We've had games that let us play cop before, of course, but it's hard to remember anything that's ever come this close to making us feel like we're actually doing the job. I could have spent half of this review going on about the banter Phelps shares with his four partners - you get one on each desk, and they damn near steal the show - but as much as I love these cynical, hard-drinking antiheroes, they're only part of the big picture. In the end, LA Noire is much more than the sum of its parts.
With a project this ambitious, it's only natural that some of these parts fare better than others. Given how incredible the game looks, it's easy to forgive the rare occasions (on Xbox 360) when the frame rate dips a little, or when a texture pops in a little later than expected. The investigation mechanics shine, but the handling in higher-tempo sequences may not be to everyone's taste. While the controls for on-foot pursuit are excellent, utilising a system that's not too dissimilar to Assassin's Creed's Free Run trigger, melee combat has been boiled down an overly simple timing exercise.
Gunplay is handled more competently, with a simple-but-solid take on established cover systems, but it's still a good thing that it doesn't crop up too often. Prolonged shoot-outs are usually reserved for the most significant beats in the sprawling plot, ensuring that they still feel like a big occasion when they do crop up. There are some pleasingly creative settings for several of these battles, too - don't worry, I won't spoil anything. It's a shame that explosive barrels make an unwarranted cameo, but thankfully you'll soon forget all about them.
There are other quirks and gameplay one-offs that pop up across the 24-odd hour duration of the story, but really these little diversions are just icing on the cake. On a similar note, the collectible cars feel like superfluous bonuses given how consistently excellent the main story is - and thanks to the malleable nature of case progression, there's more than enough content to warrant a second trip-through.
Even without the prospect of alternative leads, missed conversations and the like, you'd probably still want to see it all again. There's something entrancing about the way this game plunges you into the violence, the corruption, and the sadness of post-war Los Angeles. Each of the four major desks has a remarkably different tone, and while the slow reveal of Phelps himself is the major narrative thread, it's equally true to say the dark heart of the city itself is an equally important protagonist. As you stoop to inspect the naked body of a mutilated young woman, as you shakedown a gambling racket in a dusky backroom, as you pick through the skeletal cinders of a burnt-out building… as you do these things, you'll silently admit the truth: you don't want to stop the bleakness, you want to revel in it.