(Pocket-lint) - The original L.A. Noire was released back in 2011 - by Rockstar, well known for the Grand Theft Auto franchise - which, in this fast-moving world, feels like a lifetime ago. When launched it was the game to show-off just what was possible with facial animation - something that, to a degree, still stands up today - which set the bar high and has benefitted the gaming fraternity ever since.
In more recent years we've seen the L.A. Noire re-release for Nintendo Switch, alongside 4K remasters for PC and console. Which is all well and good, but it was when we heard about the virtual reality version that we could barely contain our excitement.
Sure, we were slightly worried a VR version might end up being a messy port, but L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files is an edited version of the original game, breathing new life into the classic. So whether you're looking to head on down nostalgia road or are new to the title, in VR form there are plenty of treats in store for newcomers and established fans alike.
When a port is not a port
It's been a few years since we played the original game, but the VR version is immediately familiar. To double-check how close it is to the original, we booted up the old game and, yep, it has the same levels, same characters and same voice over/script as the original game.
The difference? The VR version is cut-down, featuring just seven missions - which considerably less than the original game - making for around eight hours of playtime in total.
But calling the VR version simply a port wouldn't really do it justice. The original game is a third-person, mission-based experience, whereas The VR Case Files is very much a first-person virtual reality experience (the clue's in the name, eh?). This makes for an obvious difference, as you're much more directly involved in the action.
You won't be surprised to hear that the graphics have also been improved and enhanced since the original, too. On the default settings it looks great and, if you have the power, you can turn the visuals up even further.
If you've played the original game recently, you might remember the missions and know how to get through them. But if, like us, you've not played it for years then it's like playing a new game - and it's a thrilling experience.
The original L.A. Noire's key sell was its use of facial capture technology, used to create realistic facial expressions for life-like in-game interactions with suspects, witnesses and colleagues. Almost like an interactive movie, if you will. This same design has been carried through into the virtual world, making for a really immersive experience when you're questioning criminals or just enjoying their grimacing and gurning faces as you engage in a spot of fisticuffs.
This facial mapping allows you to read the expressions and emotions of the people you're talking with, meaning you can suss out whether they're telling the truth or just stringing you along. This worked so well in the original L.A. Noire, but in VR it's even more fantastic - and doesn't seem to have aged like you might expect.
It probably goes without saying: controlling the world around you in VR feels very different to a third-person game, too. Driving, for example, puts you right in the front seat, with your in-hand controllers becoming the steering wheel. The side triggers on the HTC Vive's controllers operate the grip function to pick up items or interact with objects (it's a toggle grip, too, so pressing the buttons once allows you to hold the steering wheel and set off with ease). The result is a driving experience that's well implemented and hilarious fun - that is until you take your hands off the wheel to put the siren on and accidentally crash into another car or run over some pedestrians. Hard cornering feels like it'll tip the car over, but that's no surprise for 1940s classic cars - these aren't modern vehicles with traction control and ABS.
Another great feature is that if you don't like the driving or get bored commuting through the Los Angeles traffic, then there's a "WARP" button in the car to skip right to your destination (if only there was such a thing in real life!). Alas, it doesn't actually engage a hidden warp drive tucked under the bonnet, but it does get you right back to the actual detective work - which is where L.A. Noire really shines.
Driving isn't the only thing to love, either. Shooting also feels much more immersive than in the original game, particularly when you're holding a gun in your virtual hands and watching the impact of the shots. When we were given the call to attend a bank heist and had to shoot it out with hoodlums to fight our way in through the front doors with a shotgun, we thoroughly enjoyed watching walls, pillars and scenery explode as shots connected; all the while dodging back and forth between cover to stay out of danger. Later on in the game, shoot-outs in a soup factory and a metal works are just as much fun.
The classic 1911 Colt .45 handgun is tricky to reload, but it feels satisfying to do so - drop out a mag, pull the slide, then pump rounds into villains who don't want to come quietly. That's VR at its best.
Fighting is so much more enjoyable when you can watch the punch connect right before your eyes, too. Actions in real-life translate into the virtual world with gusto in this game: raising the controllers to your face blocks incoming swings from scallywags who dare pick a fight with the law, while swiping out returns a punch for a classic one-two. You can opt for an open-hand slap, an uppercut, or a sweet right-hook - whatever works. However, we were disappointed to find that when an opponent was blocking we couldn't sneak in a cheeky low-blow, but you can't have it all.
The tremendous joy and hilarity of movement
Getting about in VR games is generally a sticky business. Different games handle it in different ways. Some opt for "beaming" or "teleporting" - think of it like throwing a virtual stone ahead of you and then reappearing there in first-person perspective - while others throw in smooth locomotion that allows you to control movement with the trackpad. Some use a mix of the two.
L.A. Noire, however, offers three different modes for getting about - and one of them is really special.
The first mode involves simply looking at the scenery and when something is highlighted yellow in the direction you want to go you simply click to beam there.
Alternatively, the second mode means double-tapping the trackpad brings up an aiming reticule that you can move with your head, clicking again to teleport you to where it's pointing.
