I was interested in LA Noir and it’s face mapping technology ever since I heard about it. From what I have seen in the trailers and previews, the game seems to have made a serious attempt to break out of the uncanny valley. It doesn’t seem to be fully out yet, but it seems like it’s eye stalks are already sticking out of the valley, and it is dangerously close to pulling itself out of it. We seem to have entered the land of diminishing returns when it comes to improvements on shaders, bling mappers and whachumacalits that make game worlds look pretty and realistic, and game makers are looking for new areas where they could innovate. While I honestly couldn’t care less about how awesome the shadows or water effects are in my game, making better real-time rendered faces is actually something I could get behind. It adds to the experience far more than simple graphical improvements. Also, the game is about investigating crimes, solving mysteries and interviewing people rather than mindless shooting which sounds right up my alley.
Unfortunately, there is currently no PC version of the game. We might see one come out later this year, but I was unable to find a specific date. It is a disturbing trend to say the least. So, since I could not play LA Noir I decided to pick up the next best thing: Mafia 2. It’s a game with no interactive dialogue that is all about mindless shooting… So, pretty much exactly opposite of what I wanted, but hey – at least it is set in a similar time period (or thereabouts).
From what I heard around the internets, Mafia 2 got a lot of flack for not being a free roaming sandbox, but it actually never meant to be one. Just like it’s predecessor it has an open world game play, but if you choose to ignore the main storyline and objectives there is scarcely little else to do. There are clothing stores scattered throughout the city where you can buy palette swaps of the same four basic outfits (in the end I opted for a yellow suit and fedora à la Dick Tracy), diners and restaurants where you can purchase health buffs, gun shops, gas stations and car mechanics. You can hold all of them up and steal their cash, or you can steal cars and sell them at the junk yard for profit. Sadly, there is not much you can do with your funds. Once you find an outfit you like, realize that there is always free food in your house, and that you will pick up more weapons and ammo in the story missions that you should ever be allowed to carry the only other thing that is left are car upgrades (such as color swaps, tuning up the engine, vanity plates, rims, etc..). There are no side missions or other diversions, save for a scavenger hunt mini game that has you collecting playboy magazine spreads and few pointless achievements. If you buy this game expecting a GTA style sandbox, you will probably be disappointed.
Mafia keeps you on rails most of the time. Or rather it lays down the rails, and just patiently waits for you to get bored with open world exploration and follow them. It never really feels like you are on rails because you are free to roam around, steal cars and try to do stunt jumps whenever you want. But there is always a direct objective and/or goal you are working towards. Every chapter starts with you getting a phone call or a message to meet someone somewhere, or your character simply narrates that days goal for you. So you never really have time to realize how empty and underutilized the game world really is. You just breeze through it, and it feels expansive, vibrant and alive. It’s only when you decide to blow off your mission and just fuck around that the boredom creeps in. And then you are off, doing interesting plot driven stuff again.
And you know what? There is actually nothing wrong with that. I feel that in this game the open world mechanic is just a bonus rather than a main feature. It helps to hide the rails of the unforgiving plot, and gives you an illusion of freedom. The game is completely linear, but it does not feel like it because of the free roaming you are allowed in between the gun play centric missions and non-interactive cut scenes. It lets you enjoy the set piece elements at your own pace and fuck around in the open world if you feel like it. It works.
The story, while nowhere near spectacular is serviceable. It is a standard “rise and fall” mob tale, very cliché and by the numbers. You start small, and work your way up the ranks, someone turns out to be an informer, someone betrays you, big deal goes bad, people die, shit hits the fan, etc.. It’s pretty much exactly what I expected. I liked the tutorial level which you are an American soldier fighting fascists in Italy. It works fine as an introduction to the combat mechanics, but at the same time establishes why your character has such an ambivalent attitude towards extreme physical violence. Later in the game you don’t feel like a total sociopath when the mobsters tell you to “whack a guy” for the first time.
