The Empty City – And Other Tragic Stories

Posted on 15/03/2011

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A beauty to behold, but shallow and empty beyond the stunning looks.

Initially, my reactions to the incredibly detailed rendition of 1940s and 50s America in Mafia II was overwhelmingly good. The game world of Empire Bay – the ersatz New York City – is stunningly beautiful to behold, the amount of little details worked into it astounding, the vistas breathtaking. The overall sense of place and sense of sheer scale of the city matched and surpassed even that of GTA IV’s Liberty City, which surely is no easy thing to do.
Empire Bay’s scale and size just felt more real and immediate, less like the image of a city shrunk to fit the sandbox playground better.

But after awhile of playing the game, the jarring flaws start to seep through the pretty canvas. First of all, the AI controlling the other cars in the game is horribly bad in reacting to the presence of a car that’s not part of it’s hive mind. Accident free driving is almost impossible, since all other drivers act like the player’s car either does not exist or as if the traffic regulations don’t apply when dealing with a not-AI controlled car. It’s a bit like the player is an unwelcome guest driving around in a grumpy old man’s model train set. This combined with a still pretty anal police AI that is quick to stop the player when witnessing a car crash, can easily lead to a lot of missions failing.

The missions themselves also are an exercise in flawed design and incredibly heavy in ludonarrative dissonance. The first non-tutorial mission involving shooting (or rather, the first mission where the player HAS to shoot at virtual people) forces the player to take down several pursuing police officers. Which, to anyone who’s followed recent Mafia themed fiction, is one of the big no-nos and usually a very big deal. Not so in this game. Shooting down cops is no big deal.
The following chase down a busy city street shows the police AI taking severe liberties in going after the player, shooting at full auto into a crowd of people.

In a game that’s obviously satirical like GTA or Saint’s Row this wouldn’t matter. The police in these games are cartoonishly incompetent to begin with, so them behaving like evil/stupid cartoon cops isn’t that big of a deal. Mafia II lends itself the air of a much more serious crime drama, so the police behaving that way seems strangely out of line. The player being forced into being a cop killer early on is a similar narrative breaker.
Things get worse of course. Only a few missions down the line the player is faced with a gang of misbehaving juveniles, who appear to be armed to the very teeth and utterly unshaken by a bunch of similarly outfitted mobsters who start gunning down their buddies.
This shooting gallery of a mission ends with a gang genocide of epic proportions, but it’s not a big deal of course. The current mob boss will “not like it”, but other than a line dropped in the end of mission cutscene, there are no further consequences to going genocide on the leather jacket wearing youngsters.

Sadly there is nothing else to do in the really outstandingly pretty and well realized game world. Driving is only fun as long as no other cars are involved (=rarely), the missions are dull at best and most of the time horribly frustrating since Mafia II pretends the latest GTA installments didn’t happen when it comes to checkpoints (and other things), throwing the player back to the start of any given mission most of the time. There is no such thing as sidequests, so all that remains of the game is a surprisingly un-fun 1950s themed model train set. A lovingly crafted and detailed one, but as model train playsets are, it remains utterly devoid of life and just too limited in interaction for a game released in 2010.
Which is a real shame, since the first Mafia game still ranks amongst my favorite “open world” games of all times.

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