For people who have played video games the way Aaron Staton has, L.A. Noire will be something very, very different. The actor best known for his role as Ken Cosgrove in “Mad Men” says when he plays video games, he sticks to the most popular fare: “I played a lot of Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto games. The only one I got near completing was Vice City.”
Like most popular video games, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City features a lot of shooting. It’s one of the few game-play techniques – along with racing, fighting, and platform jumping – that designers have truly mastered and gamers have shown they love. But in L.A. Noire, which stars Staton and hits stores Tuesday, players do something very different: They interrogate.
Australian development studio Team Bondi spent 82 days working with Staton and a cast of 400 in a makeshift studio in Culver City capturing their performances with a brand new 32-camera system. Every arch of an eyebrow and curl of a lip was captured with breathtaking accuracy. The goal: Make faces that so accurately (or, some might say, scarily) resemble real-life actors that players can read their expressions in interrogations. In other words: Want to tell if that suspect is telling the truth? Watch whether he shifts his eyes or bites his lip. While players can also drive around the city and get in occasional fistfights, the heart of L.A. Noire lies in reading people’s faces and figuring out how best to pressure them for answers in order to find the murderer, arsonist or thief that Staton’s character Det. Cole Phelps is pursuing.
It’s far from the only thing that could wow gamers who pick up their copy of L.A. Noire on launch day. The game features eight square miles of 1947 Los Angeles replicated almost block-for-block with the use of historical records. Anyone who lives between Hollywood and downtown L.A. will be able to see what their street looked like 64 years ago. It’s so historically accurate that you can even find headlines from old print editions of the very newspaper you’re reading online right now.
But if L.A. Noire succeeds, it will be because of its humanity. With no great advances in shooting or driving technology, what the game really has to offer players is digital characters who act, and interact, more humanly than we have ever before seen in a video game. “We want people to see Cole Phelps is a different guy at the beginning than at the end,” director Brendan McNamara said. “It’s important that players go on an emotional journey with him. It’s a redemption piece.”
Early reviews indicate that L.A. Noire either achieved something great or fell just a bit short, depending who you read. “Just when I thought it would get repetitive, I was sucked even deeper into the experience by the stellar voice acting and smooth motion capture animation,” wrote the gamer website 1UP (). But the website of tech magazine Wired didn’t quite buy in: “L.A. Noire is game you simply must play if you are interested in the development of storytelling in video games,” was the muted appraisal. “[But] the gameplay occasionally struggles to walk the tightrope between being robust enough to hold up the story but easy enough that the player doesn’t give up halfway through.”
– Ben Fritz
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