The Godfather is one of the greatest movies ever made.
From the story, to the casting, to the technical details, it manages to get nearly everything right. But it is more than that. Far from being a great telling of a story on film, it uses the medium to perfection. The piece is neatly framed between the two religious celebrations; the wedding and the christening.
It is also a practically unparalleled cultural phenomenon. It redefined the “gangster” cinema genre. No longer do we expect the exaggerated, one-dimensional villains played a la James Cagney. Instead, our mobsters are the deep, complex characters that, yes, they are criminals but they are also the heroes and protagonists of our stories.
Since then, any Mafia-related movie takes place in the shadow of Coppola’s work. We “know” how the mobsters of the 40s and 50s behave, because we’ve seen the film (and its sequels). It provides an implicit backstory to any new characters that are created.
Mafia II (Spoilers included, no extra charge)
The game Mafia II starts using some similar hooks, but is clearly not going to be a simple retelling. The main character (your character) is caught in the course of a minor robbery. Rather than serve jail time, he agrees to go into the Army to fight the fascists in Europe.
Similarities to the back story in my earlier article are present, perhaps because of the automatic game-goodness that comes with including some World War II combat in a game. Unlike L.A. Noire (and Hot Springs, for that matter), our character is not a hero (flawed or otherwise) returning victorious in the war against Japan, but a flawed-or-otherwise-hero* dodging future service in Europe. The war service seems to serve main three functions. First, it allows the introduction of the game world to the main character because, well, we’ve been away at war and missed out what’s been happening. Second, a gratuitous MG 42 level, a la Medal of Honor, can be included. Third, and rather weakly, our character is saved from certain death in Sicily at the hands of Mussolini’s soldiers by the local mafia Don, who convinces the Italians to surrender. Thus, we come to understand the power of La Cosa Nostra.
Returning from the war, the game begins a sequence taking place in the fictional city of Empire Bay (very similar to New York) in the final months of the second world war. The Mafia II begins taking place a few years before L.A. Noire. However, the majority of the story actually occurs in 1951 during the Korean War (which takes place via radio news reports within the game).
L.A. Noire and Mafia II were released within a month of each other. They are also broadly classified within the same action/adventure genre, in the style of Grand Theft Auto and its sequels. However, whereas L.A. Noire (as I discuss in my article) actually draws heavily from the puzzle/adventure style of games, Mafia II is a more straight up drive/fight/shoot game. Given the similarities, some compare and contrast is surely in order.
In terms of resource use, Mafia II seems to make better designed in terms of system resources. The facial expression modelling aside, Mafia II is probably the more visually impressive game, but runs with less apparent stress on the system. The games are similar. Fairly realistic, 3D characters in a fully-explorable city – what is sometimes referred to as the “roaming” genre. The fairly realistic Los Angeles/Hollywood of L.A. Noire is considerably bigger than the faux-New York of Mafia II. Whether this is an advantage is limited by the difference in game-play. In Mafia II, one could spend significant time earning money/cars, etc. throughout the city. In L.A. Noire, there doesn’t seem to be much point (a few minigames aside) from deviating too far from the script. In fact, the long driving distances sometimes got a little tedious, factoring in the sometimes-long waits a stoplights. (I did say fairly-realistic version of Los Angeles!)
I often make the comparison with Grand Theft Auto, although my own experience with that series is limited. Years ago, I had a copy of “Vice City” (faux-Miami) which I played for a while. In that game, I was far more interested in simply driving around, stealing cars and interacting free-form with the game rather than following the scripted missions (which were often leaned too much toward the puzzle). Mafia II seems to be designed for that kind of gameplay (includes mods that enhance the experience), but in this case I find myself playing strictly by the scripted story. In fact, it is even sometimes surprising when some of the GTA-style mechanics (changing clothes stops police pursuit) pop-up in the middle of an immersive story.
Suprisingly, the story itself seems more engaging in Mafia II. I would have expected that L.A. Noire, being more story dependent, would have won this contest. But its the Mafia II story that draw me in better. Also, unexpectedly, the Mafia II story seems to be more linear. It is also more dependent on the in-between-action-sequence cut scenes. By contrast, the “dialog tree” feature in L. A. Noire allowed the story to advance with more direct player interaction.
Driving, again, is a major feature of Mafia II. Again I am using the steering wheel. In this case, the wheel is not supported out of the box. Instead, I found some XBox emulator software that interfaces a variety of controllers for a broad array of games. This solution works great, and almost “out of the box.” After installation, I had to do a little fiddling to get the pedals mapped, rather than the hand-held controller buttons.
That done, the driving experience is easily better in Mafia II relative to L.A. Noire. Overall, the wheel and pedals feel far more natural. In addition, different effects are added to the driving experience. Initially, the driving takes place in the winter on ice and snow. Sliding and spinning are included, of course, but so is the rotation effect that happens when you gun an rear-wheel drive vehicle on an icy road.
Other details are modeled. There is a noticeable difference when driving on cobblestone versus pavement, for example. In the more powerful 50s cars, the effects of a manual shift are built into the “feel” of the driving, even though you are not required to actually shift yourself. One example – when starting off going uphill, you initially slide back a little bit before the clutch engages. I wonder how many younger drivers, never having actually driven a manual, wouldn’t understand why this is happening? The different makes of car are noticeably different in their models. Better cars aren’t just faster and more controllable – they actually feel different. A truck has to be driven quite differently from a sedan which is different from a sports car.
Another area where Mafia II outshines L.A. Noire is in the combat part of the action. First of all both shooting and punching is a little less wonky. In L.A. Noire, I frequently found myself unable to do what I wanted when hand-to-hand fighting, and having a terrible time aiming with the gun. Mafia II responds much more naturally. Further more, the degree of the modelling is much more in line with what is expected from big-budget action games. Punching combos are included, to add some “strategy” to the fistfights. Shooting includes a modeling of the inaccuracy of follow-up shots and the total inaccuracy of automatic fire after the first round. Clearly Mafia II emphasized the action end of things, where L.A. Noire was pushing the puzzle end.
Unfortunately for L.A. Noire’s scorecard, even in the depiction of the characters and social environment, Mafia II has the edge in a number of areas. I’ll admit that in some cases that facial expression modeling in L.A. Noire seems a lot more realistic. But for the most part, modeling of the “ambient” environment is probably a little more believable in Mafia II. One example that struck me was while I was driving down the street in a snowstorm, and passed someone shoveling snow onto the street. It just seemed like such a natural detail to include.
It is also worth mentioning, although I won’t dwell on it here, that as another console port, it also has the same issues (and same mitigations) relative to the mouse. The game does not use the system mouse configuration, which is a pain. It does allow reconfiguration of all of the “buttons,” which include the fighting functions programed into the mouse buttons.
Can we get back to Korea?
Lastly, much like L.A. Noire before it, I put this game into my rotation at this place because it does take place (at least about 2/3rd to 3/4s of it) during the Korean War. In another neat little feature that stands out, the radio news has time-period appropriate news items on it, mixed in with local news perhaps related to your own play. In 1945, this includes news of the end of the Second World War in both Europe and Japan. In 1951, this includes reports of the fighting in Korea.
It’s a neat touch that nicely puts me in the mood to cycle back to Korea War gaming in one of my next posts.
*At some point in the story, the hero mentions that he earned a Purple Heart (obviously, he is back in the States due to a war wound) and a Distinguished Service Cross. Strangely, the backstory for what might have earned him such a significant award is not included, nor evident from the gameplay that is included. The character is cast much more as a reluctant conscript rather than a hero.