L.A. Noire Preview

  • By: CM Boots-Faubert
  • Posted 4th Apr 2011

L.A. Noire

The phrase Film Noir is French for "Black Film" and is a cinematic term used to describe the type of films created with a low-key black-and-white visual style, most notably crime dramas created in the period spanning from the early 1940's to the late 1950's in Hollywood, an era that is now known as the film noir period.

These films are the forerunner for the police procedural and classic detective shows popular on TV today, with subjects that tend to focus upon cynical attitudes and sexual motivations to the crimes being explored in them.

Classic examples of this type of film include The Big Sleep , Night and the City , and Gun Crazy , and it was not uncommon for screenwriters to rip the subjects for their films right out of the newspaper headlines of the day.

You might think that TV shows like Law & Order , and CSI originated the genre, but any classic film buff can tell you that they are simply another interpretation of film noir in an industry that counts upon our short memories and the axiom that what is old is new.

Borrowing a page from that screenplay style, Rockstar Games has created an old/new combination that has every element of the classic film noir in it, which is certainly good enough reason to name the game L.A. Noire!

Considering their past record in creating large open-world sandbox style crime games, Rockstar is without question the best game publisher for this project, and handing it over to Aussie games developer Team Bondi was nothing less than a stroke of genius -- because Brendan McNamara cut his teeth on the crime genre as writer and director of The Getaway (2002) and he knows a few things about not just getting the details right, but the importance of building atmosphere and "the moment" to make a game special.

McNamara created Team Bondi back in 2003 as an independent third-party game developer. Flush with his success with The Getaway, and wanting to be able to pick the projects that he develops to leverage an established skills set while investing his time and talents in something he likes, L.A. Noire was the perfect first project both for his new company, and for the man.

The World of L.A. Noire
L.A. Noire is set in a perfectly re-created Los Angeles of the late 1940's, a world that while few gamers ever experienced, is perfectly recorded on film in the huge library of movies, creating the sort of instant nostalgia that can only be found in those circumstances.

Nostalgia of this sort -- sometimes jokingly called Deja-World -- is largely the product of the understandable desire for the more simple times of the past.

The 40's and 50's in post-war America was a time when Twitter was what your heart did when you found a dead body, and a Facebook was what you called the mugshot catalogs you showed to crime victims in the hopes that they could help identify the thug who robbed them!

In the Los Angeles of L.A. Noire, gamers are presented with a series of murders that they need to solve in what is a very wide and only loosely rail-based mixture of open-ended challenges and sandbox environment.

As the title suggests the game draws heavily from the aesthetic elements of film noir and the classic LA of that era -- its visual styles and themes bringing to life the dream-like experiences found only on the silver screen, where men were men, and you could tell the criminals apart from the regular citizens because of their beady eyes and the sweat that popped out on their forehead whenever they saw a cop -- in short, a world where crime, sex, and moral ambiguity are what get you out of bed in the morning.

Mix in the classical jazz soundtrack, tough gun-toting homicide detectives who operated in a world that did not have the constant glare of news cameras and the Internet to scrutinize their investigations, and what you had was an era in which police corruption and corner-cutting was simply how it worked -- and this actually describes the reality of policing in LA at the time, not the fantasy.

One of the most corrupt police departments in the world at the time, the LAPD was a place where walking the beat meant free meals and regular payments -- what were euphemistically called gratuities or 'the take' -- that rather than supplement the average cop's salary often exceeded it.

The Game Begins with...
. . . you, stepping into the world of L.A. Police Officer and protagonist Cole Phelps, a beacon of integrity in a police department mired in scandals and corruption.

Your story really begins years earlier, in 1938 when, at just 18-years-old, you joined the United States Marine Corps in the hopes that your service in the Marines would be your ticket out of the world you grew up in.

During your hitch with the Marines you saw heavy action at the Battle of Okinawa, where in addition to surviving, you managed to find yourself being awarded the Silver Star -- the fifth highest award for bravery in service awarded only to soldiers and marines cited for gallantry in action against an enemy.

Your honorable discharge papers and the medal likely helped you in obtaining your appointment to the Police Academy and a slot as a patrolman with the LAPD, where you stood out from among the average officers and gained a reputation as being uncorrupted as you sought to remove the drug pushers from the streets of LA.

Like every Rookie you began by walking a beat, but your honesty and reliability quickly brings you to the attention of the white shirts above you and, once you have the required time in grade, the promotion to Detective that makes you a much more effective cop.

Working your way through the various divisions, you made the journey from traffic, arson, and vice, finally arriving at homicide, where you truly make your mark on the department.

Game Play
Game play revolves around Phelps trying to solve a series of gruesome murders, some of them among the most famous ever investigated by the LAPD, like the Black Dahlia murder.

You do not start as a Detective of course, but as you work your way through the ranks and the divisions, you are a cop after all, so much of what you do relates to police procedures and investigative techniques during an era in which the Police Lab examined any evidence, and there were no Crime Scene Officers and CSI's to assist you in figuring out what clues were important, and what ones were simply red herrings.

