L.A. Noire Hands-On Preview – Anatomy of a Murder
Written Tuesday, March 01, 2011 By Richard WalkerView author's profile
Let's clear up some misconceptions about LA Noire. It's not Grand Theft Auto for starters, and nor does it particularly compare to Rockstar's open-world crime-ridden sandbox. Yes, it's set within a sprawling 1940s Los Angeles, but inside that vast setting beats the heart of a dramatic linear story based upon the horrific Black Dahlia murders of the time. LA Noire is a period piece that's every bit as authentic as the Kellogg's Corn Flakes box we spot in one of the scenes during our extensive first hands-on session with the hard boiled thriller, but is it as engaging as the dark movies it's influenced by?
Starting with a look at a section of 'The Red Lipstick Murder' case, we're greeted with an unflinchingly brutal opening cut scene, in which a young woman is dragged from the seat of her car and bludgeoned to death with a blunt instrument by a shadowy figure. Cut to the LAPD briefing room, where Captain Donnelly is filling in Detective Cole Phelps and his partner for this particular desk, Finbar 'Rusty' Galloway, before sending the pair out to meet the coroner at the crime scene. Exiting the station, Phelps and Galloway climb into their unmarked squad car - which you're able to ditch at any time in exchange for any civilian vehicle – and drive to the yellow waypoint marked on the mini-map.
Known internally as 'The Werewolf' (a moniker that never stuck), the serial killer has left behind a naked body that bears the marks of his violent assault, which Phelps must examine closely for hints that could lead to salient pieces of evidence and clues. Galloway and Coroner Carruthers are both on hand to point you in the right direction if you find yourself stuck, and subtle feedback and musical cues let you know whether you're in the right ballpark during your search to piece together all of the clues. Only when you've gathered all of the requisite clues to progress will the music stop and prompt you to move on.
Finding an ornamental globe-shaped lighter, there's a light puzzle to be solved that involves manipulating the lighter, which then pops open to reveal an address and a new lead to follow. Closer examination of the body also shows messages scrawled in lipstick, which it transpires, is the Werewolf's calling card. We know this because the next part of our look at LA Noire is completely hands-on and we're given an entire case to delve into, from the very beginning, to the bitter end.
'The Silk Stocking' is the name of the case in question, and it's a straight-up case from the Homicide Desk in which yet another young woman has been mutilated and left out in the open, stripped of her clothes and possessions. Heading out once more with Finbar, we ditch the standard issue car when we see an unusual-looking vehicle known as a 'Stout Scarab'. It's worth noting that despite its bizarre appearance, the Scarab is as real as everything else in the game, from the smallest item to the tallest skyscraper, the attention to detail in LA Noire's authenticity is pretty impressive.
Although LA Noire is set within an expansive open-world – and a look at the map shows there's a huge chunk of Los Angeles to explore – the story is relatively linear, as Phelps' route through the various LAPD desks takes him from Patrol (a disguised tutorial in essence) to Traffic, Arson, Vice and Homicide, all sewn together with the common narrative thread running throughout: Phelps' investigation into the ongoing Dahlia murders. Back to the crime scene, and there's more unsettling close examination of the naked corpse to be done.
There's the same lipstick message on the woman's mid-riff that reads 'Fuck You BD' and some shocking trauma to her neck and wrists, as well as a horrible chest wound. Adopting a first-person perspective to closely scrutinise where necessary, there's gentle feedback with vibration when an important clue is nearby. Using the left-stick, you can turn, rotate and check all angles of an object, which in this case isn't an object at all; it's the woman's wrist and fingers, which both show evidence of a struggle. It's apparent that the woman's wedding ring was pulled off with some force, and a peripheral search of the surrounding area turns up half a library card, the woman's hat and the beginning of blood trail that has evidently been set up by the killer. He's toying with us and we have no choice but to follow and participate in his sick little game.
Following the trail down the alleyway where the body was found to a fire escape, we scale the side of the building to the rooftop, where we're then lead into a pigeon coop, to a lower part of the same roof and ultimately to a purse containing the other part of the library card. We have a note, a key, the woman's ring and a cryptic cipher to follow, but most importantly, we have the victim's name and address. The killer clearly wanted us to find all of this, but 'why' is the burning question. Antonia Maldonado is our victim's name, a young Hispanic girl whose murder is still a mystery. We head over to her house to see what we can find and we're greeted by an old woman, who allows Finbar and Cole to snoop around Antonia's room. There's a smashed window, a suitcase with divorce documents that show a man named Angel is her husband and a wedding photo showing Antonia wearing a charm bracelet that was conspicuously absent from the crime scene. Angel could well be a suspect with a motive then.
