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LA Noire preview: Hold it!


LA Noire is a paradox. It is precisely the kind of game you'd expect from Rockstar, but it also shatters nearly every norm we've come to expect from the collective of studios. Everything about the game was a surprise to me: its meticulously paced gameplay, its straight-shooting protagonist, and the fact that -- in spite of years of media silence -- LA Noire was a real game, running in real-time on a PS3, looking nearly ready for release.

As with Rockstar's other games this generation, LA Noire looks, sounds, and feels expensive. The level of detail in the massive environments, coupled with the copious servings of motion-captured dialogue remind me that Rockstar has spared no expense creating the game. At this point, we expect nothing less. Seeing your character race around a realistically-rendered Los Angeles, mini-map in the corner, evokes a more-than-familiar feeling.

But, LA Noire isn't Grand Theft Auto set in the 1940s. It's not Red Dead Redemption without horses. Perhaps the best comparison I can offer is this: it's a big-budget, M-rated Phoenix Wright.

Gallery: LA Noire (11/18/10) | 9 Photos

Detective Cole Phelps, played by Mad Men's Aaron Staton (Ken Cosgrove, for you Mad Men fans), is the kind of honest, decent character that you rarely see in games, let alone a Rockstar joint. There's no "morality" system because he, simply put, plays by all the rules. (Don't bother trying to mow down pedestrians GTA-style.) As a man of the law, you'll do your job the right way: scanning environments for evidence, interviewing suspects, and using violence only when there's a clear and present danger. "He is kind of on the straight and narrow, but that won't mean he won't rough someone up if he needs to," a Rockstar rep said. I didn't see Phelps draw a gun until the end of the mission, about an hour-long affair.

That's not to say LA Noire is boring. In fact, watching the investigation slowly unfurl made me think, "This is the game I've always wanted." The case on hand involves an aging B-actress, apparently the victim of a failed murder attempt. Someone wedged a prop under her car's brake, causing the vehicle to crash into a billboard. Mrs. McCarthy ended up with just a few bumps and bruises but her passenger, Jessica Hamilton, was far less lucky.

You can peruse your notes and go over case details, but the best course of action would be to investigate the crime scene. There are no immediate visual cues as to what you should look for, but you can listen to the music for some hints on where to go. As you near a piece of evidence, you'll hear a piano chime, and your controller will rumble -- provided you haven't opted out of these aides. (PS3 owners, make sure you're using a DualShock controller!)

When you pick up evidence, you'll be able to scan it for details. Depending on the object, you can interact with it, rotate it, and look closer. If something will be helpful in your investigation, it will appear in your notebook. In the car, Phelps discovers not only the murder "weapon," but a number of interesting items left behind in the car: a letter from Hamilton's mom, warning her of the dangers of Hollywood, and a torn piece of underwear. "Get a semen sample," Phelps tells another cop on the scene.

Once you think you've collected enough evidence, you'll move on to the heart of the game: interrogation. During conversation, you're given a number of options: believe, doubt, disbelieve. Your witness and victim, McCarthy, is obviously hiding something. Hold it! But you can't accuse someone of lying without evidence. You'll have to combine your sleuthing instincts with your ability to read people to find the best time to "break" someone and get closer to the truth.

When I first saw the LA Noire trailer, I shared the same question that many of you had: "Why didn't they show actual gameplay in this trailer?" Having seen the game in action, I can say that the trailer is the gameplay. Watching how people respond to you, listening to the intonation of their voice, and looking for subtle changes in their expression is vital in figuring out who you can trust. The fact that you can "read" people this way is rather revolutionary, a testament to how spectacular the motion capture system is. Team Bondi's proprietary MotionScan tech essentially captures actors' performances in 3D, and the results simply speak for itself: LA Noire sets a new benchmark in real-time human animation, besting the recent efforts of Uncharted and Heavy Rain. The fact that every character in the game has a real human performance behind it makes the lengthy development cycle make so much sense.

Thankfully, you won't ever be able to "fail" a case by not catching a certain clue, or misreading a suspect. "A lot of these cases can branch off in multiple directions ... Some witnesses will even give you red herrings," a Rockstar rep told me. Your performance seems to affect not where you end up, but how you get there. "For example, you can either get a vehicle description, or a vehicle description with a partial license plate. You'll end up looking for one car, or five cars."

Detective work and interrogations are the focus of the game, meaning all the usual dressings you may expect from a Rockstar game take a back seat. You'll be able to skip driving from point to point, for example, by opting to sit in the passenger seat instead of the driver's seat. There are some "free roam" missions you can do, usually involving smaller crimes, but the primary focus of the game is to be a part of the narrative. This virtual LA isn't really meant to be a sandbox for you to play in.

You won't spend the entire game talking to people and taking notes. For the more violently inclined, you'll still be able to rough some people up and fire a few shots; however, it's clear that this doesn't play well to LA Noire's strengths. Phelps gets into a fist fight with a few thugs in one scene, and the melee combat looked a bit simplistic. A car chase, where you race away from some goons by ramming them off-road, was exciting to see, but felt out of place nonetheless. Finally, a firefight in an abandoned movie lot -- featuring GTA 4's dated lock-on-and-shoot gameplay -- took me out of the universe altogether. Given how meticulously paced the adventure was leading up to that, I was a bit dismayed to see so much unbelievable action.

I was assured that the action would be more evenly paced in the final game, and that I had seen essentially a slice of the breadth of what LA Noire has to offer. "Not every case is going to play out like this," a Rockstar rep told us. Interestingly, all of the cases you'll work on in the game are based on real-life events (although names and specific details have been changed; and some have been re-worked to have different endings). These real-world stories offer a fascinating glimpse into the corruption and violence that plagued 1940s Los Angeles. I can't help but wonder if the mainstream media will somehow campaign against Rockstar's latest for tackling such dark themes, like rape and exploitation. "You're going to see a lot of dead, naked bodies," the rep forewarned about the game's more gruesome content.

LA Noire is quite possibly the most "mature" game to come out of Rockstar. The slow pace of investigation and the lengthy conversations you partake in will be off-putting for the impatient. Those of us willing to absorb ourselves into the engrossing world crafted by Team Bondi will be rewarded with a "game for adults" defined more by its gravitas, and less by a penchant for violence.

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