The third mode is our real favourite - that special one. This movement mechanic mimics real life: by holding down the trackpad and waving your arms about like you're walking you'll start to do just that. You can also hold the trigger to run while you're doing it - which is equally as fantastic as it is hilarious and exhausting. We love this movement style, though, as it feels natural (even if, to onlookers, you'll look hilarious).
Other movement within the gaming world is also magnificent. Whether slapping criminals, waving an accusatory finger at suspects or simply waving your arms about like you're trying to control traffic - there's something enjoyably flexible about L.A. Noire VR's movement system that makes it a sheer delight to play.
Delights aside, L.A. Noire VR can be a bit disturbing. It's not a game for young'uns, that's for sure. In one mission, for example, we heard gunshots and rushed to the scene of a crime - only to find a victim splayed out on the floor. Rolling him over, we were encouraged to open his suit lapels and begin investigating. Suddenly we found ourselves straddling a corpse checking for evidence - in convincing first-person perspective. This was a somewhat disturbing experience that left us mildly unsettled compared to the at-distance third-person equivalent - but speaks volumes as to the immersive attributes of this game.
Let the investigations begin
In the game your notebook is the key to success - a tool that you can grab at any time. Tucked neatly in your front left pocket, it holds all the information about the current objective and discovered clues. During interrogations, you can use it to choose the clue or line of questioning you want to follow. We also found - much to our delight - that you can draw in your notebook, so we took to doodling in it when talking to witnesses or suspects. Adding a cheeky moustache to their profile sketch or scrawling between the lines while waiting for them to finish waffling is amusing. Childish, but still amusing and, who are you kidding? - we'd all do it.
With all the intricacies of movement and the flexible freedom that comes with it, it's easy to fall into the role of a 1940's beat-cop-cum-homicide-detective. We found ourselves fully invested in the investigations, poking around every corner of crime scenes, suspiciously eyeing civilians, going full bad-cop/good-cop on criminals.
When you get a felon back to the station, interviews begin in earnest. Given the clues and potential motives you've already discovered, you then have to follow a line of questioning to decide whether they need to be charged. You're given a choice between good cop, bad cop or straight-out accuse at each stage, then you'll select a fact to back you up and push the conversation forward (assuming you've uncovered said evidence).
If you come unstuck and can't work out which line of questioning to follow then you'll find yourself having to go through the same scenes over and over again until you get it right. We found this a bit nagging at times, like a naughty school-kid getting the wrong answers and being forced to do lines. Perhaps that's evident in the way some games can date.
The occasional disappointing disconnect
So far, so good. Thoroughly impressed with L.A. Noire VR as we are, it's worth noting there are some issues with general user-experience and bugs which nagged at us.
Upon initially starting the game, it appeared not to load, which left us looking into a black virtual reality void. Assuming it had crashed, we started again - only to hit the same result. It turned out there were some terms and conditions we needed to agree to in order to continue. Those tick boxes only appeared on the desktop display and there was nothing on the HTC Vive display to let us know we had to jump over this hurdle. We had similar frustrating experiences when the game crashed and a notification about failed cloud saves had to be dismissed before the game would load again - but once more there was nothing in the VR display to alert us.
Sometimes we'd also find ourselves hitting walls when moving about in the VR world, which resulted in seeing a black screen instead of the surroundings we were expecting. It's not uncommon to see boundary and game-world tracking issues like this - but it does lead to a disconnect that we'd rather do without.
Every time the game loads up a new level you get a message asking you to stand in the middle of your play space and press a button to re-centre. The problem here is simple: how do you know where you are in the real world when you've got a headset on? Thus you'll have to take the headset off or use the front-facing camera, which is a real immersion-killing experience.
One feature of the game is that when you're about to drive somewhere you can choose to sit down or remain standing. This sounds great in theory, but requires you having a sense of where you are in the room for fumbling around blindly, feeling for a seat to perch upon. It's nice to have the option, but it's not the best user experience.
We also stumbled across the occasional amusing bug. For example: upon loading the game from a previous save we found ourselves standing on top of the desk in the interrogation room for no apparent reason. Ok, then.
As a 1940's cop you're expected to wear a hat, whether in or out of uniform. That hat takes up a lot of your vision inside the game. Initially that took over a lot of your vision but, thankfully, Rockstar has since updated the game so you can now remove the hat and toss it aside for a fuller view. Don't blame us if you get chewed out by your commanding officer though.
All that said, these little problems don't stand in the way of what's otherwise a great game - and one of the best VR games we've played so far. We'd expect nothing less from Rockstar, so it's great to see L.A. Noire re-imagined in such a way.
L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files is everything we hoped. This isn't a hashed-together VR port, rather it's the remastering of a classic into the virtual reality universe.
The facial mapping that L.A. Noire was known for somehow shines so much more brightly in VR than it ever did before. Fighting, shooting, driving and investigating are much more enjoyable in true first-person and provide a more immersive experience.
On the downside, there are a handful of bugs and user-experience niggles. Plus the VR version is a cut-down version of the original, so there's less longevity here.
If you're a fan of the original game or simply want to try an awesome VR Police simulator, then L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files is well worth a look. Some (but not all) aspects have delivered the most enjoyable VR world we've experienced to date.
L.A. Noire: The VR Case Files is currently available for HTC Vive and PlayStation VR. It is available to buy on Steam or via Amazon.