Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Open up your world and expectations will follow

It’s been some time since Mafia 2 has been released (end of august) and I absolutely loved it. But being a regular reader of various game blogs and EDGE magazine I was confronted with a variety of reviews that where disappointing.

Before I go any further let me make it clear, in no way are reviews affecting my own opinions about games. In most cases I’ll be able to pick up on some games that passed my radar unnoticed or inform me on some extra background information and mechanics that I hadn’t picked up on before.

Sometimes I agree, sometimes I strongly disagree. For example, EDGE lost some credibility with me when they rated Bayonetta a 10 out of 10. This, as far as I can remember, was the first time since I started reading it 2 years ago. There were some absolutely great games released in the past years that all scored lower. I’m not saying Bayonetta is a bad game but it’s certainly not the best game released in the past 2 years! The review score gave me the impression the reviewer just had a massive nerdgasm looking at the protagonist (some special attacks make her clothes come off.. really..). Anyway, I take the reviews with a grain of salt and will always try to get some time with the game before I form my opinion on it.

Coming back to my starting point about the Mafia 2 reviews, sometimes it’s not so much the final score that feels off but the actual words in the review leading up to it. With a metacritic score of 74 (out of 100) for the Xbox, 77 for the PC and 75 for the PS3 the scores seem pretty solid but in reading the actual reviews and user comments on various blogs and sites there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about what Mafia 2 is trying to do as a game.

Mafia 2 is an “open-world” game, one without artificial barriers in which the player is allowed to walk around free. The open-world in this case refers to Empire bay, the city in which main protagonist Vito Scaletta’s story is played out. There’s an important difference between the term open-world and sandbox. Both are often used interchangeably but are not the same thing. Although sandbox games are also most of the times open-world, open-world games aren’t always sandbox games.

The term sandbox refers to the gameplay options and possibilities offered to a player in an open-world game. It’s best comparable with a real sandbox filled with lots of options for the children to play with eg. scoops, buckets etc. The amount of options allows the player to play around with them and to do whatever they feel like. Probably the best known sandbox games are the GTA series which are filled with a lot of diverse, fun and crazy stuff the player can do.

And it’s at this point people are starting to get confused. They confuse a game like Mafia 2 with games like GTA. In all fairness Mafia 2 has a lot less options in its open-world and because of this it has been said the world is useless, empty, boring and what not. One of the things that made Mafia 2 very enjoyable to me seems to be putting others off. So what is the added value of the open-world that is Empire Bay?

It does not have the added gameplay options of a sandbox game but to me it offers a strong feeling of immersion into the time period, the world; and with that, the story of Vito. It does a great job of making you experience the story instead of simply telling you the story.

If you look at a game like Uncharted (which I absolutely love) I think Mafia 2 has some things in common. Even if uncharted doesn’t have an open world but does have a tighter path and narrative structure, story wise it takes the player on a rollercoaster ride filled with cinematic action comparable with the best action/adventure movies out there. One could say Mafia 2 does the same thing; it delivers the experience of being in a mafia movie. So why doesn’t it follow the same straight level structure as Uncharted?

The pacing and tempo of a mafia story is very different from an action packed action/adventure. It makes use of the charm of the time-period. Of the wise-guy dialog.
And a lot of the tension in the movies is in the parts where no shooting is even involved. Mafia has an open world which gives you the option to role play in the most basic form; playing the role of a mob member in a living world. Change into a different suit, eat a sandwich and drive around listening to the radio. It doesn’t motivate player actions that are incongruent with the story being told. In fact the feeling of freedom further pulls the player into the world and Empire Bay, following one of the basic principles of writing for crime stories in which the city is just as important a character as the living cast members.

The player actions mentioned earlier also have gameplay benefits; changing clothes will make it harder for the police to spot you, eating a sandwich will restore health and listening to the radio will give the player more information about the city and the gameworld, even reflect on some of the player’s recent actions. These elements further expand the player options beyond jump, run, climb, punch and shoot. These options also expand the role playing element of the game and allow you to stay in the character of Vito Scaletta.

Because Mafia 2 offers an open world a lot of players expected extra side-missions and although there are some options for making an extra buck and pimping out your rides. It sticks closely to the story it wants to tell. That of a well written, although filled with cliché, mafia story. And to be honest, the cliché doesn’t bother me at all. Looking back at some of my favorite mafia flicks it’s exactly those things I want and expect to experience when playing a game like Mafia. What would happen to the delivery of Mafia’s story would it have been a real GTA style game?

Personally I think GTA’s story impact is strongest when the player ignores a lot of the side options and follows the main missions. While all the extra stuff available is a lot of fun, it does not add anything to the story of the game and even creates a gap between the main character as portrayed in the main story and the character acted out by the player.

So one could ask; If you want to tell a very specific story and make the player feel like he’s part of a big mafia flick. What’s the added value of extra side missions if they will only break the pacing of the story being told and allow for player actions that would go against the character of Vito Scaletta?

The game reminds you that you should behave in public, enforcing the style of play through the world around you. For example: Joe comments on your reckless driving. Acting like a homicidal maniac around town is not really what being a mobster is about, petty theft and crimes against the public are below your standards; your business is not with them.

The game doesn’t go as far as prohibiting these kinds of actions but there are no rewards or benefits for killing civilians. (Although I must admit punishing some AI driver, who just drove into my freshly painted and tuned car, with death felt really good at that moment). While in GTA4 killing a civilian will provide money or even the occasional weapon or ammo.

I’m not saying one game is better than the other for it because both games are unique in their own way. Therefore I think comparing the two any further would be useless. Both games tell a story and both choose a different path to do so. Both offer a different game experience. So in the end it comes down to personal preference and you are free to pick what you want.

In the DLC package called Jimmy’s Vendetta the player is given a free roaming/sandbox experience playing as Jimmy. Players are rewarded points in an arcade style of play for driving fast, pulling stunts while driving and killing people. It further expands the options for fun to be had in Empire Bay, making it a more well-rounded experience. Whether 2K had this planned all along or succumbed to the responses and reviews I don’t know. I think keeping these two experiences separate was the best choice they could have made. I’m all for expanding the gameplay options but I’m very happy they left the experience of Vito’s story untouched.

Mafia 2 (Jimmy’s Vendetta excluded) offers not a sandbox to play in but an open world to experience. Even though it doesn’t provide with all the extra toys given in a game like GTA, to say it’s just empty would be shortsighted. It feels more alive than ever and the best part is; it stays in character.

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