As gamers and journos return and settle down from the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) in Boston this past weekend, a mystery based squarely in Los Angeles stirs in their minds. Who needs baked beans from Bean Town when the next big crime to be solved exists in the City of the Not So Angelic? L.A. Noire, the next title from developer Rockstar Games (Grand Theft Auto, Bully), places the player in the hiked-up britches of a criminal investigator from the 1940s, working the beat in the golden age of Hollywood. Have I already used the phrase “the bee’s knees” in one of these articles? Well, I’m using it again. It’s going to be the bee’s knees.
Cole Phelps is a World War II veteran in need of a little investigating, which makes him a natural fit for the LAPD. At PAX, the game was showcased for the first time with an actual play-through of one of the first cases. You’re set to task investigating the death of a woman in a park, the victim of the “lipstick killer,” a sociopath who applies makeup to the deceased. A kind of overly enthusiastic, post-mortem Sephora employee, if you will.
What sets this game apart (potentially) is the depth to which the actual investigating goes. Whereas other role-playing games that put you in the seat of the investigator have set their focus mostly on the narrative (such as 2010’s Heavy Rain) or setting up a linear path for the hero to follow (yes, there’s a CSI game), the team behind L.A. Noire focused primarily on making the investigation process as true to life as is possible (without all the red tape).
In the demonstration, our hero Cole arrives on the scene of the first murder, where a body is found. Strewn about are the victim’s belongings and her now lopsided head. (It’s a bit gruesome, not a kid’s game!) As Cole, the player can choose which part of the body to closely inspect (arms, legs, torso, head) for clues. If it seems daunting, there are built-in mechanisms to keep the story moving, such as music cues and supporting characters to urge Cole away from inspecting the torso for too long. But the most exciting aspect of the game comes from the living who populate the city.
Using motion scanning, the developers have made it possible to see character movement and facial expressions as if they were played by actual people – which they were, at one point. The characters will respond emotionally, both verbally and physically. While interrogating a witness, for instance, Cole will not only have his evidence to go by, but the nervous ticks or tells that give away whether or not the witness/suspect is lying or speaking the truth.
Rockstar is mostly known for its Grand Theft Auto behemoth of a franchise, and whether or not L.A. Noire will live up to the hype is yet to be seen. From the demonstration at PAX and the footage released thus far, it’s safe to say that it should be “hot potato,” or some other ’40s euphemism.
This year is proving to be a rather gratuitous one, with the new Mortal Kombat leading the herd in bodies dismembered. In Australia, violent games can be banned — and the ninth installment of the Mortal Kombat series has just been barred from being released there. I for one am proud to live in a country where a character can rip the head off his opponent and use it as a football without being censored. America, @#$% yeah!
Chris O’Neal is a writer living in Camarillo. He enjoys collecting coins and exchanging them for upgrades. Follow Chris on Twitter: @AgentONeal.