Neatly, the game seems to try its hardest to make life easy for the player without succumbing to bluntly obvious gameplay aids. When you've entered an area with clues, for example, the background score takes on a tingly, mysterious quality; when you've found everything there is to see, the music fades away again. Occasionally you may need to use the resources of the LAPD to help you with your investigations, stopping by one of the blue police phones that litter the side of the road; you might want to call in to check someone's background, for example, or to follow up on a partial license plate match. And whoever Phelps is partnered with for a case (it'll vary from job to job), they'll be on hand to actively help, rather than just bumming along for the ride. If you can't be bothered to drive to the next location, they'll take the wheel for you. And when you're about to interrogate someone, your buddy may offer subtle advice on how you should approach them. When Phelps first chats to young Jessica Hamilton, Bekowsky suggests that you go on easy on her, since she's just a kid.
It's the interrogations themselves that ultimately impress the most, however. It took me a good 15 minutes or so to get over the Uncanny Valley effect of the faces, so mesmerising is their impact. Few games have managed to convey expressions in such a convincing manner, and it's no small understatement to say that L.A. Noire could mark the start of a whole new vein of gaming. Uncharted 2 and Heavy Rain made great strides in the progression of storytelling and simulated emotion, but it's the way Team Bondi uses this verisimilitude that interests me. There's something entertaining and very satisfying about being able to spot when someone is lying to you, and while Ms Ballard's facial gymnastics were perhaps a little OTT, characters I saw later in the demo seemed far better at hiding their true feelings.
This bodes well, as surely much of the game's fun will lie in attempting to outsmart the NPCs. On the other hand, it sounds as if Team Bondi has designed the game in a way that allows for player error. In past detective games (Phoenix Wright, Hotel Dusk and the like) the tendency has been to force the player to re-try conversations until they hit the correct path, but apparently the cases in Noire will bend and stretch to accommodate various paths: if you fail to mine a nugget of info from one suspect, and alert them in the process, you'll have to find your answers from somewhere else. It's a promising setup, but a curious one too - because if a player is very astute at handling their witnesses, surely they may end up missing the content that will be shown to more clumsy players. It'll be fascinating to see how Team Bondi handles this design challenge.
There's also the question of action. This preview has focused almost exclusively on the investigation side of the game, but there's also the more explosive side of things to think about. At the moment, melee combat looks a bit less graceful than the rest of the game - it's still being tinkered with, apparently - although I did like the fact that Phelps' hat got knocked off as he rumbled; the car chase and gunplay sequences seem far more self-assured, and don't look a million miles away from their GTA IV counterparts, which is clearly no bad thing.
The bigger question, perhaps, is to what extent the game will use these mechanics. The Fallen Idol is the last case on the Traffic Desk, so it's only natural that we'd get a bit of action, but will there be a similar degree of action on every case? I'm so taken with the quieter, more thoughtful side of things, I almost feel it would be a shame to have too many bursts of action. Either way, I'm hugely excited by what I've seen of L.A. Noire so far. There looks to be genuine innovation here, both in terms of design and in the supporting technology. And with such a wealth of great source material to delve into - think Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James Ellroy - Team Bondi's debut may be one of the major events of 2011.
L.A. Noire will be released in the Spring of 2011, on PS3 and Xbox 360.