The following review is spoiler-free.
It always starts like this: a wooden yellow barrier, men in uniform, and a crowd of curious civilians at the circumference of a tragedy. Come rain or shine, domestic spat, serial killing or accidental overdose, the rubberneckers are a constant presence throughout your time in LA Noire. They stand at the boundaries, gossiping and craning to catch a glimpse of the corpse. They don't really care about the victim - who they were or how they died. They just want to take a good look.
And yet as much as we may look down on these gawkers, their morbid nosiness is ultimately equal to our own. Team Bondi and Rockstar understand this all too well, and LA Noire is an unrelenting exercise in feeding that appetite for death. At the same time, it is also a game that delves deep into our love of detective movies - just as Red Dead Redemption did for the Western this time last year.
But despite what some people may be expecting, this isn't another open-world action game in the vein of Rockstar's previous heavy-hitters. There are similarities, certainly, but the core gameplay is generally closer to the likes of Heavy Rain or the Phoenix Wright series than to the gunfights and vehicle chases of Bellic and Marston. Prior to playing the final code, one of my biggest concerns with LA Noire lay with how the action would be handled; it was clear from early on that Team Bondi was going for a measured, thoughtful approach to the investigative scenes, but how was that going to mesh with the moments where the bullets started flying? It seemed inevitable that the game would have them, but how many baddie-packed scenes could the story sustain before the illusion of reality came crashing down like a house of cards?
As it turns out, Team Bondi's solution has been to make combat an entirely optional affair for the majority of the game. As you drive about the city, soaking up the meticulous splendour of 1947 LA, your colleagues at Dispatch will alert you to crimes taking place in the nearby area. Accept, and you'll race across town to engage in a quick bout of terse violence - a botched robbery, perhaps, or a personal disagreement that's led to someone sprouting a triplet of leaky holes in their chest. As soon as you've completed the self-contained episode, it's back to the heart of the game, to the thoughtful world of procedure and inspection. And, if you never took the call, it's a world you never left in the first place.
The point I'm trying to make, in long-winded fashion, is that plot and character are the bricks and mortar of LA Noire. The story begins in strangely staccato fashion, introducing protagonist Cole Phelps and ushering you through a smattering of brief assignments as a patrolman. Eventually you'll pass through four major crime desks - Traffic, Homicide, Vice and Arson - but before then it's time to learn the basics. Here, at the bottom of the food chain, you'll be trained to dissect a crime scene, which in turns means learning to listen for the subtle cues that guide your efforts: sleuth-y music to indicate the presence of clues, and soft piano stings to denote the presence of an item that can be inspected.
At the touch of the button you'll closer inspect the object in question, turning it over in your hand with gentle manipulation of the left analogue stick. If there's more to it than what initially meets the eye, vibrations will guide you to a sweet spot that will then reveal further information. Useful observations are jotted in Phelps' notebook, and in the early days useless objects will be greeted with some form of dismissive comment from the man himself. Later in the game these aids will disappear, but by this point you'll have a natural instinct with regards to the items that litter each crime scene. You'll walk in, survey the surroundings, and make a bee-line for the trinket that stands out like a sore thumb.