Monday, July 11, 2011

Megabits column: L.A Noire

Megabits of Gaming contributes a monthly column in Charged Middle East – a leading Dubai-based gadgets and games magazine that provides news, reviews and features on the latest home and consumer electronics.

Each month, Megabits takes a look at a new release in a gaming franchise and considers how its evolved over the years and what makes it great!

Here’s the latest of the articles from the July 2011 issue. For more about the magazine, check out its Facebook page after the jump.

It’s only in the past few years that video games have really started to look “realistic”; environments are richer and accurately rendered, while characters have truly started to act and move like their real life counterparts. Sports sims, in particular, have become renowned for their motion captured players, whereas the likes of PS3 epics Heavy Rain and Uncharted pride themselves on the movement and appearance of their protagonists. Now, many developers will surely be ruing the arrival of the new blockbuster 1940s crime caper, L.A. Noire, as it appears to have raised the bar to an entirely new level.

Few games released this year have carried with them that “wow” factor that makes you sit up and take notice but L.A. Noire - developed by Australia’s Team Bondi (The Getaway) and Rockstar Games (Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne) - has it in abundance. It’s topped the charts for both the PS3 and 360 since its launch, and become the UK's fastest-selling new video game IP in history, according to statistics from Chart-Track.

As Cole Phelps, your job is to rise through the ranks of the Los Angeles police department. Besides solving the occasional street crime, Phelps is tasked with tracking down vital clues to determine who is responsible for a series of gruesome murders – think lauded TV series CSI meets Lie To Me and Columbo. Each case follows a standard format: a call to the scene, a search for clues and then a trek across the city to interview suspects and track down the culprits. It’s more than a little reminiscent of the point and click style adventures of old (Monkey Island, Beneath a Steel Sky, Simon the Sorcerer), each scenario requiring careful scrutiny of the environment to discover any useful objects of clues that may help your progression.

Along the way, witnesses and suspects must be interrogated and the wrongdoers brought to justice. Fairly standard fare, you’d think – but here’s the clever bit… the player must determine whether characters are lying or telling the truth based on their facial expressions and mannerisms.

It’s the innovative MotionScan technology that truly steals the show: 32 cameras taking thousands of high definition images of real-life actors to create an accurate 3D rendition of their heads. What this means in practice is that every single character in the game looks real and their every frown, grimace and grin is accurately captured. Combined with the tried and tested motion capture techniques that determine their body movements , the end result looks amazing and has authenticity oozing out of every pore.

But there are other techniques employed that ensure the game’s authenticity too! Thanks to aerial photographs procured from the archives of renowned snapper Robert Earl Spence, Team Bondi has also managed to create an eerily-accurate rendition of downtown LA from the mid-1940s. Apparently, around 90% of the buildings featured in the game are as they would have been in real life all those years ago. That’s a staggering achievement – but just what you’d expect from the developer. Afterall, its founder, Brendan McNamara, was the brains behind The Getaway on the PlayStation 2 in 2002.

The parallels between the two titles are clear: a free-roaming sandbox game where the seedy underbelly of a city’s lovingly-recreated, almost photorealistic streets, is exposed.

At the time, critics were hugely impressed with The Getway’s movie-like qualities and the graphics that captured the streets of London, England. The dialogue and characterization was spot on, helped by the fact that faces were scanned and movements carefully recreated.

Now, all these years later, these methods have been enhanced and adapted to a completely new IP.

L.A Noire may have its detractors because of questions of replayability and longevity. And perhaps it does rely a little too much on scripting, removing some of the freedom you’d normally associate with a sandbox game… but its technical capabilities are clear. It’s a game that must be experienced and savoured – and one that will surely set the benchmark graphically for some time.