Considering LA Noire has been on the cards since 2004, it's done well for itself to remain relatively inconspicuous. The longer something takes to make, the bigger the danger it is of turning into a Too Human, or even Duke Nukem. As like any developer, Team Bondi hope to provide something new and interesting for their audience, and they've turned to post-war America for inspiration. In-between been shown the only playable segment of the game that was on show, I got to look at real crime-scene photos from the 40's and 50's, and it was with these rather macabre images that LA Noire was put into some kind of context.
Col Phelps, Ex-GI. He stars off as a mere cop, but you help him work his way up
Thing is though, violence, sex, drugs... all the prominent themes of the time - they've kind of been done before. Generally speaking LA Noire is going to be a very story driven experience, but if they really want to stand out they're going to need something more. In theory, this is supposed to come from the game's film noir influence, however from what we've seen so far, there's little visual evidence of that. The engine is developed by the third party, so the game doesn't have that shine that GTA IV, but it's not too dissimilar in looks to Mafia II. So far what we've seen looks fairly normal, but we're told something is in the works for that. Still, there's worse things for a game than looking similar to other games. In fact, one could argue that regular colour palettes are needed for one of the game's most unique features - the MotionScan.
Using a new technology, Bondi have managed to provide accurate facial movements for their characters, which is crucial in the investigative elements of the game - something we'll go into more details later. It's quite good actually, and even though I had a couple of people demoing a build for me (And as such, providing commentary) I could still tell when someone was being honest, or evasive... every once in a while, you can tell that the face capture was done separately form the rest of the body, as sometimes it looks like the face is 'on' the head, as opposed to being part of the head. It's a pretty neat piece of tech though to be fair, and it really helps hit home how this is going to be a more subtle and intellectual game.
The main element of LA Noire is of course the case solving itself. It's rather intriguing actually - you can search crime scenes for evidence, interview people, and everything you hear or see is kept in a 'notebook'. These mechanics aren't just token gestures either - there's 'false' evidence planted on crime scenes that can lead you astray, when you interview someone, there's lines of questioning you can follow, but questions can be unlocked by getting a previous question correct, or by previously found evidence. If you get a question wrong, it could alter how the case plays out. Apart from the over-arching story cases are pretty self-contained, and so have little bearing on the main story. Also, depending on how you perform, you can solve a case quickly or via a more long-winded route.
Does he look happy to you? I don't think he looks happy...
Even with only one level on show, we could tell this is probably going to make up the majority of the game. Playing as the main character, Col Phelps, you work your way up through the various 'desks' in your precinct, with the cases getting more elaborate and more complex, as well as the main story slowly unfolding for you as time goes on. The end-game is especially going to be important here I think, as it has to be careful not to completely invalidate everything you've done so far. It's also important to note that is is not an open world game - even though you do end up travelling here, there and everywhere, LA itself is merely a backdrop for the main action. There's no incentive or reason to go 'off mission', apart from the odd mini-event, and this isn't going to be a GTA-style romp.
It's a shame we only got to see a little bit of the game, as it's hard to apprise the whole thing on just one level but we liked what we've seen so far. If we're being picky, conversations can seem a bit stiff and disjointed due to the choices you can make. An interviewee can make a mild-mannered statement, and then Phelps will suddenly launch in all randomly aggressive. It's the danger with mechanics like these - there can't be a natural flow to the conversation because the conversation isn't fixed, but no matter.
It's good to see that things are well and truly in motion. Six years is a long time to be working on a game, and I'm sure Team Bondi are pleased that they can finally get some tangible gameplay out there. Personally, in order to make this really distinctive than we're going to need to see more 'film Noire' influence visually. Still, even without that, the over-arching story and the unique case solving dynamics should make this an interesting game to play.
We get the feeling nearly every case is going to involve some kind of chase...
The lack of choice in terms of the main character though, and the fact that it's not an open world means that this really is going to be a more focused experience and ultimately, may not be able to appeal to a wide audience. The way we see it, it's going to be like a crime novel or a thriller film - you'll only enjoy it if you like that sort of thing, if you like the mystery. We've got high-hopes for LA Noire, we just hope that Team Bondi take their time and do it right. They've taken this long already, I'm sure we can wait a little longer. LA Noire is slated for a Q1/Q2 2011 release on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.
Most Anticipated Feature:Solving mysterious cases should be good - you'll feel like a Forties House or Castle.