Punching people on the VR streets of LA Noire is way more fun than I expected

Late last week I knocked a guy out in Los Angeles. Two in fact, and my girlfriend was watching, as were a couple of colleagues. I couldn't see their reactions, but I have to assume it was mostly embarrassment on my behalf, because I'm a man the wrong side of 40 and haven't thrown a punch in anger since high school. Still, I can confirm that despite my fire-engine red face and slightly strained shoulder, punching dudes feels good in VR. 

Going into my playtest of LA Noire: The VR Case Files, I assumed that Rockstar would've just stripped out all the action-y stuff and stuck with the interrogation scenes. Not quite so. There's driving, punching, and shooting (though I don't try the gun stuff) in this slimmed down Vive version, which is due out in December following a slight delay. It'll cost $30 via Steam, and there are a couple of new features to ease you into VR and make the interrogations flow a little more naturally. (Or at least how you'd expect an old timey detective grilling a perp to go.)

Throwing down works exactly as you'd expect, and I was able to land hooks, jabs and uppercuts, swaying backwards like a fat Neo to avoid his retaliatory blows.

We begin in the office of Cole Phelps, the cop played by Mad Men's Aaron Staton. This is a new space designed to acclimate you to the VR controls. With a Vive controller in each hand, you use the triggers underneath, or the buttons on the side, to grip objects. Squeezing the triggers also makes Phelps' fingers do a pinching motion. I was easily able to pass objects from one hand to the other, pick up a gun, answer the phone, and throw an ashtray around like my wife had just called to say she'd left me.

Actually, I say easily, but I much preferred using the triggers over the side buttons, and unfortunately once into the actual investigating the game really does want you to use the side buttons. Before hitting the bricks, I try on a couple of suits in front of the mirror. This is done by reaching out and popping on a different hat from one of several on a stand. And holy shit is it eerie staring at yourself and seeing Staton's looking back. Because LA Noire tracks your hand position, it's also possible to make yourself do some pretty weird Mr Tickle-style stuff with his arms. It's probably why Mrs Phelps left.

Hm, the man in the drawing is smiling. Can't be the same guy.

Having selected a jaunty waistcoat and hat combo, we set off for the patrol tutorial. Here Phelps and his partner chase down some misdemeanor-level wiseguy using one of three possible movement systems. You can either aim the reticle at a spot and beam yourself to it, highlight an object that glows in an obvious yellow and teleport there, or—brace yourself—actually sprint forwards by aiming in a direction and then swinging your arms madly back and forth. That's about as disorientating as it sounds, and I assume even dafter to look at, so I stuck with the yellow highlight option thereafter.

To the scene of the crime

The pursuit culminates in my first punch up. Throwing down works exactly as you'd expect, and I was able to land hooks, jabs and uppercuts, swaying backwards like a fat Neo to avoid his retaliatory blows. Judging the correct distance to swing from takes a little practice, and there's no feedback from the controller when fist meets face, (just as well, considering my baby soft, never-done-a-day's-real-work hands), but I found just whaling on a guy in a realistic 3D environment surprisingly realistic. It probably says something primal about pent-up white collar rage, or just the eternal allure of jamming knuckles into some chump's jaw. Either way: the punching is good.

Somewhat less convincing is the driving. Here you turn the ignition using your right hand, then grip the immaterial wheel as you lurch around the still immaculately recreated streets of 1940s LA. I initially panicked as it felt like the car almost whooshed out from under me (happily I had asked to be seated for this part, so didn't fall on my ass). There's a decent amount of traffic and sure enough I slewed straight into it. Gradually, I got to grips with the feel, and found that if I took the ride grandma-slow it actually felt pretty interesting. The dash-mounted minimap could do with it being a bit more prominent, though, as initially I had no idea what route to follow.

It's easy to forget just how astonishingly detailed the faces and expressions in the original LA Noire were

The good news is that even when grappling with the controls I never got nauseous. I think that's partly helped by the fact that if you look down you'll see your feet and legs, which helps anchor you in the world. Once we got into a case proper, the crazy fidelity of Rockstar's six-year old world strikes home. While of course you never truly forget you're in a game, it's still startling how real standing on these streets feels. The developer has up-rezzed 500 in-game objects to help enhance that feeling, and sure enough rummaging through a dead dude's coat for his ID is an uncanny experience.

The crime I'm investigating is a murder outside a jewellery store, and one of seven cases in the game, all of which are culled from the original. The meat of it takes place when I'm interviewing the clerk of the store. It's easy to forget just how astonishingly detailed the faces and expressions in the original LA Noire were, but nothing in the intervening years has come close to replicating the witchcraft that Team Bondi's MotionScan tech delivered. And little wonder, given what a ballache the performance capture was to do, making reshoots prohibitively expensive and impractical. But there's no arguing with the end result, which again is even more impressive when experienced in VR. 

Or to put it more plainly: when speaking to the clerk, much as you know it's not a real person standing in front of you, her height, her little facial tics—eyes darting this way and that, subtle mouth movements—all conspire to make your lizard brain react as if someone is right there. The idea of the uncanny valley is that we're hardwired to reject simulated people the closer they resemble but don't quite replicate reality, but that isn't what I found. I would say that I was fascinated by what I was seeing. So much so that I found it hard to concentrate on the specifics of the police work.

When in doubt, throw a punch.

Hunt for the truth

In terms of how you progress these interviews, Rockstar has ditched the old 'Truth', 'Doubt', 'Lie' options on the basis that doubt was a pretty nebulous concept, and you couldn't be sure what Phelps would do if it was selected. Now you pick between 'Good cop', 'Bad cop' and 'Accuse' as the three possible lines of questioning. I still managed to mess up by being too much of a hardass on the poor clerk when she'd already ponied up all the information she had. But overall it seemed a little more intuitive. 

In this instance, there's no doubt. After finding the murder weapon in the trash outside, and taking a trip to a gun shop to trace the serial number, I'm soon confronting the clearly guilty suspect. Sure enough another chase sequence ensues, ending with more fisticuffs. "You can also punch him in the nuts," the Rockstar rep offers helpfully, and she's not wrong. In fact my only lingering disappointment is that your feet aren't tracked, so there's no putting the boot in. And that, ladies and gents, is how police brutality is born.

Shaun has more thoughts on LA Noire's face tech and the implications it has for VR which we'll be publishing soon, but for me this game has gone from something I wasn't sure needed to exist, to one I'll actually dust our Vive off to spend more time with.