Rockstar are "a bit nervous, really". As I sit down on the couch at their London offices they explain that in I'm not for an action packed experience filled with explosions and violence. And there was nothing of that shown during the hour long presentation of L.A. Noire. And perhaps that is exactly why I found all of it very interesting.
L.A. Noire isn't your typical Rockstar game. It's not a Grand Theft Auto set during the 40's, not an expolsive reply to 2K Czech's Mafia II. Instead it makes me think of Heavy Rain and Phoenix Wright, as I follow Cole Phelps, a World War II vet who helps the LAPD solve crimes.
Rockstar lets me witness one of Phelps' cases, The Fallen Idol. The mission starts out in a briefing room where Phelps and his colleagues are given the details of a recent car crash. Two women, one established actress with connections to organised crime and one naïve young girl with dreams of Hollywood, have supposedly driven a car off a cliff. It seems both of them were drugged and a movie prop in the shape of a shrunken head was placed on the gas pedal.
Phelps drives his car to the scene of the crime, and I'm given a brief glimpse of the 1940's Los Angeles the game is set in. It comes off as clean and full of atmosphere. It's not full rendition of the city, "but pretty damn close" as Rockstar puts it. Phelps is waved in by cops at the scene, and after a brief chat with his colleagues time has come to investigate the car.
As Phelps walks up on the demolished Chevrolet Styleline the music changes to a slow jazz, as we close in on a clue it's indicated by a subtle yet noticeable sound. In the backseat of the Chevrolet we find a torn piece of underwear and a worried letter from the young Jessica's mother. Two important clues for later.
Phelps makes his way back to June Ballard, the older of the two women in the crash. She is recovering in one of the cop cars wrapped up in a blanket. It's time to interrogate her, one of the central components in L.A. Noire. When we talk to June about what's happened we are given different ways in which to react and carry on the conversation. Phelps can be sympathetic and chose to believe in what the person is saying. He can also put pressure on her if he suspects they're hiding something. He can also opt to confront whoever he is interviewing with a piece of evidence, which in turn can open up more options for dialogue, or new locations or people to meet.
You pick your questions and evidence from your trusted notepad, which also works as a neat menu system that covers the screen from time to time. You can also access all previous dialogue (neatly typed up), and that will amount to quite a lot.
We continue to question Ballard and Rockstar explain how important the facial expressions of the characters are - they may be giving you hints as to the validity of what you've just been told. A cocky attitude or wandering eyes may be an indication that the person you are talking to is lying through his or her teeth. So it's important to try and pick up hints.
And the facial expressions are nicely done. The technique used is called Motion Scan and we are treated to a short behind the scenes clip to get an idea of the work put in to the facial animations. In addition to the standard motion capture, the facial expressions of the actors are also captured separately with a bunch of cameras from all different angles. The actors themselves seem as comfortable as Alex in A Clockwork Orange as he is being "re-conditioned", but the end result is worth all the effort. Sometimes it's almost uncanny how realistic it looks, everything from subtle movements of the brow to the way your mouth quickly puts on a smile you're lying.
Apart from looking at faces, you also have to listen to what the characters are saying, and think of what you've previously learned. Much in the same way that Phoenix Wright has forced us to consider situations, motives, and evidence, this is a good means to create a connection with the player. If you expected something light hearted where you can opt out of viewing the cutscenes to speed up the action, you're in for a surprise. The experience you get from L.A. Noire is much more tranquil, and akin to reading a good book.
That's not to say L.A. Noire will be without intense moments. As Phelps is closing on the truth behind the car crash he runs into two rotten film producers, who have taken advantage of poor young Jessica in various creepy ways. After several interrogations of said producers and others implicated the case concludes with a chase and gun fire on top of a sky scraper. Judging from this sequence it looks as though both shooting and cover mechanics are up to par, and it also proves that Phelps isn't afraid to get his suit dirtied up.
Since we're playing a "good guy" I assume there is no room to go berserk á la Grand Theft Auto, but nonetheless I ask Rockstar about it. They tell that we will be able to steal vehicles and drive anywhere, but that you won't be able to kill civilians. Even if L.A. Noire appears a relatively linear experience, we will still be able to explore the city and as Phelps gets different duties the experience will be more varied.
After the bad guy has been taken care of the presentation ends. L.A. Noire is pretty far from what I was expecting, but that's not meant in a negative way. The interrogations, the atmosphere, the music, the facial animations and the voices (some by actors from Mad Men) all point towards a quiet and clean action adventure. Team Bondi and Rockstar are perhaps a bit more nervous of what people will think, but I for one press "believe" as L.A. Noire looks like one to keep an eye on.