L.A. Noire was first released in 2011, well before the current wave of virtual reality headsets were available. For those of you unfamiliar with the premise, L.A. Noire is a gritty, story-driven detective thriller set in post-World War II Los Angeles. You play as Cole Phelps, starting as a beat cop and working your way up through the ranks of the L.A.P.D., all while getting dragged deeper into the dank, dark shadows where the devils in this City of Angels lurk.
After six years, Rockstar is revisiting the streets of L.A., and adding a VR version of L.A. Noire to the mix. L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files centers on seven key cases from the original game, all picked because of their viability for virtual reality.
L.A. Noire’s gameplay is comprised of three distinct types: investigation, interrogation and action sequences.
Investigation is where you’ll build the basis for your case, and generally involves arriving on a crime scene and inspecting the surrounding area for clues. What was simply moving sticks and pressing buttons in the original L.A. Noire becomes much more realistic and interactive in VR. Now you can actually grab a body and turn it over or thrust your hand in a trash can and riffle around in the debris for leads, all while peering and craning your neck to observe the scene from every angle, making an already compelling virtual world that much more real.
Once you’ve gathered the clues, the real fun begins – time to start talking to colleagues, witnesses and possible suspects. In the 2011 release, conversation options were presented as very definitive, yet sometimes lead to surprising results. Instead of picking the exact text of your question or answer, you could choose one of three options: Truth, Doubt or Lie. This system has been slightly tweaked in the enhanced version to Good Cop, Bad Cop and Accuse. It’s a subtle – but important – difference as the original system didn’t allow for much grey area and sometimes the resulting line that followed after a selection like Doubt was harsher than you would expect. Changing the selections to Good Cop, Bad Cop and Accuse allow for a greater range of reasonable responses given the situation. It doesn’t change how the game plays, but it allows for more emotional nuance and isn’t quite as jarring when the vocal response wasn’t exactly something you were expecting when you selected what seemed like a fairly neutral “Doubt” position.
One of the most interesting aspects of L.A. Noire has always been how it portrays human psychology, body language and mannerisms, and that is even more immersive in the VR version. When it was released, L.A. Noire had some of the most realistic and detailed facial animations of any game, and that bar has been raised even higher in virtual reality where you can get close to your subjects and peer right into their eyes. In addition to listening to the timbre and rhythm of the voice, you have to look closely for facial and body nuances such as darting eyes, clinched neck muscles and nervous, kneaded hands to determine if characters are telling the truth or not.
The immersiveness of VR had me acting out my character more than I would looking at a flat screen, and I found myself posing and gesticulating in a way that corresponded with the scenario and voice over. Another neat feature in the VR version is you can take notes or draw doodles in your journal. It’s a small touch, but it helps set the scene when you can write “pants on fire” with the Vive controller in the middle of a line of questioning.
Interspersed in all of this are a variety of action sequences such as driving around La-La Land, chasing fleeing suspects and taking perps down with a hearty right hook. As you would expect from VR, all of these sequences are very interactive and kinetic. When you jump in your car, you have to turn the key in the ignition, grab the steering wheel and head off, using the triggers for gas and brake.
Chasing suspects comes in one of three flavors. There’s a reticule-based system where you point where you want to go and use the trackpad to hop to the selected location or you can choose various objects in the scene such as ladder, newsstands or light posts and teleport to them. L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files also includes a full locomotion option which allows you to sprint through the streets and alleys of L.A. by swinging your arms as if you were running.
Running down a perp is all fine and dandy, but what do you do when you catch them? Play ‘em a little sweet chin music, of course. It is a stylized L.A. in the ‘40s, so you don’t need to worry much about the ethical implications of your arrest tactics.
As we’ve seen in other VR experiences, boxing comes pretty naturally and is very instinctive: swing to throw a punch, put your hands up to block an incoming blow or float like a butterfly to dance, duck and dodge out of the way and avoid getting sucker punched. You can pull the trigger to make a fist or, as I liked to do during my time with L.A. Noire, ignore the trigger altogether and just slap your target silly like some dynamic Three Stooges bit. This led to more than one occasion during my demo where I channeled my inner Curly and shouted, “Oooh, wise guy, eh? Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!” while serving up an endless stream of open-palm smackaroos.
Between cases you can head back to Cole’s office and interact with various objects such as a cigar, stapler and service revolver. While in the office, I made my way over to the corner to check myself out in the mirror. Noticing several hats on a coat rack nearby, I picked one up and was pleasantly surprised to see my outfit change from fancy Zoot suit to my patrol uniform to a dark Untouchables-inspired ensemble. Donning my standard issue attire, I headed to the desk, picked up the folder and picked a new case to tackle.
I only had about 30 minutes with the game, but I’m happy to say that I’m thoroughly excited to check out more. It takes time to make great content for any new platform, and now that we’re at about 18 months into this new wave of VR, we’re starting to see deeper and more compelling experiences that give a glimpse of what the future of VR holds.
You won’t have to wait too long to check out L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files for yourself as it will be available for the HTC Vive this December.