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Mafia 2

I wonder what this game is about

Alright, introductions out of the way. Mafia 2 is the sequel to Mafia, a 2002 Grand Theft Auto clone that was actually pretty good, even if the driving was pretty frustrating at times. It was developed by Illusion Softworks, now known as 2K Czech. Mafia 2 has you playing as Vito Scaletta, the son of Sicilian immigrants. After being caught robbing a jewelry store, Vito is given a choice between jail and serving in the American Military during World War 2 in 1943. After being sent home in 1945 because of an injury, Vito starts working for various crime bosses in an effort to join a crime family.

Ambition is a fickle thing. If your game is extremely ambitious in one area, yet weak and shallow in another, it highlights it to a point that makes it so much easier to criticise, sticking out like a drag queen at Liberal party gathering. That’s Mafia 2’s problem in a nutshell. Its problems overshadow what is a well presented, yet poorly plotted and badly paced story.

With every cutscene, the game drives you to keep going. Even with bad pacing and a fairly weak story, great direction will enthrall you and keep you coming back for more. But the dynamic that Mafia 2 creates is probably less than desirable. The gameplay is the stuff is what you put up with in order to get to the next cutscene. You become a cutscene addict, keen for that next hit. “Come on, man, just one more cutscene. I’ll do a long driving section after, I promise! You know I’m good for it!”

Mafia 2’s presentation is great, but the main problem is that it’s mostly confined to cutscenes. Outside of the cutscenes, during the part that, you know, you’re supposed to play, there isn’t much at all. I’m not saying that there should be more side missions or mini games, any of that open world gameplay bullshit, what I AM saying is that what gameplay we did get should have been deeper. Mafia 2 is essentially your typical linear 3rd person shooter, but with a living and vibrant city, rather than a set of levels that you move through. But this highlights yet another huge problem with Mafia 2.

The driving.

Once you’ve gotten your hit of that sweet, sweet cutscene, often you’ll get sent on a long ass drive to one of 2 places: where your next mission takes place, or your apartment. A lot of the time the drive to your apartment is completely, 100% unnecessary. As you complete your mission, Vito will say “Ok, I’ll see you later” or something to that affect, and you’ll have to drive all the way back to your apartment, walk up the stairs, open the door, find your bed, then it’ll fade to black. How about “Ok, I’ll see you later” then fade to black as Vito starts driving away? The player will assume you’ve driven back to your apartment, without actually having to do it. If it fades back in with you getting up from bed, there’s only one conclusion that the player can make. You’ll do this so often that the familiar banality of real life will start to set in. But this is a game; real life can go suck a dick. And what’s the deal with the radio stations? There’s so little music on each channel that songs start to repeat really quickly. You’ll end up driving in silence most of the time.

There isn’t much of note with the action levels. It’s standard poop’n’shoot stuff here, don’t expect anything different. Surprisingly, the shooting sections actually take up quite a small part of the game. Looking back on it, it’s way less than 1/3 of the game. It’s roughly 9-10 hours long, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these levels took up less than a couple of hours.

The action levels can get pretty grueling at times. Checkpoints are quite far apart, and getting shot in the head or bum-rushed by a dude with a Chicago Typewriter is a pretty common occurrence. It never really gets overwhelmingly difficult or frustrating, which is welcome, although it does feel like a kick in the head when you’re sent back to the beginning of a level when you’ve been shootin’ bitches for over 15 minutes without interruption. It completely breaks down any momentum you’ve built up.

SMGs and shotguns kick some serious ass in Mafia 2. A well placed burst of rounds in a guy’s chest almost always sends them crashing to the ground. It’s incredibly satisfying. Nailing a guy as he’s going back into cover with a shotgun is probably the fondest memory I have of Mafia 2. It goes both ways though, so if you’re caught out of cover against a guy with an SMG or shotgun, you can kiss your ass goodbye.

