L.A. Noire is a detective story, a refreshingly unrushed noir video game adventure. It also may be the toughest road to greatness the acclaimed creators of Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption have yet traveled, the destination not guaranteed.
Earlier this week, I visited the New York offices of Rockstar Games to get a look at a game that's been long in the making from Australian development studio Team Bondi and the top people at Rockstar who oversee all the company's games. I saw the kind of game I hope can be great, that I'm happy to see is being made but that I can't yet assume will be terrific.
Rockstar has earned confidence, trust and admiration for their creative choices. Their Grand Theft Auto games have been continuously improved, sequel after sequel. Their Red Dead Redemption, supposedly not quite clicking just months before completion — and a risky Western, no less — came to consoles this past April great enough to be a Game of the Year contender. This is a company willing to make a sharp-turn left to make a table tennis game, pull a U-turn and produce a beat-making program for the PlayStation Portable.
Off of their Red Dead triumph will come L.A. Noire this coming spring. The game is set in 1947 Los Angeles and stars Cole Phelps, a decorated war veteran and idealistic detective climbing the ranks in the Los Angeles Police Department. The game's developers have recreated eight square miles of vintage L.A., a lovely and well-populated urban scene tinged with tempting gleam and seedy glow of a town intoxicated with the booming motion picture industry.
Phelps is a detective and this game is about investigations, which means that players should not expect the mayhem or the pace of a GTA. They should expect something slower, a game that expects you to be inquisitive about mysteries, curious about finding evidence and eager to ponder a facial expression of an aging Hollywood actress before deciding whether to accept her lies or dismiss her flirtation in order to grill her about her mobster husband.
Rockstar touts L.A. Noire as a game that lets you become a detective, which I can say is an apt description, having watched representatives from the company play one of the game's cases for me on a PlaySation 3 development unit (the game is also coming to the Xbox 360). Much of this game proceeds case by case, with Phelps gradually moving from desk to desk in the LAPD, tackling a new batch of cases, one at a time as he is promoted, accompanied by a new partner at each new desk.
I was shown a case called The Fallen Idol, an early case available from the traffic desk. The set-up involved a car crashed off a low cliff, one of its survivors shaken, the other hospitalized, torn underwear, suspicious blood stains and an idol head all found on the scene. The player controls Phelps, walking through the scene to spot evidence, talking to witnesses and suspects, traveling to new locations to chase down leads and, occasionally getting in a fistfight, a shootout or a car chase.
Cases are long, far more substantial than a Red Dead or GTA mission with auto-saves and regenerating health keeping the player on track. The cases can run upwards of 45 minutes, which The Fallen Idol did. Most of the gameplay in that time was investigation and interrogation, a slow pace tightening of nerves and taxing of brain cells as Phelps, guided by the player, tries to figure out what really happened. Phelps has a notebook on which are automatically logged leads: lists of people to talk to, evidence found, etc. The player can select from that list to guide Phelps' interrogations. During his interrogations with suspects players can guide Phelps' dialogue by choosing from one of three ways to speak: believing, doubting, disbelieving (that last one triggering a need to present evidence to move things along).
Rockstar says there are no wrong answers, no dead ends that will kill a case. Players will be graded on their missions, on how well they completed them, presumably based on completion time, zeroing in on the right suspects efficiently, and so on.
If there's an antecedent to L.A. Noire, a point of reference that will help gamers adjust expectations, it is Capcom's Phoenix Wright lawyer and investigation series. That game too is filled with conversations and the management of an expanding list of leads and evidence. There are two key differences, one obvious, both potentially great. The first is visual. Phoenix Wright is essentially a text-driven game with simple cartoon artwork to illustrate its investigations and courtroom cross examinations. L.A. Noire is not just a visually deep three-dimensional game, but it's one with the best facial animations I've ever seen. Rockstar's proprietary Motion Scan capture technology manages to make every one of the game characters not only seem to have a real and distinct face, but lets them emote with a spectacular array of expressions. You really can be presented with a smirk, a curled lip, a winked eye, a furrowed brow, and other expressions that convey or conceal the truth of a character's emotion. This means that interrogations and interviews in this game, the heart of the gameplay, have the potential thrill of the real verbal jousting that arises from being faced with, well, a person with a real face. (One visual pitfall for Rockstar here is that characters' body language is nowhere near as nuanced as the facial animation, presenting a potentially distracting sense of human heads atop relatively stiffer bodies.)
The subtler distinction from the Phoenix Wright series and from most games that include conversation is that the player should expect to be lied to. They will be given false leads. Their prey will waste their time. Games are usually filled with honest and obvious characters who fill your quest log with proper tasks that lead to guaranteed rewards. According to Rockstar, that is not the case here and the poor investigative player will find themselves getting the runaround as they chase red herrings.
[UPDATE: The preceding lines elicited many questions from readers who pointed out that the Phoenix Wright games are full of liars. That is true; the distinction here is that the lies in in those games are part of the scripted critical path. They are not diversions the less skilled player will fall for, as some will be in L.A. Noire. They are parts of the script any player will experience and therefore not the false leads that a player could hope to avoid.]
I briefly described the Fallen Idol case above, but to share any more details would spoil the mystery and probably that chunk of the game. This is part of the risk Rockstar is taking with this game. The mystery I saw was undoubtedly interesting. As Rockstar reps played it in front of me, I was offering my own theories and suggesting which evidence to use. But I realized, as I watched, that that might be all the fun of the mission, that cracking the case was the draw and that the case, once cracked would not be fun to repeat. It's arguable whether a game can only be great if it can be enjoyed twice, but I left Rockstar's demo skeptical that that core gameplay of looking for clues and interviewing suspects would be fun enough on its own to merit a re-play. And, if it's not, is Rockstar really, simply making a fascinating interactive movie, one that is fun to watch and hear more than it is to play?
Phelps does drive, punch and shoot. Those are more classic gameplay actions, but they are not the draw here. His moves should be no more compared to the possible gameplay of a GTA than L.A. Noire's city should be likened to those Rockstar has created before. While Noire's L.A. is massive, players are not expected to treat it as a playground. There will be some "unassigned" cases they can find in it, but most of the game is meant to be absorbed through its series of missions that come from Phelps' desks.
This is a curious creation from Rockstar. The detective-work has a lot of potential, especially if it meets or exceeds the quality of writing and acting Rockstar has repeatedly shown itself capable. The gameplay is the question. How fun is this? How fun does a mystery need to be? With plenty of time to get it right before spring, Rockstar has an exciting and tough task ahead of itself, to make its Los Angeles mystery great, to make this one a thrill. This wouldn't be easy for any studio. Here's hoping Rockstar can pull it off.