L.A. Noire: The future of narrative in games?
26th Dec 2010 | 11:00
Three thousand pages of script. Three hundred actors. One hundred and eighty thousand photographs pulled from the Los Angeles Times, Herald Examiner and Daily News archives.
Eighty square miles of city, with over 140 interiors. Big numbers often hide a multitude of sins, but it's the only way to headline just how hugely ambitious L.A. Noire is. Rockstar do big as a rule - but they rarely do this big.
And yet their latest, developed in Australia by Team Bondi under the tutelage of Brendan McNamara - the big cheese on London crime sim, The Getaway - isn't even really a sandbox.
You can wander around its world, you can ride in its cars and go into its buildings, but the precise nature of police investigations, of building a case and logging evidence, of telling a story, means the days of land-riding a speedboat and firing rocket launchers into crowds are over.
For starters, in L.A. Noire you're on the right side of the law, which immediately negates bat-beating a prostitute to death in a back alley.
But more than that, every significant move you make, every big decision that pushes the game on, is scripted, directed and choreographed down to the finest detail.
You can wander off the beaten path, but it's an illusion of freedom; the only way you truly progress in L.A. Noire, the only way you can see the world and affect what happens in it, is by doing as you're told. And it works perfectly.
AT THE COLE FACE
Set in 1947, in a boom time Los Angeles riding on the back of a strong post-war economy and Hollywood's golden age, L.A. Noire is the world you read about in Chandler, MacDonald and Elroy novels - and against this backdrop, you step into the shoes of former soldier and newly-badged LAPD uniform, Cole Phelps.
Our demo opens inside the walls of the Central Police Station, from where Phelps will climb the tree, from beat cop in Patrol, through to detective in Traffic, Arson and Vice.
Each of these desks has cases attached; each of the cases acts, effectively, as one of the game's levels. There are about 20 cases in all, lasting between 45 minutes and an hour and a half (so you're looking at game time well in excess of 20+ hours), and while each one is a self-contained story, the game has an over-arching plot which unfurls as you move through the cases.
Cases begin in the same way: you're briefed by your Captain, you're treated to a short cut-scene showing the crime taking place (but disguising the perp, or perps' identity) then you and your partner head off to the crime scene.
In 'The Fallen Idol', you're called out to an attempted murder just around the corner from the station. Hollywood hopeful Jessica Hamilton and her faded film star aunt June Ballard have been drugged and their car rolled off an escarpment.
They're only alive because the car hit a billboard on the way down - but, as you quickly discover, in L.A. Noire, no one is quite as they seem.
Cases are where the game's startling tech, MotionScan, really comes into its own. You'll never have seen anything like this before.
Recording the real actors' facial performances and then transposing those directly onto the in-game models has produced jaw-dropping results.
It's not just the lip-synching that's perfect, it's everything: the way the eyes move, the brow furrows, the mouth turns up and the crow's feet wrinkle. You can determine excitement or disgust, fear or regret just from watching the game.
Without this tech in place, there would be no L.A. Noire - or, at least, it could never fully realise its potential. With it, the nuances of being a cop - of talking to people and recognising the way that they react to you - is superbly realised.
Cases ordinarily begin with a witness, and this will be your first experience of the way MotionScan dictates the path of a case. In 'The Fallen Idol', you chat to the aunt, June Ballard, who - you quickly realise - isn't telling you the truth.
Once she finishes her initial rundown of what happened, you're presented with three choices: Believe/Coax; Doubt/Force; or Disbelieve/Accuse. You'll base your decision making on what she said, how she came across, her facial expression, the inflection in her voice, even smaller things like eye movement.
There are black and white, and right and wrong choices - and if you believe someone when they're spinning you a lie, the game will mark you down as having made a mistake.
Mistakes don't cost you, but they do end up forcing you in a different direction, as avenues are closed off and never reopened again.
(Though you can go back and replay a mission, and get it right, at any time.)
Reading a witness or suspect in the interview set-up really does work, but the system is so subtle you'll have to keep your wits about
you. Luckily, you're also basing your interrogations - and the decisions you make - around evidence as well as profiling.
Evidence can be picked up and manipulated with a twist of the sticks, and every piece of evidence is logged in your Notebook, an inventory that will, in time, become indispensable - not least because it also has profiles of everyone you've interviewed and transcripts of exactly what they said.
Essential in the labyrthine world of police work, where red herrings have been sewn into the game too, just to keep you on your toes. L.A. Noire hasn't entirely abandoned the Rockstar MO - there's shootouts, fist fights and car chases aplenty - but, at its heart, this isn't about any of those things.
Thanks to MotionScan, it's about the psychology of the investigation and the finer details that make or break it - and it's a cop game where firing your gun is the last resort.