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L.A. Noire

Another Look Into The Seedy World of L.A. Noire

Our cover story on L.A. Noire gave the world its first real look into Rockstar and Team Bondi’s L.A. Noire. As the writer, I got to see both the game (in demo form) and the groundbreaking facial capture technology that Team Bondi created to make it. I came back from my trip excited about the game, and I hope that the finished product can live up to the very high bar that Rockstar and Team Bondi have set. Recently, we were able to get another look at the game; Rockstar brought by a brand-new live gameplay demo that showed off another mission in the career of LAPD detective Cole Phelps.

This case occurs during Phelp’s stint on the traffic desk – but it’s a more sordid tale than a mere speeding ticket. It starts with Phelps and his partner Stephen Bukowski getting a call to investigate a car crash. Two women, actresses June Ballard and Jessica Hamilton, have apparently driven their car off an embankment and into a Coca-Cola billboard. Things get a little more interesting when Phelps arrives at the scene to interview Ballard, who claims they were drugged and put in the car as a set-up.

From here, this seemingly open and shut case drags Ballard into the seedy underbelly of 1940s Hollywood. Ballard, a veteran b-movie actress and moll to mobster Guy McAfee, appears unreliable. She’s intent on fingering producer Mark Bishop for the crime, but then warns Phelps to let her and her husband “settle the score.” She’s clearly shifty, but Phelps knows there’s definitely more to this story when he finds an unsettling piece of evidence on the scene: a torn pair of women’s underwear. A fellow detective also shows him a fake shrunken head, presumably stolen from a movie set, that was used to wedge down the car’s gas pedal.

From there, Phelps goes to interview the other passenger, Jessica Hamilton, at the hospital. Her doctor informs him that there is evidence that Hamilton was drugged and possibly sexually assaulted. Speaking with Hamilton, it’s clear that she’s a naïve girl who wants a break into acting so badly that she’s easy prey for the predators that populate the movie industry. While she has little memory of what happened and is scared to talk, Cole cajoles some information out of her. It’s interesting to see how the player has to judge the character of each witness. Here, Phelps takes a much softer approach than he did with June Ballard, perhaps sensing Hamilton’s fragile makeup.

Throughout the case, Phelps makes constant notes of clues – bits of interviews, objects in the environment, photographs, letters, and more. Each clue will open up more lines of questioning during your interviews, so it’s wise to gather as much information as possible. You’ll frequently have to use documented clues and facts to contradict a witness who is lying.

After interrogating Hamilton, the case takes a turn into dark territory. First, Phelps does a tail mission on June Ballard, who makes a call at a diner telling her husband to “take care” of Bishop. After Ballard gives up Bishop’s address, Phelps arrives at the producer’s apartment just in time to get in a fight with some Mafia thugs who are presumably there to rub out the producer. After dispatching the goons and interviewing Bishop’s wife, Gloria, a sinister picture appears to take shape: Bishop is somehow involved in a ring that takes aspiring young actresses and makes them sexual prey for depraved Hollywood types.

While we won’t spoil the solution to the case, suffice it to say that this game might feature some of Rockstar’s grittiest content ever. However, before you accuse them of being shock merchants, consider the fact that every case in the game is actually pulled from the newspapers of 1940s Los Angeles. This stuff really happened; it’s just been adapted and slightly altered for the game (most of the time this involved writing endings for unsolved cases). In addition, we got a few hints of the game’s larger, overarching plots, which seem to center around Phelps’ struggles to combat the internal corruption that plagued the LAPD during this time in history. At one point, Phelps has an interaction with a vice cop that suggests the lines between cop and criminal in L.A. are very blurry indeed.

This case also gave us a better window into the game’s pacing. While it’s important to note that this is not GTA in period drag – expect to spend a lot more time in tense conversation than in gunfights – Team Bondi does seem to do a good job of injecting action sequences at logical points in the story. During the mission we witnessed the brawl in Bishop’s apartment, the tail mission, and a car chase – plus a fairly elaborate gun battle.

However, the real meat of the L.A. Noire experience comes from the investigations. Once again, the character animation (accomplished through Team Bondi’s groundbreaking camera-based facial capture system) looks as good as anything we’ve seen in a game. It needs to be; with so much emphasis placed on the interrogations, it’s the true-to-life expressions that allow you to really feel invested in the experience.

L.A. Noire is a risky proposition for Rockstar. While the painstaking recreation of 1947 Los Angeles is as richly detailed as any of the open world environments the company has envisioned, this game has a distinct, deliberate pace that’s quite different from anything else it’s done in the past. Based on what we’ve seen so far, L.A. Noire has the potential to be something very special. Will Rockstar’s audience be ready to embrace it?

For more on L.A. Noire, check out our cover story for the game, and watch the latest trailer.

[All screens from the PS3 version of the game]

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