We explore the seedy underbelly of 1940s Los Angeles in Rockstar's latest opus
LA Noire: Interrogation
Interrogation is the other key branch of LA Noire's gameplay, and this is where Rockstar really strikes out for the horizon. There are precedents for almost everything else in the game's design, but finding a way to turn the human aspects of detection into meaningful gameplay took six years and some extremely cool technology called Motion Scan.
As in other games featuring detective work, you'll need to collect evidence and chase leads, but in LA Noire you also have to read their faces, watch for tells, and make judgement calls about who's telling the truth, and who's got something to hide. When Phelps talks to a suspect, to all intents and purposes you are seeing a real actor giving a real performance. Indeed, Phelps himself is played by Aaron Staton, who fans of brilliant TV shows will know as Mad Men’s Ken Cosgrove.
Using the notebook, you are able to question a witness or suspect on any pertinent evidence you’ve collected. At certain points in the conversation you are given the choice to believe them, push for more information, or accuse them outright of deception - make the wrong call and it the subject might just clam up. There were moments when making the distinction was simple, but there were just as many when I was operating on instinct, pursuing a hunch based on a flick of the eyes or a nervous tic.
Rockstar has created meaningful gameplay that has almost nothing to do with pressing buttons, which, trust me, is far more impressive than it might sound.
L.A. Noire: The Showdown
LA Noire features two difficulty settings - Officer and Detective - but Rockstar doesn’t want you to get the wrong idea. This isn’t a game that deals in traditional notions of success and failure; Phelps is able to miss evidence, push a witness too hard, or falsely accuse a suspect of a crime, but however badly he screws up the game will continue. This is the one aspect of L.A. Noire that recalls the relentless momentum of Heavy Rain.
I have now seen two cases from LA Noire: the one I watched culminated in a brief shootout on and around the set of DW Griffiths’ Intolerance, the one I played finished with a car chase through the Los Angeles streets. In both instances the climax of the case was the only example of the driving and shooting for which Rockstar games are known, and that approach will remain consistent throughout. Real detectives don’t shoot a dozen people a day, and LA Noire seems more interested in representing that reality than any game in recent memory.
L.A. Noire: The Verdict
Okay, time for a little perspective, because, revolutionary technology notwithstanding, LA Noire is taking some major risks. The city, for example, will not be the sort of completely open sandbox that Grand Theft Auto games are built around. You’ll be able to pick your own routes and there will be crimes you can choose to pursue, but Los Angeles will principally be a backdrop for Rockstar’s most linear story since Manhunt 2.
Now, I have major problems with the way “linear” has become a dirty word in certain circles, but it would be foolish to ignore the fact that games as diverse as Mafia II and Alan Wake were criticised for their ‘semi open-world’ approach. I still maintain that these games were victims of critics allowing their own expectations to distort their perception of what the developer was trying to do, but that doesn’t remove the risk of the same thing happening to LA Noire.
The other problem is more pressing. In the moment, I was enraptured by the way LA Noire incorporates human instinct into its game mechanics, but that places a great deal of pressure on Rockstar to deliver a compelling story, believable characters and snappy dialogue. It certainly did that of the few hours I’ve seen, but managing the same over 20 hours is another matter. Personally, I think the studio responsible for Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption deserves the benefit of the doubt.