Shamefully, the term "blockbuster" is bandied about with reckless disregard these days.
Having long since thrashed this word, game publishers now use the "AAA" descriptor; a tag applied to the upper echelon of game glory. A title that, irrespective of its merits, flies off the shelf faster than discounted DiFlucan at a Hamilton pharmacy.
Any pretence to altruism aside, L.A. Noire, in every conceivable way, is that title. It's bold, innovative, artistic and gritty. It twists and turns, surprises, flusters and entertains. It's from a producer of merit, it features a cast of hundreds, and has undergone a lengthy, difficult inception.
Generally presenting itself as a third-person open-world thriller, L.A. Noire is heavily influenced by hardboiled crime fiction. Felt fedoras, spinning newspapers and poorly lit streets. It's also markedly different to any title Rockstar has produced to date.
Playing as Cole Phelps, a cop rising through the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1947, daily routine consists of investigating cases throughout the metropolis and avoiding Phelps' tortured military background. Our sometime-hero is shuffled between Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson divisions at the behest of his own actions, be they commendable or catastrophic.
In attendance at every morning briefing, Phelps is subjected to a series of wryly demoralising statements from a typically tyrannical captain before being despatched to a crime scene to scout for clues. The presence of a clue is indicated by controller vibration and an escalating piano tone, prompting Phelps to examine the clue either by observing it, picking it up, manipulating it, or a combination of all three.
Little clues have the propensity to distract, and not all are relevant to the case – Phelps will handle more useless beer bottles than a Lion Red distributor – but those that are of importance are duly noted in Phelps' case book for future reference.
Exploring the surrounding area will eventually yield all clues, at which point the background music will slowly fade out and Phelps will be in a position to question any witnesses or suspects either at the scene of the crime, or at a location revealed by a previously obtained clue.
Confronting these characters reveals an innovative twist in game design that, whilst failing to approximate the oft-quoted Uncanny Valley effect, certainly plots a course for it.
All the characters in the game are played by real actors – some of whom you may actually recognise. Using a piece of technology called MotionScan, Rockstar has captured each actor's performance using a series of surrounding cameras, from which is built an animated virtual model of the actor's face. This is then mapped onto the character's 3D model in the game. It enables realistic facial features and body language to actually be used as a function of the game. It's entirely possible to see subtle movements of a character's facial muscles, from a cursive eye flicker to a slight twitch in the corner of the mouth. Even an inopportune swallow could indicate duplicity. The subjects interviewed pitch their answers, and it's up to the player to choose one of three responses: belief in the testimony ("truth"), disbelief ("doubt"), or an accusation of dishonesty ("lie").
Registering truth in response to an eye-witness eager to offer information might seem like a safe bet, and it frequently is. However, eye-witnesses aren't always reliable, and some may even have their own interests to pursue. Doubting their testimony isn't any safer – many are good Samaritans and will refuse to volunteer important information if they detect an element of suspicion in your line of questioning. Failure to extract the correct information from such individuals can hamper the investigation, as successful answers frequently become clues in their own right.
Procuring these clues is paramount. Suspects will frequently lie during questioning, and it's not just a simple matter of calling them on it. When accused of lying, each suspect will demand proof, which Phelps will have to supply by consulting his list of clues. A criminal may claim he wasn't present at a murder, and without discovering his muddy boots matching footprints at the scene, you'll have no way of proving it. Accuse him of lying without the appropriate evidence and you'll either need to humiliatingly retract your statement, or risk failing to obtain information necessary for a quick resolution of the case.
Entering an interrogation room without a comprehensive overview of the case notes is a recipe for disaster. The causal links between suspects, witnesses, crime scene evidence and the meta-plot currently in play can be utterly overwhelming at times. Which character is the wife of the guy being interviewed, and was she the alcoholic who lost her shoe at the scene? Was this gas regulator the one that was modified to blow the house up, and is this the suspect whom the last witness told me fitted it or is it the other suspect I have in custody?
The interview and interrogation sequences require total concentration from the player; a moment's distraction can be disastrous. It's occasionally necessary to study your subject intensely to look for the slightest indication that they're being liberal with the truth, and if you've missed their lead-in, you're screwed. Playing L.A. Noire with anyone else in the room who doesn't know that silence is golden may well precipitate a real-life encounter with a homicide detective.