Why Rockstar’s “L.A. Noire” Won’t Be Another “GTA” or “Red Dead”

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This L.A. Noire… something about it rubs me the wrong way. Let’s look at we know so far about the hard-boiled period piece, readers. Aaron Staton–best known as Ken Cosgrove on AMC’s hit drama Mad Men–plays police detective Cole Phelps. Phelps is a WWII vet who last duty in Okinawa, where he earned the Silver Star. Yet there’s something that he feels he needs to atone for.

But, that penny-ante stuff ain’t what’s bothering me. Let’s take a look at that trailer from a few weeks back…

What did we see in that clip? Yeah, there’s a bit of gunplay, but not bullets flying everywhere like you’d see in a Grand Theft Auto trailer or one for Red Dead Redemption. And the trailer goes to great pains to say that it was from made from in-game footage. That probably means there’s not a whole lot of shooting your way through problems in L.A. Noire, right? (More on Time.com: )

In an effort to investigate further, I paid a visit to Rockstar’s New York offices to take a look. The mugs there fired up a PS3 and soon 1940s Los Angeles was coming to life right in front of my very eyes. The first thing you notice is how sharp and realistic the characters look. No occasionally robotic animations here. There’s an uncanny naturalness comes out when they talk to each other. That’s due to an all-new performance capture technology called MotionScan. It’s the brainchild of the Team Bondi development studio in Australia, who also created L.A. Noire.

Here’s how MotionScan works: the actor goes into an all-white room where 32 cameras surround him and record his performance from every angle. Rockstar claims that this process allows them to eliminate the need to facial animators in the development process.  The heads and bodies are captured separately, though, and everything from the neck down gets captured by standard motion-capture tech. Over 300 actors were used for L.A. Noire, with many lending their faces and voices to non-playable characters.

But, enough flappin’ gums about the tech. Let’s move onto the actual gameplay itself. Here’s where I’d get answers. Phelps will work his way through several “desks” in the game, with each representing a particular beat like Traffic, Vice or Homicide. Each desk will have multiple cases. Traffic’s the first desk in the game and I watched as a Rockstar rep played a case called “The Fallen Idol.” It started with a report of a crashed car right across the street from the precinct house. Once Phelps and his partner Bukowski got to the scene, you get the rundown from a uniformed beat cop named Rodriguez. The driver of the car was June Ballard, a faded leading lady who was driving with 15-year-old wannabe movie star Jessica Hamilton. Phelps was then steered to the crime scene, a wrecked Chevy Styleline. You can direct Phelps’ attention to various elements on the scene and in earlier levels, evidence is collected and laid out for you. What we saw were a ripped pair of women’s underwear, a letter from Jessica’s mom begging her to come home and a prop shrunken head from a movie set. Picking up clue objects triggers a lose-up of Phelps’ hand and you can rotate the camera to examine the item more closely. (More on Time.com: Rockstar Games Unveils First Look at L.A. Noire)

All such clues get logged into Phelps’ notebook, along with sketches of the dramatis personae in their neutral states, so that Phelps can question them. They’ll offer up fishy alibis or truthful statements in response and you push back on the person you’re talking in several ways. The options available are: Believe/Coax, Doubt/Force, Disbelieve/Accuse. The main way to know which response you should select is to watch the person you’re talking to. In Ballard’s case, her shifty eyes and twitchy body language prompted the Disbelieve response, which made Phelps go hard at her weak lies.

The info she gave up lead to more clue-hunting in other locations. At the apartment of a shady producer, we found mob goons tearing up the place. Phelps got to use his fists against the gunsels and then looked up more evidence on the premises. Because the environments will be big, a musical theme will let you know when there’s investigating to be done in a given room and another audio cue–which you can turn off–will et you know when you’ve found something. Eventually, the trail of clues and interviews led to a decrepit movie lot where it was revealed that June Ballard, the shady producer and an equally sleazy prop guy funneled underage girls into a backroom studio where they were drugged and sexually abused. The mission ended with Phelps having to protect Guy McAfee–the man running the ring–as the mob came to exact their own revenge on him.

Both McAfee and the lot where the scene took place are drawn from real life. In an odd twist, McAfee was actually a former vice squad captain who took control of gambling rackets in Las Vegas. And the film lot where the level’s final gun battle happened still exists and was where proto-blockbuster Intolerance was filmed in 1916. In fact, all of the cases in L.A. Noire–including “The Fallen Idol”–are based on actual crimes from the LAPD archives. In the instances where the crimes were unsolved, Rockstar and Team Bondi have invented closure for Phelps and his partner to find. (More on Time.com: Review: “Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood” Doesn’t Disappoint)

Like in other Rockstar games, every character you walk by in L.A. Noire chatters at you. But, because of the MotionScan tech, it feels eerily affecting. Still, it’s going to differ from the studio’s games in some significant ways. The differences start with the gameworld. This recreation of mid-century L.A. serves as more of a backdrop to the action rather than a character that’s part of it, as with GTA IV‘s Liberty City. It’s been meticulously researched and recreated, down to the vintage movie posters you’ll see and the actual headlines pasted onto the game’s virtual newspapers. And moving through that world is more linear, too.  There won’t be the kind of open-world chaos in L.A. Noire that the typical GTA game usually exhibits. This ties into the ethos of the game that Rockstar and Team Bondi are trying to make. Action and drama aren’t just bubbling up at random street corners; you follow the thread of a case to get to a kernel of action. Excluding a quick car chase where bullets were traded, more than an hour had passed before a serious gun battle happened. Los Angeles is a city that presents one glamorous face on the surface while hiding other more disturbing ones and with Cole Phelps in Noire, you have a protagonist and a game mechanic designed to suss out the truth and the action. Phelps will also be able to call LAPD’s Research and Information division to get information on license plates or to get addresses for suspects. He’ll also follow suspects, hiding, watching and eavesdropping on their activities to get more bits of information. Since the main aim of the game is to build a deduction interface, L.A. Noire will be more methodical and slower.

That’s not to say you’ll only be following breadcrumbs. There will be unassigned cases that serve as side quests (like robberies-in-progress) and others that foreshadow future cases and people that you’ll be meeting during the course of the game. Throughout all of the missions, Cole will be a stand-up guy with very little in the way variable morality. He might be a little rougher in his questioning but he’s never going to be a rogue or corrupt cop.

That issue of character is an important one for L.A. Noire. With a slower pace and game mechanics based on reading character’s expressions, it could be the first video game that gets judged primarily on its performances. The game will be a single-player experience only, so how Staton and his cohorts emote, read lines and react to the plot’s events will be as important to L.A. Noire as the kinds of weapons, cars and enemies in the game. We’ll all get to see just how successful all this will be when the game comes out in the spring of 2011.

More on Time.com:

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