There’s a sort of fistfighting mini game for sections where you’re unarmed. It’s quite shallow and it’s difficult to ascertain the ‘rules’ of it all. One hit will connect and another will completely miss, it’s just a toss of the coin really. It’s such a small and insignificant part of the game that I struggle to write any more about it.

Now that I’ve got all that mechanical crap out of the way, it’s time to discuss the story. After all, it’s most likely the number one reason anyone will play Mafia 2. I have some pretty serious issues with it. It suffers from something I call “and then syndrome”. The story doesn’t seem to be building to any sort of crescendo or satisfying conclusion, each mission is just “and then this happens, and then that happens”. There’s no overall moral or big reveal or anything. Towards the end of the game, I was so attached to the story because although it was presented well, I just wanted something to happen. I kept playing expecting everything to fall into place. But it never did.

Vito, as a protagonist, is so shallow that I ended up hating the guy by the end of it all. His motivations towards mass murder, robbery, theft, whatever, never amount to anything more than not wanting to be like his father, a poor, alcoholic dock worker, and that being poor sucks. So what? I don’t give a shit. Vito will constantly agree with other characters murdering people right in front of his face for the flimsiest of reasons and will kill people himself without question. Vito isn’t an anti-hero, he’s not vying for revenge, and nothing important or sympathetic drives his motivations forward. He just wants money, power, women, and respect. In other words, he’s a selfish psychopath that you will, and should, end up hating.

3/5

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Demon’s Souls

Rolls right off the tongue

Games aren’t hard these days. I’m not really going to ruffle anyone’s feathers with a statement like that. Sure, there are examples of games that are quite difficult, but the large majority of major releases have a difficulty curve level enough to build a sky scraper on. But there are two different kinds of difficulty: legitimate difficulty and asshole difficulty. Most hard games have a mixture of both, but the asshole difficulty stuff usually comes from poor design decisions or bugs. Demon’s Souls’ difficulty is different in that the asshole difficulty is intentional, and it revels in it.

Demon’s Souls is a 3rd person dungeon crawler developed by From Software, some Japanese dudes that don’t really deal in weeaboo paraphernalia. Apparently, it was developed as a ‘spiritual successor’ (what is the deal with this phrase in the video game business?) to a previous series by the developer called King’s Field. I’ll have to take their word for it, having never played or even heard of said series. It’s only on PS3 as well, so sorry, poor Xboxen, you miss out on a pretty sweet game.

Never say weeaboo

Like most dungeon crawlers, it’s all about getting loot, raising your stats, and overcoming increasingly difficult situations. The currency of the game is souls, which you acquire from killing enemies. You can use the souls to buy weapons, armour, level up your character, and buy spells. Using one resource for pretty much everything in the game creates an interesting dynamic. Do you level up, buy a spell, get more gear? It’s a genuinely difficult decision to make, rather than just building up enough cash to get the next best thing.

An unusual part of Demon’s Souls is the level structure. Most dungeon crawlers are fairly linear, but Demon’s Souls has 5 different worlds that you can attempt in any order, although there usually is a recommended order in guides and whatnot, but they’re not super important. Each world has 4 sections, and if one section becomes too difficult and you’d like to try another level, you’re free to do so. Some levels have a very dark and somewhat unsettling atmosphere. It’s not quite horror stuff, but you will feel vulnerable and alone. There’s very sparse use of music too, so it’s usually up to ambiance to set the mood. The sound design isn’t as good as something like, say, Limbo, but it’s still quite effective.

Stats from leveling up and gear play a very important part in Demon’s Souls. Don’t expect a simple set of stats; like many Japanese games, it falls into the trap of stat complexity. They affect everything from movement speed, to health regeneration, what items you can use, how much armour you can wear, what types of damage you can do, how much that type of damage is increased on a weapon depending on what primary stat is uses. It’s all very confusing, and you will refer to a manual or guide frequently.

