There are two things you need to know about LA Noire. The first is that it is quite possibly one of the richest, most engaging narrative videogame experiences ever created. Rockstar games have traditionally rich and excellently-told stories, and this game, by Sydney's Team Bondi, is no exception. It raises the bar so high it seems unlikely any of this year's remaining releases will come even close.
The only thing keeping me from polishing up my "Game of the Year" stamp for LA Noire, however, is the second thing you need to know about it: The gameplay will frequently piss you right the fuck off. Setting aside the usual complaints with a sandbox game like LA Noire (driving is hard, controlling the camera is impossible, I don't know where to go ... wah, wah, wah), the added extras that come packaged along with LA Noire's attempt to recreate the art of sleuthing are hit-and-miss, and create the only real stumbles for this otherwise excellent game.
You will play as Cole Phelps, a former U.S. Marine returned home from the war in the Pacific, who has taken up his second career as a police officer. The game follows Phelps chronologically through his career as he makes Detective and gets assigned to a variety of investigative desks. Bookended by flashbacks of his experiences fighting the Japanese during WWII on Okinawa and sideways glimpses at the tales of a few of his fellow returning soldiers, Phelps' career narrative covers a lot of ground, and through his eyes you will experience the seamier side of post-war Los Angeles, rendered in typically loving and exacting detail by Team Bondi and Rockstar.
The game drips post-war era style, right down to the peculiar language of the streets, the treatment of women and minorities, jazz, lounge singers, big-fendered cars and the curious mix of ultra-civility and grit that made Los Angeles in the 1940s such a unique spectacle. Based vaguely on hard-boiled detective stories and film noir, LA Noire borrows heavily from both while telling a tale that feels at the same time fresh and new. And in spite of the preponderance of cinematics, the game is rarely boring. Hands-on gameplay and storytelling are woven together so nearly seamlessly that each seems to carry just enough of its own weight to make the combined whole feel like something better than either an interactive movie or an action game.
The gameplay breaks down into three rough categories: action driving and shooting, investigation and interrogation. The action driving and shooting will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played a Rockstar game or almost any other sandbox. The big difference here is in the cars. There are nearly a hundred of them and each is a faithful recreation or approximation of vehicles that were actually on the road, including such rare specimens as the Tucker Torpedo.
Any car is drivable and slamming along down the freeway-less Los Angeles streets, side-swiping trolley cars and obliterating newspaper stands is as much fun as you would expect. Additionally, since you are, in fact, a bona fide police officer, there is nothing stopping you from switching on the siren of one of the many official police vehicles and blazing a path down the middle of the roadway as good citizens dutifully pull to the side. Getting behind the wheel of a post-war-era American-made tank-steel, rear wheel cruiser, hitting the wailer and blazing down the middle lane of a two lane road, blowing through red lights, holding the pedal down and pulling an emergency-brake-fishtail-hairpin turn is about as much fun as you can have in a game. I recommend doing it as much as you can.
Investigation mainly involves combing crime scenes for clues and then using those as leads for further investigation or in interrogations (more on those in a sec). Clue-finding is relatively straightforward and in the era well before CSI and DNA, you're welcome to grab and hold everything you find and walk right through the blood trails. Nobody cares. Without the burden of having to be scientific (fingerprints and blood typing were still new in this era), what's left is pure gumshoeing, walking the beat, inspecting cigarette butts and following the trail of clues wherever it leads. It's surprisingly fun, if tedious in the late game arson cases.