L.A. Noire Preview

By Xav de Matos, Mar 11, 2011 1:30pm PST

There was a murder last night. A woman. Tall, blonde. She was beaten to death with a tire iron in a secluded part of Los Angeles, a place usually reserved for lovers to escape to, in order to get a little more well acquainted. They usually call the place "The Moors." Today, the LAPD are calling it a crime scene. The press will call it the scene of "The Red Lipstick Murder."

Sitting in a dark room in the middle of PAX East 2011, a representative of Rockstar Games begins the demo for the upcoming cop-thriller L.A. Noire. As a newly christened homicide detective, Cole Phelps dusts off his blue pinstriped suit jacket, adjusts his hat, and rushes to the scene with his partner for the case.

The scene is brutal. The victim--later revealed to be named Celina Henry--has been stripped completely naked. Her head has been caved in and the killer took the time to let whoever found her lifeless body know exactly what they thought of her. Carved into her dead skin are curse words and seemingly random letters. The scene is a mess and it's up to Phelps to piece it all together.

Detective work in L.A. Noire flows in stages. The platform for these stages is the detective's number one ally: his notebook. Here is where the game will automatically add details that Phelps finds during his cases: names, evidence, locations; everything lives here.

When examining a scene, players have absolute control. To showcase how this works, the rep playing the demo hovers Phelps over the woman's body. He looks around, zooms in on areas, and lifts her stiff limbs. Using one of the analog sticks, the player can twist and turn evidence to examine it from every angle. When something that may seem important is discovered, it's added to the notebook.

But the notebook is a helper, not a guide. Some elements added may never come into play. It's up to the player to discover what matters. Using the game's atmospheric music, the game leads players down the correct path. When a scene demands more examination, the music will grow heavier and more dramatic. When players are in the vicinity of an item that can be picked up and examined for clues, a soft chime from a piano mixes over the music.

One of the clues in the demo yields a lead to another location. Once Phelps solves a small globe-shaped puzzle box, which turns out to be an intricate cigarette lighter, the innards of the sphere reveal the address of a local watering hole, "The Bamba Club."

Players have a few options when switching between locales. Phelps can get behind the wheel of his squad car and race to the scene by following a dot on the game's mini-map. There is no GPS in L.A. Noire; however, instead Phelps can interrupt a conversation with his partner in the vehicle to get his help on directions. "Turn right up here," Rusty Galloway, Cole's old-school and somewhat foolish partner, tells Phelps. Phelps can also have his partner take the wheel, giving the player a chance to take in the 8-square miles of 1940s-era Los Angeles or skip directly to the next area.

The notebook comes into play again when players interrogate witnesses. Utilizing bullet points in the book, players can direct questions to NPCs based on the situation or based on discovered evidence. When a question is lobbed, players have three main options to respond. They can choose to accept the given statement as the truth, an outright lie, or express doubt.

Truth, that's pretty straightforward. Doubt is selected when Phelps doesn't have proof that the suspect is lying but has a hard time taking them for their word. Accusing a NPC of lying must be connected with another piece from the notebook: evidence that disproves the statement or information you remember from speaking with other witnesses. If players aren't having any luck, they can utilize "Intuition points" to give the player hints during interrogations or at the scene of a crime.

The amazing part of the demo were the mannerisms of characters being interrogated. Someone is being honest? They look Phelps right in the eye. Liars? They're cagey and fidget. Some of it is completely obvious; some of it is subtle; all of it was fantastic. That's the keystone of L.A. Noire's feature-list. Had this element been shaky, the entire foundation would crumble as hard as a crooked police force.

Speaking to characters at the bar reveals new information about the victim and gives players their first prime suspect. I'd rather not spoil the affair, but it certainly didn't look like gamers will be going through the motions and playing with menus--though you will be flipping through the good detective's notebook quite often.

After players speak with witnesses they are rated for their performance. Doubt or believe witnesses successfully and Phelps' rank will increase and yield fresh clues. The better you are as a detective, the faster the case is closed. If you're a poor detective, cases will drag on. No matter how good or bad, you will eventually learn the truth; however, your rank will suffer.

Later, players come face to face with their prime suspect. A quick scan of the room gives Phelps fuel to attack with a wave of accusations. Soon after, the suspect gets heated and throws a punch at the detective's partner. Quick to respond, Phelps jumps in and a hand-to-hand battle ensues. Punches are thrown and land, dodges open Phelps up to combos. Eventually, the cuffs are locked on the suspect and the situation is under control.

Our demo ended there and I was impressed with its look and style. With over 400 people scanned into the game's impressive engine, the game feels alive and real. L.A. Noire was already high on my wanted list for 2011 and my time with it today did very little to calm my nerves for its May 17th release.

If I didn't hold myself up to a high moral standard, I would have attempted to swipe the build they were showing off today. Actually, now that I think about it, Team Bondi has crafted such an impressive world of detective work, they would have solved the case of the stolen PAX East 2011 build in a matter of minutes.

L.A. Noire launches on May 17 for the Xbox 360 and PS3.

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