We head back into the lounge to question the old woman, who seems reluctant to help in our enquiries at first. We ask about what transpired when Antonia was last in the house and ask if she knows anything about a break-in, but the old woman is trying to cover something up. She evades the question, but we can tell from the way her eyes look to one side, her lips are slightly pursed and she shifts uneasily in her chair that there's more to this than meets the eye. We decide that she's a liar and Phelps responds by calling her a 'nosy old bat'. How can we prove that she's lying? What about the broken window? She backs down and tells the truth; she definitely knows something. This is our first attempt at reading LA Noire's MotionScan performances and it's like actually looking at a real person. Every nuance, subtlety or slight tic in a person's expression is all right there in front of you, so if you're naturally attuned to detecting tell-tale signs of lying or deception, you'll do well during the game's interrogation junctures.
Picking up the trail, we try to track down Angel thanks to a previous lead and get to take part in a scuffle in his apartment building. LA Noire's melee combat could really benefit from some refinement, although it looks better than when we last saw it. Hands-on though, the melee is the weakest part of Noire at present, but it's over quickly thankfully and it's back to the task at hand. Exploring Angel's kitchen, we find a highly suspicious crate of booze from a Fruit Market, a bloodied shirt and a match book from the Eldorado bar. We managed to coax information from the old lady giving us the El Dorado bar lead, but had you messed up that particular line of questioning, the match book would have set you on the right track. We visited the bar before pursuing Angel, finding dodgy goings on around the back as a Fruit Market employee wheels one of those booze-filled crates to his pick up truck.
There are no fail states in LA Noire. The route the story takes adapts depending on how your questioning goes and what clues you manage to uncover; hence why the music doesn't stop until you've found all of the important clues in an area. Back to the investigation and Angel gets taken back to the station as our first murder suspect. A short interrogation later and a slip up on a couple of questions that can't be backed up with evidence, we manage to draw some info from Angel and a quick visit to Technical Services in the station sees a note from the killer being looked at. It reads 'Fuck You BD. Tex' and there's an erudite poem that indicates Phelps is dealing with a smart and well-educated customer.
It's time to head over to the Just Picked Fruit Market where we meet the dodgy employee once again. Time for some questions for the man, whose name is Clem Feeney, and he's most definitely a bit shady. Questioning sees Feeney getting defensive and a search in the market's stock room soon reveals that he's involved in this somehow. We find a bloody scalpel and after using the cipher note from the blood trails earlier, we manage to crack the code to open a jewellery box. Inside is Antonia's charm bracelet. Clem Feeney, you are under arrest. If only it were that easy...
Feeney's already done a runner, jumping into his truck and high-tailing it away as fast as he can. Pressing down on the D-pad calls Galloway and we grab the nearest car and give chase. LA Noire's vehicle handling is completely appropriate for its 1940s vehicles that handled like drifty boats. Suspension is bouncy and the steering is somewhat erratic, but it just feels right somehow, as our fraught car chase to catch Feeney unfolds. Finbar unloads some bullets into Feeney's tyres and after a while, he yields and pulls into a nearby verge. We leap out and slap the cuffs on Clem before driving him back to the market. We call Donnelly to the scene using the sidewalk Gamewell telephone and the Captain arrives to declare the case closed. He then helps himself to a crate of booze and Clem is back at the station awaiting questioning.
At the end of each case, LA Noire gives you a 'case report' rating your performance with stars based on how many clues you locate, correct question responses you achieve and your overall conduct. You can return to any case and replay it to improve your rating if you like too. There's also optional side-missions to partake in via the police radio, with short objectives ranging from tackling muggings to bank robberies. Your in-game actions, such as driving all of the 96 or so cars on offer or discovering every landmark, grants rank-up XP that can be accumulated to earn 'Intuition Points'. You can store up to 5 Intuition Points for use when you're really stuck, revealing a clue or hint to help you progress. Where's the fun in that though?
LA Noire is shaping up to be much more than simply a showcase for Team Bondi's startling MotionScan technology. Based upon the case we've played, it's on track to be everything we're hoping it will be and without indulging in too much wanton hyperbole, the game's recreation of 1940's Los Angeles is really something to behold. You could fill a preview rambling on about how incredible the realistic MotionScan performances are too – and they truly are amazing – but it's enough to say that although there's still room for refinement in the run up to release, LA Noire is looking like it'll be the perfect marriage of compelling story and cerebral action that we're hoping for.
LA Noire is hitting the streets on May 17th, 2011 in North America and May 20th, 2011 in the UK and Europe. Check out twelve new screens in the gallery!