19 August 2010

Ah-oogah Ah-oogah: Old Time Cars Coming Through, Sonny!

So Mafia II is mere days away from completely turning the game world upside down with its GTA IV gameplay and Heavy Rain-caliber cutscenes.

Or, so 2K hopes.

Is it great? Is it terrible? Am I even playing it? Forgive my coyness, but 2K has issued a blanket, industry-wide gag order. Anyone who is actually playing the game--and, presumably, many writers are--isn't allowed to even Tweet that they are playing the game. Or else unholy 2K-style hell shall rain down upon them.

So, in the name of keeping the hell-rain at bay, I'll cop to playing the Mafia II demo, which is freely available on XBL and PSN. Go download it, if you haven't already.

My main qualm with the Mafia II demo is the handling of the old-time cars. I realize that this is a period piece set in the late '40s and '50s. I realize that a great many talented people were paid a great deal of money to create a hyper-detailed version of a '40s-'50s era metropolis. Everything in the game, from the wardrobe to the fonts on the street signs, feels considered and crafted. The result: a credible, convincing, and totally impressive gameplay world that can only be navigated in two ways: on foot, or in one of the game's incredibly heavy, lumbering, slow-moving Happy Days-like cars.

The few cars that I've driven so far in the demo are slow to accelerate. How slow exactly? This is how slow: I could boil an egg in the time it takes for my car to achieve top speed. And once I did achieve full speed, it's not uncommon to see NPC's on the sidewalks out-pacing me.

And forget about stopping. Hit the brakes now, and you'll likely come to a stop several, skid-marked blocks beyond your intended destination.

Turning is another adventure unto itself. Most cars in the game feature wider turning radii than a three-wheeled shopping cart.

All of which is to say that driving around Empire City--at least from what I've seen in the demo--is a stop-and-go, ass-pain-ish chore. Is it authentic? Oh, yes. It is true to the period? Oh, absolutely. But is it fun to drive around a car that feels like a 4,000 pound steel box that handles like its wheels are made out of old banana peels?

It is not.

This is the same problem I had with Pandemic's The Saboteur. Yes, eventually I was able to access better, slicker rides later in the game--presumably this will also be the case with Mafia II (I wouldn't know because I AM ONLY PLAYING THE DEMO)--but The Saboteur's first third forced me to navigate Nazi-occupied Paris in a rooty-toot-toot, 23-skiddoo, ah-oogah, ah-oogah, old-time car. I didn't feel like a professional race-car driver on the cusp of turning into a James Bond-ian spy. Instead, I felt like I was auditioning for a roll in a remake of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Was it fun?

It was not.

Maybe part of the problem is that I could not give one shit about cars. I remember, in high school, friends of mine poring over car magazines, studying the glossy pictures of Corvettes and shit. I didn't get it. I still don't. A few weeks ago, when I was on the East Coast visiting my family, we went for a walk after dinner one night in Sylvan Beach, New York, and stumbled across an old-time car show. Hoods were popped open on all these roadsters, with men gathered around, peering into their dark workings.

I honestly can't imagine a more dull scene than this one.

And whenever a wealthy colleague of mine, or someone in the business, purchases an expensive car--cough, cough, Cliffy B., cough--my response is always the same: "You dope." Blame it on the fact that I haven't actually owned a car in nearly 15 years now--the New York subway worked fine; and in Vancouver, I can walk everywhere--but purchasing something that, as soon as you drive it off the lot depreciates in value nearly 50-percent, does not sound like a wise investment to me.

Man, I'm all for period pieces, and realism, and verisimilitude in videogames. But I'm against all of these things--100-percent, across the board against these things--if they come at the expense of gameplay. This is a fiction, people. Poetic license and creative liberties are not only O.K. in videogames; they're encouraged. They're absolutely essential to creating a compelling entertainment.

So, in Mafia III, please let me drive it like I stole it. Because, most of the time, in Mafia II, even though I did actually steal it, I'm driving it like I'm taking my grandmother to her podiatrist.

NOTE: In the name of full disclosure, the premise for this post was born out of a very pleasant phone conversation that I had with my colleague John Teti. SO THERE'S YOUR POUND OF FLESH, JOHN. WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT, MAN??????


  1. I have made the same complaints about the demo. If driving is a major part of this gaming pie then i'll have me some cake. Scratch that - a gin and tonic.

  2. I felt the same way with The Saboteur; however, I was hoping that was just shoddy design or the release of the game and closing of the studio before the game was officially ready for release. I felt the turning issues with the demo of Mafia 2; however, I am hoping the period-piece escapism makes up for it.