There is also a rather powerful prison level in which they make you do that whole slow walk of shame. I’m sure you have seen this in a dozen movies – the guards line up the fresh arrivals as the get of the bus and have them slowly walk into the “admissions building” while the inmates hoot and holler like animals on the other side of a chain link fence. I know it is cliché but it still freaks me out most of the time. Mafia 2 implemented it masterfully to the point I was actually a bit scared and concerned for my character. Of course it proceeded to ruin all this hard won immersion by placing an inmate quoting “All Your Base” in the prison courtyard.
Here is a tip 2K games: Easter egg jokes are cool, as long as they don’t break immersion. Having a guy scream “they have set us up the bomb” right after a really well executed and nerve wracking scene is a really bad choice. It breaks immersion, and takes you out of the game. The ironic radio broadcasts espousing the health benefits of smoking cigarettes, or talking about the silly answering machine invention that probably won’t catch on were great. They added flavor to the story. Anachronisms – especially internet memes usually don’t work in period games, especially if you play them straight and avoid other wacky humor.
The story fizzles out a bit in the third act. In fact, there is a moment very near the ending of the game when the rails fall of completely and game simply tells you to fuck around and earn money via robbery and grand theft auto in the open world. As you could expect this is the weakest, and easily the most boring part. It takes a long time to gather the required sum (unless you abuse the shit of the car that always re-spawns in junkyard when you leave it) and of course you cannot save at any point because the game uses checkpoints. I will rant about that in just a second. My point is that when they game ought to be building up to a explosive climax with an escalating action driven crescendo it decides to have an intermission and let you fuck around on your own. To add insult to the injury there are no major plot twists, heel face turns or edge of the seat moments in the third act. They build up the tension with a big deal gone bad, then there is an intermission, then couple more random jobs, and a big showdown at the end. It’s a bit disappointing, but then again I have seen worse.
Now, lets go back to checkpoints. I hate to harp on this in just about every video game review, but checkpoints suck a baboons ass. Seriously game makers, why won’t you let me decide when is a good time to stop playing. I mean, I bought this game, right? Why can’t I enjoy it at my pace? It is not some competition, I’m not playing it for bragging rights or monetary prizes. I’m actually playing this for fun. And yet, here you are, denying me the ability to stop the game in a middle of a mission, and forcing me to start the entire chapter from the very beginning if I made a mistake.
Hell, I had to replay Chapter 11 about 7 times because you made a mistake. Yes, you read it right. You, 2K Games made a mistake not me. You see, I managed to find a game breaking bug. Around the middle of the mission, when you go to see your friend Joe, there is a “plot door” in his apartment. There is no way to open it – you have to wait for Joe to finish his phone call, and then he will take you through them. In my case this did not happen. Joe would just stubbornly try to phase through the doorway like he was Patrick Swayze in ghost, while the game logic pushed him back, ending up in a bizarre in-place moonwalk jiggle. Since there is no other exit from the room, I was stuck gawking in horror the game AI failing miserably to account for the unexpected glitch.
I eventually figured out that the secret was not to look at Joe at all while he was on the phone. I guess maybe he was shy and couldn’t open the plot door while I was looking at him. The point is that I and eventually managed to get out of that damned room. But not without restarting the 15 minute mission several times in a row. I was so annoyed that I was about ready to give up and write off Mafia 2 as “too buggy to finish” and that’s something. I have a pretty high tolerance for that sort of thing. After all, I have finished both Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas which were minefields of bugs and would constantly crash to desktop for me. Then again, these games had quick saves.
The moral of this story is that a quick save feature can greatly diminish the annoyance caused by bugs. You never know when a complete show-stopping glitch may crop up, and if it is right before a checkpoint it will piss people off quite a bit. If I have replay the same mission over and over again because I keep dying in the same spot, that’s my fault. It also could be bad level design but whatever – I can live with that. If I have to replay the same content a dozen times because a bug, then that’s a deal breaker.
Also, you should not use plot doors. They are the worst.
In summary, Mafia 2 is a decent game. I actually enjoyed the story, though I admit it was a little cliché and had a somewhat weak third act and the game play was actually exactly what I expected having played and enjoyed the first installment of the series. I picked it up at a Steam Sale at a heavily discounted price and I’d say it was a bargain. It’s probably not the greatest game out there, but I got about 20 odd hours (at least according to Steam) of solid entertainment from it so I’d say it was worth it.