LA Noire is set within a post-World War II where Hollywood's Golden Age is in full swing and the city is in the midst of a massive economic boom. It's glitz and glamour on the surface, but underneath it all simmers a gritty and unpalatable reality where corruption, deceit and murder is an everyday occurrence that becomes apparent once you scratch at LA's glossy veneer. Rockstar and Team Bondi's detective thriller is an ambitious open-world title set during a violent time in La-La Land's grim history that counts the Dahlia murders amongst its most horrific occurrences.
You're Cole Phelps (played by Mad Men's Aaron Staton), a good cop embroiled in this rotten city and the detective at the centre of LA Noire's dark tale. Returning from the war a decorated war hero, Phelps looking to re-evaluate his life decides to join the LAPD, where he's soon acknowledged for his potential and fast-tracked for promotion. Working his way from the Patrol desk, through to Traffic, Arson and Homicide cases, Phelps will plumb the depths of LA's seamy underworld.
Sitting down for an extended hands-off demo of a single case from the Traffic desk, we begin with a quick debrief from one of our superiors before being handed the case, entitled 'Fallen Idol'. Heading out with Phelps' Traffic desk partner Stefan Bekowsky, we climb into our unmarked car and ride out to the crime scene, where a Chevy Styleline careered off the edge of an escarpment the night before, smashing into a billboard. Rolling out at 8:23AM the following morning the detective duo arrive at the scene, meet with the coroner and set to work in finding initial clues to set the investigation in motion.
Immediately, you realise that LA Noire is a resolutely adult game, dealing with themes that you'd normally find in hard boiled crime thrillers by Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy or Dashiel Hammett. From the instant you find torn underwear and blood sprayed on the car's passenger side dashboard, you know that there's been foul play.
You can manipulate and examine clues for further evidence and subtle audio cues keep you on track as some early hand-holding to ease you into LA Noire's mechanics. As the coroner hands you a bizarre shrunken head before you leave the scene, we see this manipulation at work, the pad gently rumbling should you spot something pertinent.
The head turns out to be a movie prop that was used to jam the car's accelerator, which gives us another lead to pursue, but first Bekowsky suggests that we question June Ballard, a B-movie actress and one of the victims of the crash who is being treated for minor injuries near the scene. Phelps automatically updates his notebook with a POI (person of interest) description upon meeting suspects or anyone of potential importance to the case, making it a vital tool for keeping track of the case and for formulating your next move.
LA Noire's groundbreaking MotionScan technology plays a substantial role in interrogations, as essentially you're able to analyse a real person's face, with all of the tics and nuances you'd expect. As such, you need to watch closely for changes in a person's behaviour, gestures, body language and expressions as well as the inflection or tone of their voice as they give their testimony.
Watching Ballard as she talks, we can tell that she's not being entirely straight with us, as her eyes dart around and she appears visibly nervous. During each interrogation, you're always presented with the option to Believe/Coax, Doubt/Force and Disbelieve/Accuse and in this instance, Phelps suspects that Ballard is withholding something, so he calls her into question, referring to the underwear as evidence when she disputes our accusation. Cornered, she drops a name for us to follow: movie director, Mark Bishop. Should you miss anything, every single word of dialogue uttered can be found in your typed log accessed via the game's pause menu, which is handy.
Further questioning reveals that the shrunken head found by the coroner came from a prop house, but it's clear that we need to talk to the car's passenger, Jessica Hamilton - a fifteen-year old girl with aspirations of becoming a movie star. 8:36AM, Central Regency Hospital and we enter to find Hamilton awake and sat up in bed. Taking the advice of the on-duty doctor, Phelps is reminded that he needs to treat Hamilton - who is still in a delicate state - with kid gloves. Being too heavy handed with your questioning can close a witness down completely, so steaming in is not always an advisable strategy.
Again, we have to look closely at Jessica's face for revealing tells to discern whether she's telling the truth or not and being too forceful is not an option. We soon cotton on that there's a probability that Hamilton was doped, abused and that Bishop played some part in the attempted murder. As we go to leave the ward, we catch sight of Ballard leading us to tail her car to a Mallory Caf, where we take cover outside before sneaking in and sitting in a booth with our nose in a newspaper. Eavesdropping on Ballard's phone call, we overhear an address, which gives us the next thread to follow in what is fast becoming a complex tapestry.
10:10AM, Wilson's Hotel. En route to the building, we get a radio call from dispatch reporting a crime in progress at in room 803, which is the very address Ballard alluded to in her call. This is Bishop's apartment, where Ballard's husband's mob heavies are roughing up Bishop's wife, Gloria and trashing the place. Luckily, we arrive in time to arrest the goons after a bout of fisticuffs and Gloria is spared any further trauma, as we have the mobsters taken away in a police paddy wagon. Had we arrived later, things could have played out a lot differently.
We have more than a few questions for Gloria following the ordeal that's just transpired, and after some careful coaxing, we manage to extract the address to the Silver Screen Props House where the shrunken head prop came from, as well as another potentially integral name in the case, one Marlon Hopgood. Leaving the hotel, we let Bekowsky drive this time and use the 'trip skip' feature to fast travel to the prop house, without missing any important dialogue.
Entering the prop house, where the interior houses authentic posters from movies like 'The Big Sleep', we pump Hopgood for some background info on Bishop and his penchant for young starlets. Hopgood is being evasive, clearly trying to defend Bishop, so based upon this intuition, Phelps threatens to break his jaw if he doesn't start to cooperate. A subsequent search of the premises exposes a secret filming room behind a two-way mirror where a bottle of chloral hydrate pills and an empty film can incriminate Bishop and Hopgood.
The two men have set up a way of drugging young wannabe actresses to create sex films for sale at houses of ill repute around LA. Confronted with this, Hopgood folds, but Phelps and Bekowsky are told to leave by crooked vice cop Roy Earle, who smugly walks in with more of Ballard's husbands hired muscle. Wise to our break in the case, the mobsters give chase as we drive away, filling our shiny, black ride with bullet holes.
Though reduced to a smoking wreck, we manage to escape with the car minus its hood and bumpers, eluding the pursuing goons down an alleyway. It's now 5:30PM and using a previous clue gleaned from the prop house, we drive on to the set of Bishop's next movie entitled 'Jungle Drums'. Here we find the director taking leave of his senses, immediately running as soon as he catches sight of us arriving. Scrambling up a rickety wooden scaffold, Phelps soon catches up to Bishop, but it's not over yet as Ballard's husband's mobsters track us down once again and a gunfight ensues. Bishop might be a guilty and sick man, but we have to escort him out alive, and it's here that the demo concludes.
LA Noire is shaping up to be so much more than a show piece for Team Bondi's revolutionary MotionScan facial capture and based upon what we've seen, it really could be a genuine game-changer. Without going into too much technical detail, MotionScan involves pointing multiple cameras at the actor and capturing a completely real and natural performance. Frankly, it makes Heavy Rain look like a puppet show and makes all other motion capture seem quaint and outdated by comparison.
This level of cinematic detail looks to extend to every facet of LA Noire, the city itself appearing utterly authentic though not 100% accurate. However, it already looks like a pretty spot-on representation of late '40s LA, complete with real brands, advertising, landmarks and jazzy music. It's all about the detective work though, and how you go about conducting your investigations, with no fail states, only alternate methods to reach an eventual conclusion. Can LA Noire provide as compelling a yarn as what we've seen from the 'Fallen Idol' case shown in the demo to complement its startling rendition of the City of Angels? All of the evidence we've gathered so far hints that LA Noire will be genuinely arresting and worth murdering for when it releases in spring 2011.