L.A. Noire is due to be released on 20th May 2011 here in the UK (America will get it a little sooner on the 17th) and puts in you control of Cole Phelps in a detective story set in the 1940s. Blending third-person action, a focused open world with a linear story and involving detective investigations – it sets out to bring us an interactive film noir.
F.R.E.E. (or Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment) is a genre of video games created by Yu Suzuki to describe his Shenmue series of video games. There are not many games ever placed into this genre apart from Shenmue I and Shenmue II, but Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy in the US) are arguable members.
Is L.A. Noire the next entry in the genre? This writer is inclined to think it’s possible.
Developed by Team Bondi and published by Rockstar Games, it appears from the trailers that L.A. Noire uses a modified version of the GTA IV engine with at least one major addition – “MotionScan”.
This is a new motion capture process used to create highly detailed facial animations for video games and film. Unfortunately, these faces clash with the lower-detailed bodies and head, although you definitely get more and more used to it. David Cage the lead developer behind both Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain had some interesting comments on this technology. Read this article at The Escapist for more information.
The development team intends to use this feature to extend the realism and immersion of their world.
Shenmue, for me, represents a level of immersion and detail that has yet to be rivalled. It has many faults, many indicative of the time it was created and many of its own design. However its scope, although rarely challenged, has been a huge influence on game development since.
QTEs, or Quick Time Events, were named by Yu Suzuki, although they originated in games like Dragon’s Lair, where all of the game-play was a series of quick reactions to on-screen command prompts.
Shenmue pioneered the use of QTEs to spice up and increase the interactivity of cut-scenes. Games still lack the true free-flowing nature of reality and, since the introduction of plot-based storylines, have used cut-scenes to show necessary or impossible actions by the playable characters. Computer-controlled characters are free to do whatever their designers can imagine and create, whilst player-controlled characters must respond to limited human input. Cut-scenes generally refer to occasions when control is removed from the player, leading to uninitiated and lengthy conversations breaking up your flow and “Why can’t I be doing that cool shit?” moments with action-oriented pieces.
Half-Life does away with this by never removing control from the player. All cut-scenes (or perhaps scripted events in this case) occur within the game engine in real-time with no changes in the camera. You, as Gordon Freeman, are free to look at whatever you please and react with your own choices. Equally as influential to the game industry, it also has its flaws in execution. You are limited to your usual in-game actions and you are essentially a passive observer – you cannot converse with any of the characters.
The QTE allows a cut-scene to change and branch depending on the success or failure of these actions. This gives the player more significant input into the storyline, rather than just being able to crouch and jump aggressively at people or swipe your crowbar at them. Their major weakness is the ‘timed’ element. If you fail certain QTEs you may have to restart (either at the start of the cut-scene or just before the failed event) which can lead to frustration. I would like any life or death actions to either not be timed or to not require a button press at all. QTEs are also used during action game-play, usually in the form of finishing moves or other context-sensitive actions. However, failure of these rarely results in ending the game.
Fahrenheit evolved this formula for their excellent dialogue engine. Each time your character is due to respond, a series of choices is presented. Different options are available depending on the emotional conditions of the conversation and you are forced to choose in a limited time. This creates a wonderfully realistic thinking-on-your-feet detective game-play mechanic. Not often seen in this format – Mass Effect for example wimps out and gives you unlimited time to choose dialogue options.
I haven’t yet played Heavy Rain, though Rich has offered to lend me his PS3, but it seems to further develop the fantastic system derived by David Cage in Fahrenheit. I hope Heavy Rain’s story doesn’t descend into drivel half way through like its predecessor did… (don’t spoil it for me though!)
A Detective Story
L.A. Noire may not apparently feature QTEs but it is by all evidence a free-form detective story like all of the games in the F.R.E.E genre. Much like Shenmue, and to a lesser extent Fahrenheit, the detail of the environment is key here. Evidence must be gathered and crime scenes examined to find clues, which in itself is nothing new or rare – but execution really does matter. Shenmue allowed you to closely examine every item that you collected, from a first-person perspective with controls changing to your hands instead of whole body movement. L.A. Noire appears to use a similar control method.
Interaction on this level draws you further into the game’s world much more than the ability to pick up everything and sell it at a shop.
Both games also seem to consist heavily of dialogue-based gameplay. Detailed and engaging interactive dialogue is one of my most wanted features (and why I fell in love with ME2). For me this was started by Shenmue, although it wasn’t handled in the best way. Dialogue was mainly limited to your mission (finding the killer of your father) and you were unable to get to know any of the many minor characters directly – although much could be gleaned from their choice of words and stalking them in-game (the sequel even allowed you to lock on to targets and auto-follow them).
Fahrenheit remedied this to a certain extent, as mentioned above, unfortunately the size of the population was drastically reduced. With the ability to ask about the people themselves, you knew more about everyone – but there were far fewer people to know.
Mass Effect’s dialogue trees used a paragon/renegade dynamism that for the first time allows the good or evil paradigm to work in a game. The difference in character is minor and as such is more believable than sprouting horns or acquiring a halo around your head. However, it rarely closes off options and is a more traditional RPG in this respect.
L.A. Noire steps this up further by introducing lying. The true extension of detective-based gameplay and morality-based game effects, this allows you to shape the conversation in a new and more immersive way. Instead of pressing ‘A’ when it pops on the screen, you must carefully examine your interviewees. Their body language and facial expressions could be tell-signs that they are lying. You can then react to these situations with a different style of interrogation. Not timed (though you must notice them), not ‘Simon says’ button-presses but elegant branches in the storyline that whatever the outcome do not cause you to see a “game over” screen. Surely a step towards perfecting the balance of interaction and story?
Hopefully the number of people to interrogate and question will be sufficient. Even if they know nothing about your case I want to talk to them.
Episodes of Los Angeles
L.A. Noire will not be a single linear story. It will feature distinct cases that chart Phelps’ rise through the Los Angeles Police Department. Hopefully this will be handled better than the CSI video games. From the trailers it seems we will be able to enjoy aimlessly wandering around the streets of LA much like the cities of GTA. The scale isn’t clear but I would expect a smaller map than GTA IV. My hope is that everyone can be engaged in conversation and a high percentage of the buildings can be entered. Apparently there will be 140 interiors – which sounds fairly impressive but it’s just an out-of-context number.
It isn’t clear if there will be any distractions available to you though this seems fairly unlikely. This is an area both GTA and Shenmue dabble in heavily. Shenmue contains numerous job-based mini-games and playable arcade games. GTA favours side-missions but IV certainly features its fair share of mini-games too. I prefer them in Shenmue, but only due to the intended game-play style and the scale of the detail versus GTA. Shenmue also forces a day/night cycle on you. You must always go to bed when Ryo thinks it’s too late and shops and other businesses open and close at certain times. This emphasises routine and immersive role-playing, whilst GTA’s sandbox environment is more suited to messing about.
The following gameplay trailer allows you to see the similarities between L.A. Noire and Shenmue, as well as clear signs of the GTA IV engine:
For a long time now I have wanted a game with the pace and interactivity of Shenmue and the scale and population of Grand Theft Auto. I previously (and wrongly) thought this would be GTA: San Andreas but by the looks of it, L.A. Noire is set to make me happy.
So, will L.A. Noire join the scant few in the FREE genre?
It certainly has many of the features indicative of a FREE game but they are not exclusive in these genre-melding times. It all depends on the way it plays.
A follow-up to this article will take the form of a review after the game is released, where I will discuss this topic again. [You can read it here]