov 2010 | 18:41
"This is a sick town, detective. You sure you want to know?"
In truth, no. We're not even sure we want to know half as much as we already do, ma'am.
In one virtual Hollywood morning, we've swallowed enough wanton squalor and outright deviousness to discolour our faith in the human condition for good.
We've seen a 15-year-old sparrow of a girl, Jessica Hamilton, tremble in her hospital bed as she attempts to divert our enquiries away from details of her harrowing sexual abuse.
We've witnessed her auntie, B-movie strumpet June Ballard, dismiss Jessica's torn underwear and the noxious levels of chloral hydrate in her blood as mere teenage folly.
And we've heard the same, gut-churning name over and over again: Mark Bishop.
Throughout this deluge of wretchedness and subterfuge, we've watched L.A Noire's quick-thinking protagonist, Cole Phelps, dismiss the apocryphal and amplify the authentic with the sort of decisiveness and gallantry rarely found outside of his decorated ilk.
A World War II vet, Cole was awarded the Silver Star for bravery on his return to the US. His final turn of service was the most tortuous: The 1945 Battle Of Okinawa - the largest, bloodiest and most ferocious campaign of the entire conflict.
He emerged not only alive, but a hero. He also emerged with the sort of dead-eyed, glacial demeanour usually carried by those with a deep, dark secret.
But here in Hollywood, 1947, where dreams are made - yet nightmares flourish - Cole is exactly the man you need in the LAPD. Unlike most of the anxious, gibbering mannikins in this unscrupulous town, he's not gunning for fame, wealth or status - just evidence and clarity.
And, now, standing in Mark Bishop's apartment, having artfully petted and pummelled the truth from this untrustworthy movie producer's wife, he's about to get a bellyful of both.
"This is a sick town, detective. You sure you want to know? The thing is, my husband likes them young..."
It doesn't take long in the stunningly detailed world of Rockstar's L.A Noire to realise that this ain't a place for wimps. Quite the opposite; you have to plan, react and think just like Cole.
Fallen Angel, the mission we take in, begins with a cut-scene showing the inky figure of a man clamping tight the accelerator of his Chevy under moonlight. We watch the car career over an escarpment and into a giant billboard above one of Hollywood's iconic roadsides; and we note the shadowy, slumped silhouette of two dozing passengers inside.
The next morning, Cole and his good guy partner Stefan Bekowsky - working on the PD's Traffic desk - receive the case and head out to study the scene. Initially adopting a similar third-person control system to Red Dead or GTA, we, as Cole, are encouraged to peruse the grassy embankment around the now crumpled Chevy for clues.
The dormant figures from the night before have now been recognised as Jessica and June - and they have both, thankfully, survived.
The former has been whisked to a nearby hospital. The latter is perched coquettishly on the bumper of a police car behind us. Despite her dishevelled state, she's obviously made something of a rushed effort to recover her usually preened appearance. Little wonder - the local paps are everywhere, carnivorous for a bit of glamour to make up for the lack of bloodshed.
It's here that L.A Noire's first sleuth indicator kicks in - and to those expecting Niko-Bellic-does-Tinseltown, it's a delightfully light surprise. Whenever we wander near something that constitutes evidence, the oddly eerie jazz music playing in the background comes to the fore, garnished by a delicate two-note piano motif.
It's a smart, early indication to the player of just how much you're going to have to have your wits about you to progress through L.A Noire. Whether stomping around the back-lot of a plywood-heavy movie props outlet or turning over the flush apartment of a showbiz exec, each telephone, framed photo or envelope may offer a lead; each witness an explanation.
The process of drawing this information from NPCs is L.A Noire's key mechanic - and the arena in which its incredible facial technology is best showcased. Each interrogation or interview is stuffed with responses that reflect the personality of their bearer.
So, as an accomplished if tacky actress, June Ballard's flirtatious, cunning testimony is not to be trusted from the start.
She's the first witness we talk to - aside from a coroner - and we have in our grasp two clues from the scene, both found in June's handbag: Jessica's forebodingly vandalised underwear and a heartfelt letter from her mother to her aunt, explaining how her daughter is a runaway with "stars in her eyes".
We can call on this evidence any time we feel June may be fibbing by delving into our trusty black notebook. We can also coax, doubt or outright disbelive what she's saying - denoted by a button apiece.
This system works a charm and, should you play your cards right, plonks plenty of new tip-offs and locations into your notebook as they spill from your witness's lips.
Our encounter with June is the first time we hear Mark Bishop's name - and it's not in a flattering or affectionate light. It becomes clear that Bishop has gone back on a promise to give her a starring role in one of his pictures. We also hear details of June's influential mobster boyfriend, Guy McAffey. Two leads in - our paper trail has begun.
From here, we drive across town with Bekowsky to chat to Jessica. In a clever touch we're sure will be repeated throughout, we're given some advice by our partner beforehand: "Go easy on her."
In our gaming haste, this gentle reminder that we're about to verbally test a potential rape victim stop us in our tracks. L.A Noire wants us to respect each witness as a complicated persona - as a human being. And it rewards us with some of the most thrillingly lifelike interaction we've ever seen on console.
The facial-scanning technology used by Noire developer Team Bondi saw the Australian studio bin the traditional 'balls on face' approach, and instead capture expressions and movement via a digital reading system dubbed MotionScan. The effect is nothing short of breathtaking.
