This year’s last AAA virtual reality (VR) videogame release comes from one of the most high-profile developers on the planet. Rockstar Games’ step into VR was perhaps inevitable, but the fact that it has arrived earlier than most developers came as somewhat of a surprise, and even more so is the fact that it’s not Grand Theft Auto, but rather the side-step of roam-roaming action that is L.A. Noire.
L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files may essentially be a remake of the critically acclaimed 2011 Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC release, but it has been heavily adapted for VR. Players enter the shoes of protagonist Cole Phelps quite literally, with L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files taking on a first-person view opposed to the original’s third-person perspective, and many assets have been remade to take advantage of this new viewpoint.
The plot of L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files sees Phelps climbing his way up the ladder of the L.A.P.D., beginning humbly as a beat cop and ending up as a decorated detective. Set in the late 1940s, Phelps dives deep into the seedy world of L.A.’s organised crime syndicate and is morally challenged by the corruption that runs through the L.A.P.D.
Before any of this can happen however, you need to earn your stripes. The player is given an introduction to the world of L.A. Noire – or more specifically, playing L.A. Noire in VR – through the addition of a VR-exclusive area. Phelps’ office is no longer a simple flat menu, but now a hub for the player to learn the basics of the trio of control schemes available and the depth involved in scene examination, as well as tinker with outfit changes, various objects and a selection of music.
Key to any videogame experience on modern VR hardware are those control systems, and while L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files doesn’t feature as comprehensive a series of adaptable inputs as Bethesda Games Studios’ Fallout 4 VR, it does provide a suite of options for player comfort, including smooth locomotion. The simplest option for this (labelled ‘automatic’ in the options menu) is to press the trackpad on the HTC Vive motion-controller and look in the direction you wish to move. However, there is also the ‘walking’ mode, in which the player must swing their arms to move in an attempt to mimic walking in the real world. In this latter smooth locomotion option, players can hold the controller’s trigger to sprint.
Additional movement options are based around teleportation. The first is the now traditional reticule-based teleportation, while another new system revolves around highlighted objects. Areas will glow yellow, and clicking the trackpad will teleport the player directly to them. This latter mode is helpful during gunfights – ensuring you’re always moving into cover – but is undeniably the most disruptive to player immersion.
Once the basic movement is covered, players will find traversal ties together a series of distinct activities that offer the cohesive L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files experience. Acting as a detective, a key part of Phelps’ job is to interrogate witnesses. During this activity players will find that their judgement of a character’s intention will directly affect the way in which conversations progress. L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files isn’t simply a case of pressing a button and choosing between inconsequential dialogue options; the way in which you speak to each actor in a scene can affect the outcome, potentially leading to further clues or making new enemies. Of course, L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files is attempting to digitally recreate real life, and as such the reactions you might be expecting from a character may not be that which you receive.
The options for interrogation have been simplified from the original 2011 release, now divining the possibilities through ‘good cop’, ‘bad cop’ or ‘accuse’. Of course, it’s possible for the interviewee to take each of these responses to their story in a very different manner, even multiple times during a single conversation. L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files doesn’t simply ask the player to pressure the characters they meet, but genuinely examine their facial expressions and body language in an attempt to understand how they’re ‘feeling’.
Additional activities involve gunfights, driving and good old fashioned motion-controlled fisticuffs. While the gunplay and unarmed combat are executed much as you would expect, the driving gameplay is just as detailed as the environment examination and interrogation sequences. Upon selecting a vehicle to take out for a spin, the player must open the door, turn the key in the ignition and grip the steering wheel to control their direction. Of course, the entirety of the L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files map is open to roam from the get-go, so while the videogame itself might only take 6-or-so hours to complete, it’s more than likely to be double that as players explore the world both on-foot and in the heavy-steering 1940s cars.
L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files is a mixed bag visually. While the character models and facial animation are second-to-none, it’s clear that many of the environmental textures haven’t received much of a makeover since the original 2011 release. Despite L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files requiring higher PC specifications than the standard VR experience, the graphical fidelity of the videogame as a whole is significantly lesser than the likes of Robo Recall or DOOM VFR. The effort has clearly been spent where it’s needed, however; L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files’ raison d’etre is the human interaction, and the characters in the videogame are wholly believable.
And it’s that believability that makes L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files one of the most immersive VR videogames to date. As with most releases on modern VR hardware, it’s easy to pick flaws in the videogame due to the control systems and lessened visual quality, but to do so would be to ignore the huge leap forward L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files makes in the creation of a real-world playground. The delivery of unique characters impresses a sense of urgency, empathy and often distain unlike any other videogame experience, playing into the strengths of the VR medium by placing the player face-to-face with convincing digital human beings. L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files presents an unwavering argument for VR as a compelling entertainment medium, and should be welcomed as a yet another stepping stone to true presence in digital worlds.