A lot of the "work" of being a police officer and investigating crime in this era comes down to being a good observer, and being able to not just recognize the clues that you encounter at a crime scene, but being clever enough to connect them with other clues, and use them as the basis for further inquiries.

Game play in L.A. Noire reminded me of a TV show that I used to watch when I lived in the UK some years ago called A Touch of Frost . The protagonist in the show -- Jack Frost -- was a Detective Inspector with the Denton CID, and he was neither young or attractive, and he did not have an engaging personality.

What he was, to put a fine point to it, was an old-school copper with a nose (and gut) for crimes and the clues that criminals leave behind, and L.A. Noire feels a lot like that show though in an earlier era of course.

Each of the desks you occupy in the different divisions have a set of cases associated with them -- crimes that you need to solve in order to be promoted, thus gaining access to a new desk at a new division, and a new set of crimes!

Almost every one of the cases you work on is an actual famous (or infamous) crime from the era, and in the process of investigating the crime scenes you can expect to encounter some rather disturbing clues. Once you have gathered the clues you think you need, and you have figured them out, you will interview (and interrogate) witnesses and suspects with an eye towards breaking open some new clues and evidence, and once you are satisfied you know the truth, you solve the crime!

If you are thinking that this sounds an awful lot like the old adventure games you used to play on your PC back in the 90's, well, that is because it actually is a lot like them. But do not let that throw you off! It may be an older genre, but the blokes at Team Bondi and Rock Star found a way to teach this old dog some new tricks!

A PAXilicious Preview
The L.A. Noire exhibit at PAX East was one of the best attended, and if there was a contest or vote for the most impressive facade, I would have been hard pressed to decide between L.A. Noire and Duke Nukem...

We chatted up some of the gamers in line before heading off for our appointment, and after seeing the presentation, we waited for them to emerge to get their impressions of what we had all just experienced. Their reaction was very similar to our own -- a mixture of light shock and surprise mixed with a new and very different eagerness to play this game.

Most of the gamers in line expected L.A. Noire to be yet another jewel in the Rock Star crown -- a game that will include a rich and well imagined world containing deeply interesting and well-constructed characters, an imaginative and addictive set of missions and quests, and a satisfying conclusion.

All of these are reasonable expectations based upon the previous track record of Rock Star, with its games that have secured the gaming company a very long run at the top of the heap.

Once inside and, having experienced the full presentation, the gamers we spoke with emerged with a changed view. They felt that the game -- and Rockstar -- have matured in a very unexpected way. They used words like "stunning" and " deeply intriguing" while adding that what they experienced was a game on a level much higher than what they were expecting going into the presentation.

At the same time, while praising the maturity and the perception that the game will include entertainment and challenges beyond the norm, there were also more than a few comments about the game being perhaps a little too realistic.

"When we saw the crime scene, and that woman all damaged and still bleeding, I had to close my eyes," Natalia Callum said, adding that while she knew that the game was a crime drama she was not expecting it to be so real.

"I have never been to a real crime scene, but I can't imagine that they are all that different than what we saw in the game; now I understand why they cover bodies with shrouds at those." her boyfriend Kyle Smart observed.

It was not the nudity that disturbed, it was the blood -- and the ease at which the scene promoted full immersion in the game. Knowing that man is capable of doing some horrible things to man does not prepare you in coming face to face with the evidence of such barbarity, and even when that evidence is clearly not real, its presentation here is convincing enough to leave the average gamer shaking and slightly ill.

If we are entirely honest here, we were expecting L.A. Noire to be a simple repackaging of Grand Theft Auto IV in a 1940's LA setting, much the same as Red Dead Redemption was for the old west. The reality was nothing remotely like that, and in the end we share the view of many of the gamers who perceive this new game as evidence that Rockstar is maturing.

Despite the stunning presentation at PAX East there were some elements of the game that were not thought highly of, starting with its length, which at present is estimated to be an average 25-to-30 hours of game play, which if true would be way too short for a AAA-Rated feature game. The thing is that as is often the case, something is lost in translation.

It is true that if a gamer stuck only with the main story line, and did not put any effort into examining the clues and listening to the dialogue, it is indeed a game that might be completed in so short a time -- but when the gamer fully invests in the adventure available in L.A. Noire, a more reasonable estimate is closer to 50 hours -- and when you add in the collections and optional elements still longer.

Our host at the presentation also mentioned that there would be DLC added to the game story line, as well as new pursuits, so trying to judge the game length at this point is both premature and not very useful.

Set for release next month (May 17th in North America, May 20th worldwide) and scoring a rating of at least M (for Mature) and an 18+ by PEGI, the game will be available on both Xbox 360 and PS3.

Official Title: L.A. Noire
Developing Studio: Team Bondi / Rockstar Games
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: May 17th, 2011 NA / May 20th, 2011 Worldwide
Platforms: Xbox 360 / PS3
Genre: Action / FP Detective / Procedural
Ratings: TBA