LA Noire pulls no punches. Within seconds of grabbing the controller for a first crack at Rockstar's 1940s detective title, we're on the scene of a vicious murder. A naked and mutilated young woman is sprawled out in an alleyway, cryptic messages daubed across her body in lipstick and a livid red line around her throat giving clear proof she has been strangled.

In pictures: LA Noire screenshots

It's an arresting opening to a case we play through in its entirety: The Case of the Silk Stocking. It also gives a hint of how different LA Noire will be from other Rockstar sandbox games. While ultra-violence is part of everyday life in the Grand Theft Auto universe (and, to an extent, in Red Dead Redemption), in LA Noire any killing is a shock. You won't spend a lot of time with your gun drawn; here you'll need to use your head more often than your weapon.

We'd call it cerebral, if that didn't make it sound deathly dull. But LA Noire is 'thinky' in a way that draws you in and focuses you on sussing criminals out rather than gunning them down. Good old fashioned police work is the order of the day; plenty of shoe leather and lots of questions. The phrase that keeps popping into our mind is 'point and click'. Console gamers don't get much in the way of point and click adventures any more, but LA Noire takes many cues from this neglected genre.

LA Noire screenshot(Rockstar)

That much is clear from the case that we play through. Your character is Cole Phelps, a decorated war hero who's joined the LA police force. Phelps starts his/your career as a beat cop, before working the Traffic department and then making the leap to a top job in the Homicide department. We're told Phelps' career will eventually progress beyond that, through to less-coveted positions in Vice and Arson, hinting at some kind of notable story twist.

Case work
The case we're dropped into comes about halfway through the game, while Phelps is still working Homicide. A string of murders have taken place around LA, all bearing the hallmarks of the Black Dahlia killer. While his colleagues believe these are the work of mere copycats, Phelps doesn't feel the evidence they've pinned on suspects stacks up.

And so to business. Having examined the body, we get started by combing the area for evidence. We know there are clues to be found, because the game strikes up some suitably arch background music. Wander close to a clue and a jingling sound plays. We're not sure real-life rozzers get this kind of helping hand, but it's welcome here to prevent hours of aimless searching.

LA Noire screenshot(Rockstar)

If you're in a hurry you can use Intuition Points, which offer a way for the player to make tricky sections easier, should they wish. Points are earned during the game and can be used to reveal the location of all clues, or to remove a wrong response from interrogations.

Clue-hunting will form a key part of each case you investigate. A button press picks up what you've found, the analogue sticks turn it in your hands so you can take a closer look or solve the simple puzzle it presents. Each clue gets jotted down in Phelps' notebook: a central hub which stores all the information about a case. You'll come back to these notes all the time, particularly when questioning people.

Getting deeper
It soon becomes clear there is a lot to find. A blood trail leads us onwards; through a parking lot and up a fire escape onto the top of a building. At every turn, we find another pointer towards the victim's identity. There's so much around that it brings to mind that Colin Farrell scene in Minority Report.

Danny Witwer: This is what we call an orgy of evidence. You know how many orgies I had as a homicide cop?
Officer Fletcher: How many?
Danny Witwer: None. [pause] This was all arranged.

This definitely feels arranged; it seems the killer wants the victim to be identified. Indeed, we've soon found enough information to get a name for the victim (Antonia Maldonado) and the address of a boarding house where she had been staying. Time to have a chat with the landlady...

LA Noire screenshot(Rockstar)

Driving to the boarding house provides us with a decent look at the game's open world, a magnificent and faithful recreation of 40s-era Los Angeles. Jump into your car (or commandeer one from a civilian) and you can drive anywhere you want. There are bonuses available for finding landmarks, enabling you to unlock improved abilities for your character.

But the game is linear at heart and unashamedly so. The point of getting in a car is ultimately to get quickly from A to B and on to the next stage of the story. We drive away, bouncing off several cars as we get used to our vehicle's handling. Phelps' partner comments sarcastically that we might want to put the siren on to get them out of the way; we take his advice.

Let's talk
On reaching the boarding house, we introduce ourselves and head up to the victim's room for more clue hunting. There's evidence of a break-in and it looks like the place has been turned over, so we head back downstairs for a little chat.

Questioning suspects and witnesses is at the heart of LA Noire. The much-trumpeted MotionScan technology puts near-photo-realistic faces on each character, enabling you to read how your questions affect them. You can choose to coax, badger or flat-out threaten people based on your hunches and the evidence you've found.

Asking the right questions will open up branching paths, asking the wrong ones will make your job harder (though never impossible). We choose to persist with a hunch that the landlady knew something about our victim's movements and are rewarded with the name of a bar we can check out.

The victim's marital home is also mentioned, and so we head there next. The husband isn't pleased to see us, and a fistfight ensues. The fighting mechanic is something Rockstar is still working on - at the moment it feels somewhat incidental and will need to be more visceral to makes its inclusion worthwhile.

Anyway, action doesn't dominate LA Noire. For the most part, the gameplay through this hour-long case is a mixture of clue-hunting, questioning and story progression.

LA Noire screenshot(Rockstar)

We ultimately find our way to Clem, a fruit seller and part-time moonshine salesman who also turns out to have a back room filled with bloodied weapons and Antonia's personal effects. It's another orgy of evidence and, though Clem tries to escape, forcing us to run his vehicle off the road and arrest him, there is still a feeling that this case isn't really over.

LA Noire is spectacular, both in looks and scope. Your first 10 minutes in the game will be spent in slack-jawed appreciation of its stunning visuals. Then you'll forget about that as you're swept into a game world full of clever storytelling, believable characters and stimulating gameplay.

The game's challenge will be to fully integrate the action elements for which Rockstar is renowned with the more thoughtful gameplay on which the title is based. Should it succeed, we'll be looking at something very special.

LA Noire is out on 20 May for X360 and PS3

LA Noire screenshots