Chances are, you have never had to crouch over a fresh corpse, roll it over, and pull the blood-soaked remains of a document from its jacket pocket. Neither have I, but now I have memories of doing so because of L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files. Thanks to the transportative qualities of the HTC Vive, I have literally squatted over the bullet-ridden body of a dead chap and unceremoniously pushed him around. It is a very weird feeling, and just one part of L.A. Noire that proves an exceptional match for virtual reality.
Related: the best VR games on PC.
The VR Case Files takes seven investigations from the original game and turns them into standalone VR experiences. No longer is L.A. Noire a third-person, interactive television show, but a police simulator where you are pretty much wearing the sharp suits of the 1940s - look up and you can see the brim of your fedora, which can be plucked from your head and flung like a frisbee across a crime scene.
Approaching the crime scene of “Buyer Beware,” the original game’s fourth case, brings back a flood of memories from my multiple playthroughs of Rockstar’s most unusual title. The same victim, Everett Gage, lies doubled over on the sidewalk in front of his shoe shop, a scattering of brass bullet cases settled near the kerb. I know that a Browning FN pistol is hidden in the nearby trash can. But what should be instantly familiar feels new and exciting; if I ignore the weight of the VR headset and the obvious pixels the technology still cannot hide, I am standing right in the middle of 1940s Los Angeles.
Holding back onlookers outside the shoe shop is Officer Dunn. The first thing that surprises me is his height: he genuinely appears like a five-foot-something human being, rather than a small videogame avatar. But, as he begins to talk to me, it is his face that really strikes me. L.A. Noire, of course, makes use of MotionScan to capture the tiniest facial twitch and expression of its actors, but when you are face-to-face with one of these digital performers it is realistic to the point of being unnerving. With new HD paintwork applied, the game’s faces really have not aged a day.
I head into the shoe shop to question the eyewitness. There are three movement options, two of which essentially teleport you to your selected destination. The more fun but distinctly less functional option has you swing your arms back and forth by your sides, as if you were going for a brisk jog. It is fun, but based on the laughs I hear from the Rockstar employees in the room with me, I look a complete numpty while doing it.
Inside the shop, I have a little chat with Clovis Galletta, an employee who saw her boss gunned down. In the original L.A. Noire, you choose questions to ask from a notebook, and the same applies here. The difference, however, is that the book and pencil are now in your very free-moving hands. I press the pencil to the paper and grin with delight as I ‘feel’ the sharp end of the lead break thanks to the Vive controller’s vibrations, the gesture leaving behind a grey scrawl on the paper. One can only imagine the number of phalluses that will inevitably be drawn on Cole’s many digital notepads.
Rockstar’s remastering has brought a few changes to the way conversations play out, too, replacing the confusing truth, doubt, and lie options with the clearer choices of good cop, bad cop, and accuse. The rest of the interview plays out just as I remember, having to force Galletta to open up with some stern words. I emphasise the issue by repeatedly pointing at her with the pencil; roleplaying in VR just feels so right, largely because the sense of place is so strong.
Talking with the eyewitness connects several dots, and so Officer Dunn and I head off to the local gun store to discover who owns the Browning FN pistol I found in the rubbish. The store is a couple of blocks away, and while I could jog it, there is no need to entertain the Rockstar employees a second time. I jump in the patrol car and take it for a spin. As with the detective work, driving is now done from a first-person view, and requires you to both twist the ignition key and firmly grip the wheel with both hands to steer. The car feels heavy to reflect the lack of power steering. All the vintage touches of the original game have been doubled down on for this version.
After discussing the pistol with the local gun merchant, we have a name: Edgar Kalou, owner of a local jewelry store. I merely glance at him as we enter his shop and he scarpers, running through the back door. I give chase, wondering how the VR version will adapt the lengthy sequence that sees Cole pursue Kalou through the LA streets. Rather than do that, the VR Case Files puts you in a fist fight just out the back of the store. Fisticuffs in VR works exactly how you would expect; you hit the guy in front of you by lunging your fists forward. And just like that, I am repeatedly crunching my fists against the face of Michael B. Silver, he of NYPD Blue fame.
He throws a punch that I block by pulling my arms in close. I then follow it up with a blow to his stomach. As he staggers, I stare right into his eyes, and uppercut him. But instead of my virtual fist colliding with his chin, I punch the Vive clean off my face.
Sorry, Rockstar, if I broke your very expensive VR headset.
Between cases, you can return to Phelps’s office at the police station. In this room you can interact with pretty much everything that is not nailed down. I pick up a cigar and pretend to inhale it, wafting the smoke trails away with my free hand. A nearby record player emits soothing jazz. I swap vinyls by pulling a new one from its sleeve and placing it on the turntable. I pick up the phone and raise it to my ear, and smile as the operator asks the familiar line, “How can I help you, detective?” As I pick up the handset, I notice that my sleeve pulls back to reveal my watch. It is the small touches like this that show why L.A. Noire is perfect for VR. It is a game about picking objects up and taking a good look at them, and there is no better platform than the virtual reality for that kind of business. There are over 500 items to handle in The VR Case Files, and I doubt I would get bored of any of them - picking them up, examining their dimensions, using them as props to send me back in time.
Rockstar are not a company that do gimmicks, so I was quite surprised when they announced a VR version of L.A. Noire. It struck me as little more than yet another VR sideshow. But after an hour inside their little project, it is clear to me why Rockstar felt the need to create it. The VR Case Files may not be the best version of L.A. Noire, but it is certainly the most interesting use of every core element the game has to offer. Interrogations and clue work feels so right when experienced this way. Indeed, this is the first time VR has ever landed for me. Instead of feeling slightly woozy and thinking ‘yeah, that was a neat trick’, I wanted to immediately embark on another investigation.
L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files is Rockstar’s first go at VR. If they do it again, with results this impressive, I could be convinced that virtual reality is actually worth the lofty price tag.
L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files releases for HTC Vive in December 2017.