PAX East 11: L.A. Noire Preview Impressions

By Matthew Jay

March 11, 2011

Going into our L.A. Noire preview, I didn’t expect too much. As great as Red Dead Redemption was it essentially boils down to Grand Theft Auto in the desert with a long coat and hat and 2006’s Bully is the same in a private high school. So when Rockstar announced they’d be doing a detective style game set in the late 1940’s I expected another GTA-style game with a fresh coat of genre paint. Oh how wrong I was. Check out my impressions of L.A. Noire after the jump.

As decorated World War II veteran and rookie detective, Cole Phelps, the player will traverse a painstakingly recreated and very historically accurate 8 mile area of Los Angeles circa 1947 that puts GTA4’s Liberty City to shame. We’ll get to experience Cole’s rise through the LAPD’s ranks as he solves self contained mysteries, each with a different partner and based on real historical crimes, using a combination of crime scene investigation, interrogation and old timey pugilism.

Our demo started in the police department as Detective Phelps, voiced by Mad Men‘s Aaron Staton, was given his new assignment. A woman was found dead in a park and it’s Aaron’s job to find out who did it. Phelps and his partner walk outside to their car and head toward the park to investigate. During the cutscene I was amazed by the new facial recognition engine Rockstar used to animate the expressions and emotions of the characters, MotionScan. Unlike normal motion capture, this method doesn’t use dots, but instead is filmed with many HD cameras placed all around the actor capturing his every twitch and movement. There’s still a little bit of uncanny valley-level visuals going on here and the bodies are still traditionally motion capped, but I was still very impressed with what I saw and the A Scanner Darkly-reminiscent graphics give off a gorgeous, stylized look. MotionScan isn’t just used to make the cutscenes look cool, it actually factors into the gameplay in a big way. More on that in a bit.

On their way to the murder scene, Cole and his partner have a chat about the case, which keeps the player entertained during the long car ride and provides some useful exposition. When we arrived the body was splayed out in the park completely naked. I was surprised at Rockstar for not holding back in it’s portrayal of a nude corpse. The moment wasn’t like in GTA when you see an almost cartoonish pile of old ladies and hit them with a rocket launcher, the moment was actually awkward and creepy. And let’s just say you could tell it was the 40’s. Cole squats over the body and proceeds to investigate. This is when we got to see the game’s investigation feature. Cole was able to lift and manipulate each of the corpse’s limbs and head to check it’s bruised and bloodied body for clues. Then he scoured the scene picking up items from the ground to find any sign of the killer’s whereabouts. Nearly every item was interactive, but Rockstar informed us they actually had to tone down the number of items the player could pick up because testers were wandering around crime scenes and examining hundreds of useless items and wasting lots of time. More features were added to prevent this. When in proximity of an item you can manipulate, a chime will sound and the interrogation theme will start playing. Once the player has inspected every inch of the scene, the music will stop indicating it’s time to move on.

A small globe with sliding sections like a Rubik’s Cube revealed the name of a club. Cole added the name to his trusty notebook, which is a huge part of the game’s interface, and now had his lead. So he and his partner jetted off to interrogate the club’s owner and we got to see L.A. Noire’s interrogation system. As Cole asked the club’s owner questions about the case, we were told to watch the man’s movements. Three options appeared on the screen labeled “Truth,” “Doubt,” and “Lie.” When asked about the woman’s whereabouts the night before, he remained stoic and kept eye contact with Cole. The player selected “Truth.” When asked another more hard-hitting question, the man’s eyes darted and he looked uncomfortable. This was the MotionScan at work. The player selected “Doubt” because Cole had no hard evidence against the man’s claim. Cole gained experience points from a successful interrogation and the guy told us a license plat number that could help. Cole called it into the station on a pay phone and was given an address. Interestingly, the player can call in a full or a partial license plate number.

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At the woman’s house there were obvious signs of a break-in. The two detectives forced their way into the home and investigated, again checking every nook and cranny looking for clues. A man’s address and number were found on a note attached to the fridge. The note also implied he’d left the woman for unknown reasons, but it was obvious there was some bad blood. The two detectives found the man’s house and began to interrogate him. Along the way Cole finds a note he’d written telling a hired hand to kill his wife. Now the mystery was solved and the only thing left to do was take the guy in. When asked point blank why he did it the man still tried to defend himself, but it was obvious he was lying. “Lie.” Knowing his card was punched, the guy knocked out Cole’s partner and he and Det. Phelps engaged in some old timey fisticuffs. This was a good 40 minutes into our demo before we saw any combat, a refreshing thing to get from a Rockstar title. From what I saw it looked like combat will be a small part of the game and the focus will be on detective work. The controls looked like they handled like a GTA, but we were told this was a whole new engine developed by Bondi and not the RAGE engine.

As I said, the demo was not hands-on, but just from watching the gameplay and cutscenes I was stunned. L.A. Noire takes the open world-ness of a GTA, but leaves out the excessive violence and replaces it with methodical investigation and crime solving. This title went from one I was cautiously optimistic toward to something I absolutely cannot wait for.


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Matthew Jay

Contributing writer for DualShockers, Matthew Jay is a comedy writer involved with the Philadelphia comedy scene. When he's not on stage trying to convince a room full of strangers to like him in under 3 minutes he likes to play and write about video games. Especially weird ones.

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