One of the major elements of Demon’s Souls is soul mode. If you die, you lose your body, your collected souls and you’re sent back to the beginning of the level. You’re also revived in soul mode with 50% of your regular health. The only way to regain your body is by killing a boss or using a rare-ish item called Stone of Ephemeral Eyes. Yeah, you can’t just pick up your body Diablo style and continue on your merry way (you do leave behind a blood stain, however, which you can find to recover your lost souls), you have to kill a god-damn-boss. Doesn’t sound very fair, does it? And you have to do it with half your health! THIS GAME IS SUCH AN ASSHOLE. There is a ring that you can use to increase your health in soul mode though, which you can find quite early on.

You're only at the cover and you're already dead

Increasing the difficulty at fairly annoying times can come from the most unlikely place: the online mode. Demon’s Souls is essentially a single player game, yet it has this bizarre online component that kind of straddles the line between co-op/MMO and Singe Player With Benefits. If you’re in meatbag mode, you can use an item to summon other players in soul mode (2 players max, I think) to your ‘world’. Once there, they can assist you in defeating thine enemies, earning them some souls and reviving them once they help you kill the boss. But, if you’re in soul mode, you can use an item that allows you to ‘break in’ to other player’s world, allowing you to kill them in the game’s version of PvP. Like everything else in Demon’s Souls, it’s very cutthroat and unforgiving. The players that have invaded are called “black phantoms” and are ignored by the enemies in your world, meaning they can lead you in to some sticky situations that seriously stack the odds in their favour.

It’s probably the only part of the game that I genuinely dislike. While dying in Demon’s Souls is almost always expressly your fault, and improving as a player or adjusting your strategy usually allows you to progress, Black Phantoms can bust in at any moment and kill you at the most inopportune moment. A lot of the time, you need to adjust your gear so that you are effective in PvP, but I’ve come across many situations where that just wasn’t possible and I was faced with defeating a player that was more than prepared for a fine cup of Kicking Your Ass. Since you can’t get attacked by other players in soul mode, it lead to me playing in meatbag mode offline and soul mode online, which you can’t just switch between either, you need to quit out and log in to PSN, then load your game.

Aside from that, you can leave messages on the ground which you can compose from predetermined words and phrases (You can’t just write whatever you want. So sorry, dudes that just want to write “cock” everywhere.) which other players can rate. Another player rating your message heals you, so leaving a well placed message warning of an ambush or a precarious cliff can be quite useful.

Combat works pretty much how you’d imagine it. You’ve got swords, axes, spears, shields, all that stuff. You hit crap, it dies. You just have to choose between a regular strike, and a heavy, slower strike. You’ve got a targeting system you can engage by clicking down the R3 button, but you don’t need to use it all the time, it just helps with blocking and makes you a little more accurate when you’re trying to hit stuff. When you cast spells, you have to switch to a different, wand type weapon to use them, so you can’t attack with melee weapons in between spell casts, you gotta plan that shit out. On top of the usual health and mana bars, you’ve got a stamina bar, which is quickly becoming a staple in this sort of game, for better or worse, but it works really well in Demon’s Souls.

Attacking too much will drain your stamina to a point where if you try to block, you’ll become staggered and sometimes your guard will get broken entirely, which can seriously fuck you up on a boss. Planning out your strikes in preparation of an enemy’s attack so that you have plenty of stamina to block it or dodge it is always a concern. Combat becomes this strange exercise in nervous clairvoyance, predicting your enemy’s movements and reacting accordingly, rather than just attacking and ‘reacting’ by healing yourself when your health gets low, because normal enemies can almost always kill you without too much trouble if you’re not careful. You can’t just use a potion in the middle of a fight without interruption.

Those of you worried about value for money needn’t fret; the game can be played through infinitely, increasing in difficulty every time. There’s a variety of items you can create by using blacksmiths and you WILL end up missing a ton of cool items that you’ll want to find on the next play through. There’s a myriad of secrets that will take several play throughs to discover. