Ha ha! Game over, DORK!
Oh man. I was just blown away really. When I bought it, I had serious fears that it won't run at all, since I only have a 750Mhz computer with 128Mb RAM and Voodoo3 card (which doesn't pull GTA3, for one, which is why I can't compare this game to that one very well) - but it did run, and I fell worshipfully down before the beauty of it. As far as I'm concerned, this game has set the standard for mafia/cops and robbers games that the releases of the next few years will have to measure up to. And point 1 of that standard is this: COVER EVERYTHING. Every single thing from all those crime and mafia movies that you've played out in your childhood with model cars and toy soldiers with fat plasticine cheeks sticked on (each to his own) - you get to do it LIVE, in glorious Technicolor, 3d and all beautifully designed, from the laundry drying in the yard to the lead characters' remarkably done faces.
Let's see if they've missed something: a Tarantino-style break-in in a mansion full of armed bandits holding your wounded mafioso-mate hostage (complete with a gangster coming out of the toilet), check, shooting it out with the police on the rooftops and fire-escapes, check, shoot-outs in the church while hiding behind an altar (!), check, a massacre of policemen trying to escort a valuable witness onto an airplane, check, a shootout in a multi-story car-park, check, protecting the Don in an ambush as you're hiding behind an upturned table in a restaurant with a battalion of hoods firing at you from the street, check, massive shoot-outs in the docks among ships, trains and cranes with bandits on top, check, assasinating important people in public, check, sniping off politicians giving speeches from an abandoned prison tower half-a-mile away, check, a massacre in the city museum, check, and of course car chases galore - fleeing, chasing, drive-by shooting, taking it out at chasing cars with a tommy gun from the back of a truck, shooting down an airplane taking off - check, check, check, check. Oh yeah, and a bank-job too, of course.
In short, it's all here. And they've done it with style. No budget cuts here - beside your basic huge GTA3-style city, beautifully done locations include a church under repair, a five-story brothel, MASSIVE docks, an airport, country roads (seems it's always autumn in the country), a bank, a cruise ship, an abandoned jail-house, a restaurant, a bar, a huge museum, an apartment block, a rich villa with a surrounding park, a road-side motel and a realistically done 1930's racing track. And the level design is intense, unpredictable and action-filled, tying in plot elements and using the locations excellently. For example, you're meeting somebody who has some booze to sell: dark night, lightning, storm, a broken door creaking, a bunch of farmhouses on a lonely road miles from anywhere and these guys want you to go there alone to check out "why no-one's here yet" (make a wild guess); suffice to say that at the end of this one you're on the top story of one of those barns, with a mafioso mate bleeding to death on the floor next to you, and you shooting through the window at a bunch of cops outside.
The essence of the game is the heart-breakingly beautiful changes of pace from the excitement of a wild chase (though you better make sure you have a faster computer than I do to enjoy it all properly) to the cliff-hangers that are most of the shoot-outs. Forget your Quakes and Jedi Knights and Half-lives: in this game, you can't charge into a room and just shoot a bunch of people dead - in this game, the bunch of people shoot YOU dead before you manage two steps inside. Basic survival tips for you FPS-type people: 1. crouch; 2. hide behind objects (preferably ones that don't blow up); 3. wait until the enemy reloads, pop up, let him have it; 4. shoot in the head; 5. keep the distance - people with shotguns and sawed-offs will blow you away with one shot if you come close enough; 6. watch your back, watch every tower, crane or upper-story window, and expect surprises. The level design is tricky to say the least and the AI is devious - people will move about and surround you; one moment they'll hide, the next they're charging at ya, and blowing you away with their portable cannons. Together with the no-save-games approach, it makes the combat missions not entirely unalike to walking a tightrope blindfolded over a bottomless pit with some level designer bastard shaking the rope about on the other end. It's a thrilling ride that'll probably make you cross the street the next time you see a warehouse or a hangar coming your way, waving their hands in a friendly greeting, but it'll also make you smile wryly the next time somebody forces you to go to a museum or a church.
