Today, I can breathe a long sigh of relief. When a person writes something as flowery as this about a game that they’ve only seen being played, there’s a strong risk that the person in question will have to eat every one of those hastily chosen words. Not this time: I have now played an entire case from Rockstar’s forthcoming LA Noire, and, but for some unforeseeable disaster, the studio seems to have another critical darling on its hands.

Here’s a complete guide to every element of what is looking like one of the most significant games of the year.  

LA Noire: The City

Rockstar’s mastery of atmosphere has been proved time and again. No matter what one might say about Grand Theft Auto’s shooting mechanic or the drawn-out Mexico section of Red Dead Redemption, the pure, sensual pleasure of inhabiting their worlds is beyond reproach. LA Noire looks set to be another home-run in that respect, recreating the Los Angeles of 1947 with an unerring eye for detail: roads obliterated by the freeways were restored; businesses long-since shuttered were returned to their former premises; crimes committed in the game are straight from the headlines of the day.

Like the crime novels and films from which it draws inspiration, LA Noire’s story explores the underbelly of the city, and particularly the glamour and allure of Hollywood. This will be nothing new to hardened veterans of noir fiction, but, like Red Dead Redemption, LA Noire is an attempt to realise a classic cinematic genre in interactive form. Familiarity is kind of the point.

L.A. Noire gamplay

The world is open to you, but your access to it is more controlled than in a game like Grand Theft Auto, or even Canis Canem Edit. You will drive between locations the vast majority of the time, and you’re free to choose your own route. Occasionally, you’ll get a call for assistance over the radio, which you can choose to pursue or ignore, but I get the impression that these side-pursuits are there as much for authenticity as the need for more gameplay.

LA Noire: The Cops

In 1947, there were a lot of confused young men flooding into America’s major cities. Veterans of World War II were arriving home en masse, some of them trying to continue with their former lives, others deciding to re-evaluate and ring in the changes. LA Noire’s protagonist, Cole Phelps, is one of them, starting work as a patrolman for the LAPD to make a positive contribution to the city. He was awarded the Silver Star for bravery in the Battle of Okinawa but prefers not to discuss it, which pretty much guarantees that his experiences will play a key role in the plot at some point.

L.A. Noire gamplay

The LAPD see Phelps as poster-boy material, and fast-track him through the ranks. The game follows him on this meteoric rise, solving cases on a number of different desks, from Traffic to Vice to Homicide. Each desk introduces a new partner character who can offer advice, threats or sarcastic banter as the situation demands. And for those who would rather not engage in LA Noire’s open city, you can always ask your partner to drive.

LA Noire: The Crime Scene

This is probably a good point to remind everyone that L.A. Noire does feature the driving, shooting and brawling for which Rockstar games are known, but only in relatively small doses. Beyond that, the gameplay is roughly divided into two parts, the first of which is investigating the crime scene.

The case I played was the Silk Stocking Murder, and after a curt debriefing from the irascible Captain Donnelly I was poking around the corpse of a mutilated Hispanic girl. Rockstar makes no attempt to sanitise the experience: the body must be closely examined by grabbing and moving the arms, body and head. The fact that she is naked could be a clue. The nature of the wounds might help profile the killer.

L.A. Noire gamplay

In this case the victim had “Kiss The Blood. BD” scrawled on her stomach in red lipstick, but there are always other items scattered across the surrounding area - some are pertinent to the case, others are red herrings, still others are useless junk. The information gleaned from the crime scene evidence adds notes on people, places and items to Phelps’s notebook, which can be referenced at any time.

Certain leads can be followed up with HQ from phone-booths all over the city - a licence plate, perhaps, or a convict’s name - but most will require Phelps to find and question people who knew the victim, which neatly brings us to the other part of LA Noire’s gameplay.