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PAX East 11: Impressions: L.A. Noire

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Last year at PAX, Rockstar had a line going around the booth for Red Dead Redemption, and it was only during the hour-long "press only" time on Saturday morning that I was able to get my hands on the game without having to wait for hours. So seeing as how they had an equally enormous line for their upcoming L.A. Noire, I figured I'd have to do the same thing. So imagine my surprise when I got right to the front of the line and was led into a small theater space instead of to playable demo kiosks. After the presentation, I overheard someone asking a Rockstar employee why it wasn't playable, and their excuse was because if you were to play it yourself, you wouldn't get far enough to see the various different features. But by playing through one of the game's murder cases themselves, they could skip traveling sequences and blow through interrogations so you'd get a sense of what the game really had in store for you. I still would've rather been able to play it for myself, but then again, we all know that Rockstar knows how to make a game, so it's not that big of a deal, really. And even after the hands-off demo, I'm still really excited for this game.

In L.A. Noire, you play as police detective Cole Phelps in 1947 Los Angeles, working your way through a string of various cases from traffic to arson to homicide as you rise through the ranks and uncover conspiracies and secrets involving serial killers, drug dealers and police corruption. The period setting is recreated beautifully. Everything is modeled to the nth degree, including the retro packaging on the stock in a grocery store. Costumes, hair, makeup, etc. are all perfectly done. And the incredible graphics aren't just there to look pretty. No, the remarkable motion capture expressions on the characters' faces are there because catching that twitch of a lip or the glance of an eye is crucial to a successful interrogation, the main focus of the gameplay. In fact, the facial modeling is so well done that in the video trailer that was running outside of the Rockstar booth, I could clearly recognize actor Greg Grunberg as one of the characters. There was another who I recognized as a character actor whose been in a lot of different movies and TV shows, but I couldn't recall his name.

The cases are based off of real-life cases from the time period, and as I mentioned, there will be a variety of murders, arsons, and whatnot. The demo we were shown was of The Red Lipstick Murder. Cole and his grumpy partner headed out to lookout point to investigate the scene of the crime. You can choose to let your partner drive, which allows you to skip the driving and go straight to the scene, although I did notice that the employee with the PS3 controller was controlling the car until he chose to skip ahead. So you won't just be a passenger. At the scene of the crime, Cole had to deal with some pushy members of the press before investigating the body. It was a gruesome sight, and clearly drove home that this is going to be a very M-rated videogame.

Using the controller, you can choose parts of the body to take a closer look at, and then manipulate them with the thumbstick. Like turning the head until you see the wound and decide she was killed by blunt force trauma. Then Cole moved on to check out the scene in general. Her purse was scattered nearby, but it was a small lighter that gave a solid lead after a small puzzle was solved. This led us to the Bamba Club, and although they again skipped the traveling sequence, you will be able to drive freely through Los Angeles to your destination, no doubt risking being distracted along the way (at least that's what always happens to me!). There, Cole asked the bartender a couple of questions and was directed to the owner in the back.

This was the first real interrogation, and where it became clear that Rockstar had accomplished something truly impressive. Using your indispensable police notebook, you can go back over the clues that you find that are automatically marked down for you. Using the evidence, you can direct your line of questioning to different topics. The subject will respond, and by watching closely, you can notice whether or not they're lying, and call them on it. You can select "Truth" if you think they're being straight with you, "Lie" if you know they're full of it, and "Doubt" if you're not completely convinced either way. To be fair, in the conversations I saw, the animations were a bit obvious and it was easy to tell if they were lying or not. Perhaps other subjects are better liars, but the two interrogations we got to witness were pretty easy.

Cole's responses can take some wild leaps at times. When he called one suspect on a lie, Cole immediately jumped to being about 150% times more intense and bordered on belligerent. So sometimes the conversation doesn't exactly flow totally smoothly. But that's a small quibble. My only major quibble with the gameplay we were demoed was that the dialogue was sometimes difficult to hear and understand. Which is a problem since you really need to pay attention to every clue. I would assume that it was just the audio set-up in the theater, and not what the actual game would be like on your TV, but I would also figure that there's likely a subtitle option if you do want to make sure you don't miss a word.

Rockstar claimed that the gun was only a last resort, and in fact, the only combat we saw was some fisticuffs that resulted when an interrogation took a violent turn. After a little hand-to-hand combat, the suspect was subdued, cuffed, and taken to the station. Well, I assume, because that's when we ran out of time. There was some shooting gameplay in the trailer running outside the booth, and a couple Rockstar employees were particularly cagey about what the ratio of investigation to action would be. Personally, I wouldn't mind a game that was all about the investigation, and you never fired a gun once. Solving mysteries is more than enough gameplay for me. But being Rockstar, no doubt they want to satisfy their regular audience. I was told that your actions will encompass what a normal police detective will encounter, from foot chases to car chases to various kinds of combat.

To be honest, I'm really not looking forward to car chases. The racing missions were always my least favorite in the GTA games and Red Dead Redemption because I'm just not particularly good at racing games. But if they're serious about shootouts being downplayed in favor of engrossing mystery solving, I'm all over this game like white on rice. And while I was annoyed that I wasn't able to actually play L.A. Noire, none of us will have to wait very long, because it's due out on May 17 here in the US and May 20 in Europe for both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3.

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