And that's obviously the designer's intent. The game really DOES make you feel like a mafiosi - a nervous wreck hiding behind the steely blue-eyed glare of Tommy Angelo, the lead character, a cross between de Niro in Godfather 2 and that third guy in Goodfellas whose name nobody remembers (at least I don't). The other characters range from the brilliance of your best friend Pauli (an obvious tribute to Joe Pesci in the aforementioned classic) to the servicability of Don Salieri to the open plagiarism of Don Morelo (de Niro in the Untouchables) to the plain idiocy of the moron romantic interest, Sarah - but everyone's kept in line, and everyone is eventually sacrificed to the game's grand message: crime doesn't pay. I don't want to give any plot elements away here, but after Tom and Pauli shoot Salieri and side with his mortal enemy Morelo who then commands them to kill their former best friend Sammy - hah! Fooled you! That's not at all what happened! As I said, I'm not giving away any plot elements here. I'll just quote the lead character's final speech: "we wanted more from life than other people but we ended up a lot worse than most" - and you should have an idea how the superbly written story of the game proceeds. It starts out happy-go-lucky taxi-cab driver turns to mafia for help, then proceeds into stylish cool mafioso professional hitmen fun until it turns all dark and creepy and everything falls apart for a very bleak ending. All the characters are very well worked out, their personalities really drive the story and you can really identify with the lead character's point of view - "the world is not run by laws written on paper, it is run by people, and it just depends on whether you'll play by somebody else's rules or you'll create your own". In fact, the story touched me so masterfully that I didn't at all want to explore the game's free-ride options after I had finished the game - after the deadly serious ending, I wasn't in the mood for any light-minded car-jacking and gangster-killing. It really was that good.
I won't say anything along the lines of, "two words - race mission". I actually liked that one - it took a couple of hours, but they were a couple of fun, realistic 1930's racing filled hours. I really have no idea why people would complain about that one so much - I guess racing sim fans and GTA3/Max Payne fans are seperate groups of people. The REAL problem with the game is with its attitude to the player. It's like there was this one sicko of a level designer who thought that his job was not to create an entertaining experience but to simply OUTSMART THE PLAYER: I guess the guy thinks like this, "huh, he thinks he's so smart that he got through that predicament; he thinks he's getting a save game now - what about a guy hiding behind that door instead, letting you have it from a double-barrel shotgun straight in the face, ha ha ha!" What a moron! It's like all his experience with level design was from those old cartridge Nintendo games, or "pre-postal experiences" as I like to call them. OK, I understand that you shouldn't be allowed to save games where you want in a game that depends so heavily on tension and realism - but why shouldn't I get the feeling that the game is my friend instead of my enemy? If I get through one major shoot-out alive, why do I have to make it through one more shoot-out alive and then one more and only THEN is the game saved? If I can't figure out how to get out of the third one, why must I replay the first two ones as well, the ones I've figured out already?
An illustration of the game's attitude: in the final mission, in the museum, you first have to shoot some 15 people in 3 or 4 separate small gunfights, then a cutscene comes - but the game is NOT saved - and you resume in the open, on some stairs, with people firing at you from all sides and you can't even see where they are and you get killed of course. So you have to make it through the first 15 people AGAIN, just to see where those people shooting at you are. In the process you get killed again. But now you have a strategy - so you go through the first 15 again, then employ your strategy, kill the 6 or 7 people shooting at you on the stairs, then go through a bunch of corridors and rooms crouching, killing people, your nerves totally on fire because you know that if you get killed now, you start all over. Thus you manage to kill another dozen. And then - you come to some stairs, tuck tuck tuck, huh, what's that?, BANG! Somebody threw a grenade down the stairs and you're dead! Start over! You could almost hear the level designer chuckling there! It's so incredibly frustrating - half a dozen times at least I stared at the CD and had to literally clench teeth and count to ten in order not to do violent things to it.
