By TAN KIT HOONGintech@thestar.com.my
Rockstar brings us a detective noire open world game using technology that is bound to change games forever.
IT HAS to be said that Rockstar Games' decision to release L.A. Noire is a gutsy move on the part of the company that is better-known for open-world games where lawlessness and destruction is the order of the day.
After all, the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series and even Red Dead Redemption are action-oriented games which allow the player to essentially go anywhere and cause mayhem if they wish.
L.A. Noire, produced by Rockstar's Team Bondi in Australia, is almost the exact opposite of those hits - here the player takes on the role of Cole Phelps, a decorated veteran who joins the police force after World War II.
Unlike GTA, you are required to uphold the law at all times and keep mayhem to an absolute minimum. In fact, causing damage to the city in any way will affect your final score.
Furthermore L.A. Noire's emphasis is on methodical examination of a crime scene where you have to interview witnesses and suspects rather than driving and gunning down your opponents.
So if you're buying this game expecting a GTA-like experience, think again - throughout the twenty or so hours of gameplay, it is worlds apart from GTA. However if you give it a chance, you'll be rewarded with some of the most innovative and intelligent gameplay you'll find since Heavy Rain.
Facial motion capture
First off, let's get the technical bits out the way.
Yes, the revolutionary facial motion capture used by Team Bondi is amazing - facial expressions and mouth movements are captured with such incredible accuracy it'll forever spoil your enjoyment of other games that do not utilise this technology.
Each grimace, smile and smirk from the some 400 talented actors that have a part in the game are captured so accurately you'll never grow tired of marvelling at it - even minor characters that walk by are all lovingly reproduced accurately on screen.
And it's not just for bragging rights either - a major part of the game is interrogating people and you are required to tell whether a person is lying or not simply from their facial expressions.
The system works so well that once you lock on to it, you'll be able to spot a "tell" from any suspect the moment he tells a lie.
The developers have also showered a similar level of care and detail on the surroundings, accurately reproducing an incredibly large portion of 1940s Los Angeles, which is replete with period cars, buildings, music and the original "Hollywoodland" sign before it was shortened to just "Hollywood."
Of course, with such a sprawling narrative and variety of locales, L.A. Noire is a huge game - the Xbox 360 version alone takes up three DVDs.
The PlayStation3 version of the game takes up a single Blu-ray disc, but the game has reportedly been so taxing on the console that there have been some overheating issues on older "fat" PS3 consoles.
As I mentioned before, you play Cole Phelps, who joins the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) after an illustrious but troubled tour of duty during World War II.
Starting off as a regular patrol officer, you move up the ranks with each successful case - you move up from traffic cop into the homicide division, vice division and finally to the arson desk.
While this is superficially an open world game - you do get to roam the city and take up side missions - the structure of L.A. Noire is actually very linear as each main mission follows another according to the storyline set out by the developers.
Unlike in GTA IV, there is no option to do main story missions out of order.
While that may be limiting to some, L.A. Noire's more linear structure means that you get a single narrative that takes you from case to case, with an overall story arc that is slowly revealed to you as you play.
Yes, you can drive around wherever you like, but very early on you are given the option to have your partner drive you everywhere - this is the game's fast travel option, and it's available to you anytime and anywhere, not just at specific points.
Of course, there are still missions where you have to chase down cars, in which case you have to drive the car yourself, but other than those, you can fast travel from one case to another case. The only penalty of doing so is missing out on some of the "street crime" side missions that you can engage in.
The meat of the game, however is in investigation and interrogation and each case starts very much the same - you arrive at a crime scene, search for clues, examine the dead body (or bodies) and then interview witnesses and suspects.
In this respect, L.A. Noire has more in common with the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney series than GTA, except that you get full motion graphics and you are supposed to tell if a person is lying by his expression alone.
In the actual interrogation parts, you have to ask the right questions, after which you'll get an answer from the witness/suspect.
At this point, the game will then give you three choices - Truth, Doubt or Lie.
Truth is where you choose to believe what the witness/suspect has just said and then use a "soft" approach to get more information.
Doubt and Lie are actually the same in L.A. Noire - in both cases, you are accusing the witness/suspect of lying, but if you choose "Lie" you need to back up your accusation with some solid related evidence.
Choosing "Doubt" means that you don't have the evidence to back it up but instead are using a more aggressive line of questioning to elicit the truth from the person.
This is how L.A. Noire goes for a large part of the game - almost all the cases run the same, with occasional car and foot chases at the end of each case.
If this sounds a bit "rinse and repeat," well it is, but if, like me, you are interested in the story and in crime scene investigation, it's all extremely interesting and compelling stuff.
There are occasions when L.A. Noire breaks from this formula. For example, when you are required to chase down a serial killer by visiting various locales based on clues left behind by the killer.
These diversions certainly help to keep boredom at bay and also often adds quite a bit of action into the mix.
However, action sequences only get more frequent when you get into the vice squad, so if you're expecting a game where you blow up stuff and slam your car into other cars right off the bat, you're probably better off playing GTA IV.
Although it's nothing like GTA IV, Team Bondi has done an excellent job and L.A. Noire easily has the best storyline of any Rockstar title so far and the gameplay to me, at least, is so engaging that I couldn't put it down for days.
So is L.A. Noire worth the price of admission? In short, yes it is - even if you're not a fan of open world games, the astonishing facial motion capture alone is worth paying money to enjoy.
Of course, if you're a fan of crime noire thrillers and detective work, then L.A. Noire's deft mix of perfectly reproduced 1940s crime noire atmosphere and the CSI-type investigation makes it a blast to play.
Pros: Great story; amazing facial motion capture; emphasis on brains rather than brawn; perfectly realised 1940s locales and atmosphere.
Cons: May not be action-packed enough for some; some framerate issues in Xbox version; overheating issues in some PS3 consoles.
(Rockstar Games/Team Bondi)
PLATFORM: PlayStation3/ Xbox 360
PRICE: RM199 (PS3); RM179 (Xbox 360)