When we think of triple-A games that focus on story, a few titles probably pop up straight away. Bioware's Mass Effect, maybe. Or the Bioshock franchise by Irrational. Perhaps Naughty Dog's Uncharted series, famed as it is for its well-written dialog and explosive cinematic sequences. But all of the above-mentioned games have one thing in common- despite representing markedly different genres (the RPG, FPS and Action-Adventure respectively), the bulk of their gameplay is still taken up by combat. Few would say that the best aspect of The Last of Us was its fighting, and yet shooting, sneaking around and hiding from enemies forms the vast majority of the game's sixteen-hour length. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, the story of the eponymous group, which takes place in about a dozen main missions of a little over an hour each, is padded out with tens of hours of side activities of the grinding sort. Simply getting from A to B in Inquisition requires one to traipse through zones full to the brim with rifts, random events and combat sequences that feel designed to stall the player for as long as possible. Combat has never been Bioware's forte, but the studio has never made a game in which it does not form the majority of gameplay.
Of course, simply replacing combat with cutscenes is hardly an answer. Early reports pegging non-interactive cutscenes at a little under half of The Order: 1886's playtime led to intense criticism from critics and fans alike. It seems we may have to reckon with more great stories hidden beneath the blubber of repetitive combat mechanics in the future. But we shouldn't have to, because in 2011, Team Bondi's LA Noire demonstrated that combat doesn't have to be the crux of AAA adventure gameplay.
The vast majority of the forty or so hours it takes me to play a full game of LA Noire (the game's fantastic DLC cases included) are taken up by three primary activities- driving, inspecting crime scenes for clues, and interrogating potential suspects, witnesses and victims. Beyond these mainstays there exists a veritable smorgasbord of side activities, and from the odd gun battle (complete with the fantastically accurate vintage guns and their unmistakable sounds), to platforming sequences as Phelps scales the chandelier in the LA County Hall of Records to a thrilling chase through a colossal, rotting husk of a movie set, LA Noire's missions are full of variety. The best thing about this is that it means none of the gameplay sequences last longer than about ten minutes, save, perhaps, for the game's final mission.
LA Noire is fully invested in delivering the fantasy of being a hard-boiled detective in 1940s Los Angeles. Everything about the game, from the radio advertisements that might well be real to the hazy California sunsets every virtual evening, is dedicated to maximising immersion. LA Noire doesn't have the endless minigames and side-missions of other Rockstar titles because the experience it is selling doesn't contain those minigames.
This focus on immersion is further expressed in the construction of the game's Los Angeles itself. Unlike Grand Theft Auto or Mafia II, LA Noire isn't set in a crude facsimile of a real place, twisted and modified and helpfully renamed to suit the requirements of the game's designers or to make the world easier to navigate or to ease the burden on the modellers and artists whose job it is to build the vast, three-dimensional 'sets' in which open world games take place. No, LA Noire is set in a few dozen blocks of 'real' Los Angeles, stretching from just east of Downtown into the northern edge of Hollywood. Every real street, real landmark, real crossing is in there, and any visitor to the City of Angels could rent a car and navigate a not-insignificant chunk of the city with the in-game map. This focus on reconstructing a historical environment as accurately as possible does, of course, come with its own set of restrictions- the scale of the potential workload means the game can never set a mystery in the Hollywood Hills or on the winding roads of the Pacific Palisades or in the ghettoes of Compton or on the Santa Monica pier.
But any benefit lost in not having access to a greater variety of environments is more than made up for by the richness of exploring a place that actually *existed*. Eurogamer's Christian Donlan played through LA Noire with his father, who grew up in the Los Angeles of the 1940s, and the article he wrote about the experience further emphasises the attention to detail Team Bondi put into their game. More recently, Assassin's Creed: Unity is set in a scale-model 18th century Paris, but Ubisoft's craftsmanship is hidden beneath a near-endless array of mission prompts, side objectives, minigames and other distractions. Only when the interface is turned off (an option the publisher has, mercifully, yet to remove from the games) does the city truly shine. In LA Noire, on the other hand, side activities are minimal. They are the game's optional 'street crimes', short cases that involve the occasional shoot-out, chase or brawling sequence, but these serve as background chatter more than anything, strengthening the fantasy that Phelps is not a lone wolf, but rather part of a bigger organisation in a bigger city going about its daily life, with or without our hero.
LA Noire represents what story driven games can be without filler, without compromise. The game's objective is to immerse you in the world of Cole Phelps, into the world of Los Angeles in 1947. Team Bondi had no time for a tennis minigame, or a series of side-quests where Phelps invests in the local taxi business, but the studio's single-minded focus upon achieving the fantasy it set out to build led to the construction of one of the defining games of the last generation- an unparalleled period piece in the history of interactive entertainment. With Team Bondi now sadly defunct and studio head Brendan McNamara's next project in financial quagmire, it may well stand as a unique moment in the story of modern video games- the point at which the triple-A adventure game was, but for an instant, resurrected, before vanishing once again into the nether.