I loved Red Dead Redemption as much as the next guy, but the prospect of playing another Rockstar-made open world title so soon is exhausting. Everything I’d seen of L.A. Noire suggested it would toss detective work into the formula but still offer the same driving and shooting elements the developer is known for. If you’ve been expecting the same, stop right there. L.A. Noire isn’t Grand Theft Auto with bits of crime solving—it’s a crime-solving adventure game with bits of Grand Theft Auto.
The circumstances of the game’s development should have been the first clue. Originally a Team Bondi project, the game was picked up by Rockstar, eventually becoming a collaboration between the two studios. Team Bondi’s role in the development has led to something that more closely resembles a traditional adventure game than a Rockstar game.
Shootouts and car chases are meant to break up the crime-solving, not the other way around. The detective work is the focus of the game; you’ll spend the majority of your time investigating crime scenes, speaking to witnesses, and hunting for clues.
The ability to fast travel to any destination plays a big part in your assigned case. As you rise through the ranks of the police force, you’ll be assigned different partners. Each partner will aid you in the investigation, have your back in gun fights, and act as your personal chauffeur. Aside from tailing a suspect or initiating a car chase, you can skip all of the driving in the game.
L.A. Noire is also a linear game. You won’t be juggling multiple cases at once, though the game will offer more action-oriented bonus cases dotted around the nine square miles of LA the Rockstar team has modeled. With each case, however, linearity goes out the window. It’s up to you to solve the case by exploring the crime scenes, gathering clues, and interrogating suspects as you find them. Evidence can build in various directions, with red herrings diverting the path or more subtle clues allowing you to make quicker conclusions.
For example, in one scene during my demo, main character Cole Phelps is meant to interrogate a suspect in his home. However, the Rockstar representative playing the game took Phelps in a different direction, exploring the house for clues before he spoke to the suspect. A notepad near the phone offered a clue. After using the side of a pencil to rub the paper and reveal the imprint left there, Phelps now has more evidence for his interrogation that he wouldn’t have otherwise.
Interaction like that is a big part of the game. The close manipulation of objects was reminiscent of Shenmue, which allowed players to sift through drawers, pick up objects, and examine them. L.A. Noire presents similarly high levels of interaction, though it doesn’t seem nearly as arbitrary. Being able to lift and move parts of a gruesome corpse in a crime scene may seem gratuitous, but it can reveal forensic clues that move the case along.
You won’t just be skimming crime scenes in a clever manner, either. Interrogations play out much differently than your typical dialogue tree in a game. The game’s MotionScan face capture technology is used for more than just adding star appeal and realistic cutscenes to the game. The animation is so detailed that players will need to use a suspect’s subtle bodily mannerisms to come to conclusions about them. If they look you dead in the eye and answer your questions without hesitating, they’re probably telling the truth. A bite of the lip or a glance off to the side may indicate a lie, or at least some doubt that you can manipulate to further the interrogation.
These aren’t merely cheap tricks at play. L.A. Noire asks that you pay attention to what’s going on, combining clues from evidence with those from interrogations. For example, in the demo Phelps caught the suspect in a lie based on information he had gathered from a previous interrogation, rather than from the man’s body language alone.
Ultimately, what makes L.A. Noire so fascinating is that it’s not just a departure from Rockstar games, but a departure from the average game. The way in which you play L.A. Noire looks to be wholly different from just about everything short of Heavy Rain and a handful of other standout adventure games. These aren’t interactions most players are typically exposed to. The promise of intense gunfights and car chases makes it all the more exciting.
Rockstar and Team Bondi are set to release what may be one of the most nuanced and mature games in years. If the pacing and logic behind the investigations falls apart, the game could easily turn out to be a bore, but that doesn’t seem likely at this point. L.A. Noire has quickly gone from pretty good to a game that could potentially expand our perception of what games are capable of accomplishing.