Some say that the face is the window to the soul. If that's the case, then L.A. Noire is going to have hoards of people gawping into its spiritual essence - fogging up the glass with their slack-jawed admiration. This is an enticing project from any number of angles - it's a 1940s-set detective game, and a Rockstar-published, open-world one to boot - but make no mistake, it's the faces that are going to set people talking.
The phenomenal phizogs / exemplary expressions themselves are the product of something called MotionScan, a performance capture procedure that works in a similar way to the tech used for Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain. Without delving too deeply into chin-stroking detail, MotionScan allows for the complete recording of an actor's facial performance - every twitch, snarl and grimace. But where Heavy Rain's digital cast existed within a relatively controlled environment, Noire's virtual actors operate within the potential chaos of a sandbox world - a highly detailed recreation of post-WW2 Los Angeles.
It's swiftly apparent that Noire will be something of a departure from Rockstar's previous open world titles. For starters, Rockstar is only the publisher here; the developer is Team Bondi, a Sydney-based studio formed in 2005. Then there's the protagonist, Cole Phelps - played by Mad Men's Aaron Stanton: he's a war veteran, a gifted detective, and appears to actually be quite nice. Sure, John Marston and Niko Bellic had their kinder moments - but Phelps appears to be a thoroughly decent chap. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for all the people around him; while Hollywood is booming, post-war LA sits atop a swelling undercurrent of violence and corruption. The game finds Phelps starting out on the Patrol desk and then sequentially moving through Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson. Within each of these departments you'll work through a set of cases, each of which takes the form of an extended quest. And while there will certainly be plenty of the action we've come to expect from open world games - shootouts, melee brawls and car chases - the meat of the game will take a more thoughtful, slow-burn approach.
You see, it turns out that L.A. Noire's faces are more than just graphical icing on the open world cake; they're an integral part of the gameplay. Phelps is a detective, and much of your play time will be spent conducting proper detective work. You'll arrive at a scene, search the area for clues, and perhaps consult with the local coroner. Then, crucially, you'll move on to interview witnesses and any other suspects who may have come to light as a result of the evidence you've unearthed. But here's the thing: where most adventures would use these conversations for plot exposition, as a bridge to the next helping of action, here the interrogation is the game. You pick apart your subject's statements, suss out their motives, cut through their lies. It's a verbal fencing match. And the best part of all this? You can actually see when someone is lying to you; their darting eyes and nervous ticks tell the whole story.
The conversation system in L.A. Noire seems to have parallels with the setup we'll see next year in Square Enix's Deus Ex: Human Revolution. When you reach a branching point in the chatter - usually just after a suspect has made a distinctly dodgy claim - you'll be given a choice of three reactions, each linked to a separate face button. Believe/Coax makes Phelps react in a gentle fashion, trusting the interview subject and encouraging them to say more; Doubt/Force takes a much harsher approach, pressing the interviewee to come clean and to abandon any lies or pretences they might be making. Finally, we have Disbelieve/Accuse, the harshest verbal approach in Phelps' arsenal. Here he'll directly confront the speaker over some kind of perceived infraction - whether it be something they've done, a lie they've told, or a piece of information they're still holding back.