L.A. Noire is symbolic of a new era at Rockstar Games. On last-generation consoles, they were best known for the mindless violence and great soundtracks of the Grand Theft Auto games. So far on the current set of systems however, they’ve released a serious sports game, a surprisingly dark and realistic entry in their flagship GTA series and a solid and inventive western game.
Their lineup for the next few years is just as varied and adventurous: in May the company will release L.A. Noire, a detective saga developed in collaboration with Team Bondi; followed by a new twist on an old series in Max Payne 3 and later Agent, a PS3 exclusive espionage thriller set in the Cold War. As much as that’s exciting from a player’s perspective, it’s clear from spending time at Rockstar that it’s even more so for them, always thinking about what’s coming next – pushing the bar creatively, narratively, and technically.[boxout]A bit of a recap for those who haven’t been keeping up with L.A. Noire: you play as Cole Phelps (played and voiced by Mad Men’s Aaron Staton – more on that in a bit) and the game starts as his career does, as a beat cop.
From there, a combination of a string of successful cases and the LAPD’s need for a pretty face lead you up through a number of other ‘desks’ – departments in the force. From the corruption of vice, the destruction of arson, and the horrific corpses of homicide, the game is both varied and most definitely adult in content.
I grew up playing the GTA games on PS2 but mindless violence, this is not: the vast majority of the cases in the game are based on real-life events (although with names changed out of respect, and details altered so that you can’t fly through the game with Wikipedia as a guide) and a number of them are really quite dark and disturbing.
Of course, if you’ve only heard the smallest bit about L.A. Noire, it’s likely to have been about the game’s unique and revolutionary motion capture system. As much as it is a big bullet-point feature, much has already been made of the system, and Rockstar are keen that the focus now return to the game itself. Having said that, it is worth at least a small mention here, as it makes all of the named actors in the game’s performances all the more believable. MotionScan captures two performances: firstly, the motion capture with the skin-tight suits and brightly-coloured balls that you’ve likely seen in countless game development diaries but then on top of this, a state-of-the-art facial capture rig.
Made up of a whole bunch of HD cameras, it captures an actor’s performance from every angle, which is then combined with the body capture to create a realistic performance in-game. It’s a massive step-up from the sort of capture used with GTAIV and Read Dead Redemption but Rockstar are quick to note that it won’t just be used for everything else from here on out – it’s Team Bondi’s tech, not theirs, and whereas it’s crucial to the core gameplay in L.A. Noire, it wouldn’t be worth it for something like Max Payne 3, where the technology won’t be making an appearance. But, as I said, this isn’t a preview of MotionScan, it’s a preview of L.A. Noire itself.[drop2]Red Dead Redemption has been very often referred to as “GTA in the Wild West”, for better or worse. L.A. Noire, however, is definitely not “GTA in the 1940s”. You’re not out to be the top mobster, or for revenge for the death of a family friend, you’re simply an army veteran starting a career as a cop.
Equally, you won’t be wandering around the streets heading to a mission-starting trigger. Instead, in that respect at least, L.A. Noire is a lot more linear than you might expect from a Rockstar game. From the main menu that presents itself when you boot up the game you can either jump into wherever you’ve got up to in the game’s main story, go into the individual desks in detail to select a particular mission or any other option that opens up at the end of each desk.
It’s also worth making a note here about the extra missions that have popped-up as pre-order rewards: whilst they will slot into a particular desk, depending on the case, they won’t leave a gaping hole in the plot or anything if you don’t have them – they are very much stand-alone chapters. And if you do feel the need for more game but haven’t pre-ordered, Rockstar have confirmed all of the rewards will later be available on both console’s storefronts.
Aside from a quick jump into an earlier mission (“The Red Lipstick Murder”) as a chance to get to grips with the controls and the like, the main bulk of my time with the game was spent with a case about halfway through the homicide desk titled “The Silk Stocking Murder”. Not long promoted from the traffic desk, Phelps is currently partnered up with Rusty Galloway – your typical old-school detective – and investigating a series of gruesome murders that seem to be the work of the Black Dahlia, a real-life serial killer from the period.
In “The Silk Stocking Murder”, a young girl is found naked and mutilated in an alleyway, with “Kiss the Blood” written in blood on her body, signed off by “B.D.” Whilst Cole thinks it is indeed the work of the Dahlia, and the coroner agrees that the body matches that killer’s modus operandi, Galloway is convinced that a copycat killer is using “B.D.” as a cover.