Actually I did have to use a trainer in two missions. The first one was the 8th one I think, where you have to go against some thugs with a BAT. I'd like to beat with a bat the guy who came up with that idea. What am I doing beating people with bats in a mafia game? And it's so incredibly frustrating - you're totally outnumbered, you have to watch out for your psycho pal Pauli, and it's just so hard to get a good whack in when three or four people are beating you at the same time. And after you get through that lame idiocy of a fight, you're then thrown into a tough gunfight, no savegames again, and get killed. Fun. The other mission was the airport mission - I couldn't get through the hangar alive, and again was being frustrated to the point of CD-mauling. I just think this game could've done a lot better with what is common practice in most other games, ie, a difficulty setting. Real hardcore players maybe should've been allowed to even go through the ENTIRE game without any saves, but surely hardcore players constitute only a small percentage of the game's intended audience. So what gives? What kind of marketing strategy is that? I read in a Max Payne review on this site one guy advising to buy the game before the weekend and return it on Monday. So maybe these guys thought that if they'll make the game normal difficulty, most players will finish it quickly enough to cheat and get a refund? I just can't see any other reason for this - are there actually any normal people out there who'd rather have a game incredibly frustratingly hard just so that it wouldn't be over in a couple of days? Well, Illusion Softworks - if you want to make your games longer, just make more missions for godssakes!
As for other things. The battle AI, though sometimes very smart, was sometimes also incredibly dumb - you'd go up to a guy and he just wouldn't shoot you! He'd weirdly circle around you, crouching, trying to get an angle where he could see your head from down there, I guess. And would you just look at how people are driving on the streets! In one mission I had to follow a guy who was driving at approximately 25 mph in a SPORTSCAR, and he still drove over some grandma! And didn't look back or anything! Nevermind police cars driving over people, nevermind cars generally turning out to be driving around in circles if you take care to follow them for some time, nevermind them piling up behind your car if you've parked it on the verge.
Hilarious but true story: in one mission you had to stop at some house and wait until a car drives out of it and then follow it; so when you arrived at the house, you had a cutscene of sorts, which was sort of an interactive cutscene as it took into account the actual situation on the street as you had left it before the cutscene began: so, this black car drives out the house, and drives away, and your character is sitting in a car on the opposite side of the street, and says to himself, "whew, that was close!"; only thing is, there were five cars already piled up behind Tommy's car, all hooting (you could actually see it in the cutscene!) - those guys must've been bleeding BLIND not to notice that!).
And why do police cars only notice if -I- exceed the speed limit? I'm chasing some car which is obviously driving at something like 70mph (40mph is the speed limit), and the policeman doesn't give a hoot when it passes him by, but when -I- pass him by, he immediately turns on the siren!
And what's up with that Thief rip-off mission? Couldn't Looking Glass sue? This game is brimming over with original ideas, it didn't need to unimaginatively borrow stuff like that.
And one more complaint. This game takes the old approach of having your character enter the scene already after the events of the game have taken place, and narrate his life's story to some cop. All the actual missions are in fact flashbacks of sort. Well, in that case I can't help thinking how exactly did he "tell" the story of the carpark shootout to that policeman. Must've been pretty emotional: "oh yeah, man, and then I threw a grenade, and then, BANG, and WOW, like all the cars go up, and then I run, BANG, BANG, I shoot at the guy, he falls dead, I pull out a Thompson and shoot THRADDADDA, then Pauli shoots me in the back by accident but it's nothing I go bang bang again, there's this guy hiding around the corner, I crouch, pull back a little, jump out, bang bang, he shoots at me, I go like , ouch.... etc."
The Bottom Line
Well there was once a game called Syndicate. This game is like a 3d version of it, with a super-cool film-quality story thrown on and the squad tactics exchanged for some stealth/commando tactics. If you could manage with the no-save-games tactic of that game and enjoyed all the massacres and the cold-blooded realism, you're going to enjoy this game as well. Only thing is - I can't help thinking that Illusion Softworks must've tried REALLY hard to come this close to totally screwing up such a great game.