We enter Jessica's room shortly after being handed a medical report that confirms she's been both intoxicated and abused. Police analysis of her underwear shows remnants of semen. It's a sad, tender situation - and one that deserves kid gloves.
During our softly-spoken conversation, the fragile girl - sat up in bed, shivering - tries to play down her ordeal. Obviously frightened of the consequences, she tells her first lie, denying any brutality has taken place. She's unaware of the evidence in our back pocket.
The next five seconds are some of the most amazing we've ever spent in the company of a video game. We don't react - we just pause, unsure of what to say and unwilling to crush the spirit of the damaged, vulnerable victim in front of us.
Jessica's head stoops slightly, and her pupils begin to - imperceptibly at first - rotate down towards the hospital ward floor. Her shoulders seem to shrug inward by perhaps half an inch, as her eyebrows are drawn instinctively closer in a subtle frown. She obviously feels uncomfortable. Her deceit is clear.
"The doctor told me what happened," Cole says, gently. "We know you're lying Jessica."
"I didn't want that... I wanted to be a star. Juney told me I had to toughen up."
It's a shocking admission, and one which twists the deftly scripted story back on Jessica's relative - and the dirty Hollywood machine she yearns to seduce.
What follows offers revelation after revelation, Noire's sophisticated narrative untangling with confident patience.
Hidden behind our newspaper in a greasy diner, we witness June tell her boyfriend on a public phone that she has "the film"; we see a mermaid statue - the only concrete memory Jessica has from her living horror - in a photo of the props shop owned by Mark Bishop's best friend, Marlon Hopgood. And we hear Bishop's wife utter those chilling words: "My husband likes them young..."
At his store, the suspiciously cheery Hopgood eventually cracks under questioning when presented with a cheque found at Bishop's flat. It's made out to Hopgood's wife - and it's for a cool £20,000.
Investigating Hopgood's lot, we discover paraphernalia every bit as creepy as it is enlightening: A two-way mirror, a movie camera pointing towards a grubby 'casting couch' and an empty film reel labelled 'Mark Bishop & Jessica' - the contents, no doubt, in June's hands. On a nearby shelf, a half-empty bottle of chloral hydrate lies on its side.
We're not sure which is more sickening: Hopgood and Bishop's debauched complicity, or Jessica's aunt June - willing to sacrifice her niece's virtue and happiness to blackmail the producer that spurned her.
But this is no time to ponder. Hopgood has given us Bishop's location - the busted up, crumbling movie set of his own engorged, vulgar cinematic period epic 'Jungle Drums'.
We jump into our car and speed off towards the hideout. Each of Noire's travel sections utilise a HUD map in the bottom left corner of the screen - a near-carbon copy of Red Dead's. You have the choice of taking the wheel yourself, or offering Bekowsky the chance to drive - which acts as a teleport (a GTA Taxi or John Marston campfire for Rockstar veterans).
On this occasion, Cole drives - and it's just as well. Within seconds, Guy McAffey's goons are steaming aggressively along the road next to us. They too want to catch up with Bishop - but for revenge, rather than legality.
This rivalry tips over into an all-out gun fight on a Hollywood boulevard - Cole and Bekowsky using their vehicle as cover as the familiar, reliable Rockstar shooting mechanics are injected into proceedings.
But this isn't a letdown; indeed, in amongst all of L.A Noire's novelty and restraint, it's nice to let rip in a faithful style. More importantly, it's a refreshing acceleration of pace from the considered investigation that's come before.
First wave of crims disposed of, we chase down a clammy, chubby, Bishop on foot - up ladders and over decaying remnants of his hammy production. He's petrified of June's man finding him, and begs us for protection. But with what we've got planned, he'd do well not to count on the law.
Sadly, that's where our sneak preview comes to an end - before the story spoilers can really kick in.
We've been well and truly enchanted by L.A Noire, from its lugubrious jazz hall 'feel' to its stunningly evocative, wonderfully authentic and impressively motley locales. We can't wait to take on cases from other LAPD departments - especially Rockstar's specialist 'desks', Homicide and Vice.
But it's the game's personalities that leave us with the feeling that this could represent a new dawn for entertainment as a whole.
The uncanny valley has been demolished. The faces of Noire's excellent cast (including Mad Men's Aaron Staton as Cole) are represented with such accuracy, they create a world in which NPCs not only appear, react and lie as real people - but carry with them a human presence and intimacy never before seen in video gaming.
Perhaps even more credit should be passed to the complexity and astuteness of Team Bondi's writing, however. On this evidence, Noire's characters have been crafted on page with the intelligence, maturity and bewitching idiosyncrasies their jaw-dropping animation deserves.
Those we've witnessed are more believable and multi-layered than anything we've previously seen in a Rockstar game; an amazing feat when you consider the studio's own sterling reputation for in-game personification.
A question mark exists over pacing (will an unhurried, dialogue-heavy adventure pass muster with Rockstar's core fans?), but this has astounding promise - a handsomely cinematic experience, housing an unflinching, surprisingly cerebral adult journey.
A better narrative-driven experience than the movies? L.A Noire might lift the lid on 1947 Hollywood's seedy underbelly - but it's Tinseltown 2010 that should have real cause for alarm.