L.A. Noire Hands-On Preview

We review the evidence in a first play of Rockstar's latest tale of redemption.

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We have heard rather a lot about L.A. Noire since it emerged from the shadows three months ago. Since then we've been impressed by the technology behind it and intrigued by its detective story premise, but we haven't been able to play this long-in-development game. We finally got to try our hand at a few cases on a recent visit to Rockstar's London offices. But be aware: some of the case notes below could be considered spoilers.

L.A. Noire is, as the title suggests, heavily influenced by the golden age of film noir, seemingly offering as rich and murky a vision of 1950s America as the classics of that genre. It has you step into the shoes of fresh LAPD detective Cole Phelps. At the start of the game you'll be pounding the streets as a patrol officer, but as the game progresses, you'll move up the ranks. First stop is the traffic desk, and then you enter where we picked up the game for our demo--homicide.

After a cutscene showing a shadowy figure beating a woman to death, we found ourselves in a briefing room. There we were told we were being moved up to the homicide division following the retirement of one of the team's stalwarts, and we were quickly briefed on our first case. A woman had been found brutally beaten, with a number of hallmarks suggesting a serial killer called the Werewolf.

After being introduced to the case, we headed to the patrol car with our new world-weary and work-shy partner to drive out to the scene. Driving in L.A. Noire will be a familiar experience for anyone who played GTAIV--the controls are the same, the car handling feels similar, and we're told many of the same rules will apply. As a police officer you'll be able to commandeer any vehicle in the city should the mood take you, but according to Rockstar, this will come with penalties if you do it indiscriminately. You can also drive with the same reckless disregard you used in GTAIV; while the other pleasingly rendered 1950s cars will drive along at a fairly sedate pace, you're free to tear up the roads if you so wish--but you may well end up being charged for property damage further down the line if you're too cavalier.

Getting to the crime scene was easy enough via the minimap and full-size map in the menu system, though the lack of route planning was a little strange, given that even Red Dead Redemption's horses seemed to be fitted with sat nav. When we were there, a brief chat with the beat cop on the scene laid out the few key facts, and we set to looking for evidence. The first was the most obvious--the bloody, naked, beaten body in the middle of the scene.

Portentous music swelled in the background as we strolled towards the unfortunate woman's remains, but settled into the background quickly. Examining the body was a matter of examining the salient points in turn--one button lets you choose the area you want to investigate, and then the analogue sticks let you move that body part around to check for clues, with a gentle controller rumble letting you know you've found the right angle.

The game doesn't pull any punches with its sometimes gruesome content.
The game doesn't pull any punches with its sometimes gruesome content.

In the case of the head, this meant moving it to one side until severe blunt-force trauma was revealed on one side, with similar procedures for each arm, with one revealing that a wedding band had apparently been cut from the finger. The torso provided a more obvious, less cryptic clue--a message seemingly from the killer, signed off with an obscenity scrawled across the victim's stomach in red lipstick.

As we wandered around the scene, there were some helpful yellow evidence markers on the floor from the preliminary investigation team highlighting some of the bigger pieces, while the rumble that was present investigating the body came into play highlighting objects that could be interacted with. Somewhat akin to the pointer changing in a point-and-click adventure, this became a quick way to ascertain if things were of interest, and a useful tool to resort to when stuck.

Car chases look set to break up the more intellectual sections of the narrative.
Car chases look set to break up the more intellectual sections of the narrative.

After examining the scene and finding a few personal effects, we also found a puzzle-cum-lighter that provided our next line of enquiry--a country club not too far away. At this point the music faded out, serving as an audio clue that we'd found all there was of note in the area. This is where this section of the demo ended, and the Rockstar rep whisked us on a little further in the storyline to the case of a similar murder.

To get some more information on the next case we'd be handling, we headed to a diner where our boss was having a spot of lunch. With what sounded like Billie Holiday coming through the jukebox, we got a briefing on the our next case. Despite the similarities, there was even more scepticism from our partner that this was the work of the same man, in part because there was apparently already someone in custody for the case we'd been working on previously.

This crime scene was even more brutal than the last. The victim was again naked with writing scrawled on her torso in lipstick, but this time as well as basic blunt-force trauma being present, she'd been viciously slashed. Clues were scattered over a wider area this time, with fewer markers. Your partner acts in a similar manner to Fable II's dog in situations like this, moving around various possible items of interest and gently--or sometimes not so gently--prodding you in the right direction.

Following a blood trail down the alley, we found a key tied to a hydrant in the wall, and more blood smears leading up to the roof. Further items discovered up there clearly indicated the killer was toying with us by this stage in the investigation--a letter had been left, along with a handbag containing the second half of a card that allowed us to identify the victim with relative ease.

Then, having identified the victim, we headed to her rooms in a nearby boarding house. After a look through her things and finding evidence of a break-in, we got to conduct our first interrogation, the showpieces for the game's much-touted facial capture technology. The landlady, and instantly recognisable Myra Turley (one of many cast members the game shares with AMC's ongoing period drama Mad Men), very clearly had something to hide. Unfortunately for her, she wasn't very good at it. In interrogation scenarios you have a first-person view, letting you get a good look at every little bit of reaction as you ask your questions.

Based on those reactions and the evidence you've gathered, you've got three options for a response: you can accept what they've said at face value; you can express doubt they're telling the truth if you've got a hunch that they're trying to pull the wool over your eyes; or you can call them out for lying, if you have the evidence to back up that assertion. The capture technology means this isn't so much a gameplay trick as a purely human skill--it's not a matter of learning tells, or gameplay being shoehorned in; it's a mater of looking at someone's face and telling if they're lying. In those sections we saw, it was relatively easy to tell if someone was being less than honest with you, but knowing which approach to take to get the right information out of them was slightly trickier.

However, sometimes words just don't cut it. Later in the case we paid a visit to the victim's husband and ended up in a fistfight. The brawling will feel relatively familiar to anyone who played Red Dead Redemption; while the fights won't play out in quite the same way, the mechanics are very similar. Another action sequence cropped up later on; after uncovering some apparently damning evidence on another suspect, the suspect fled on foot before leaping into his car, which led to a lengthy chase across the streets of LA, while our partner hung out the window of our car trying to shoot out the tyres on the suspect's car.

Brawling can be most undignified; even the most well-heeled detective can soon find himself hatless.
Brawling can be most undignified; even the most well-heeled detective can soon find himself hatless.

Though this may all sound linear and formulaic, there are often multiple paths to important story points. While we managed to pick up an important clue by interrogating the landlady above, a later search provided us with a matchbook pointing to the same location. This means that while failure has consequences--you won't be rated as highly for each mission--roadblocks aren't thrown up after small errors that force you to backtrack and attempt sections again.

The mix of gameplay mechanics, branching investigations, and intriguing overarching narrative looks to be marrying up well with L.A. Noire's impressive technology. We hope to see the game again before its release in May, so keep it tuned to GameSpot for more on Rockstar's latest.

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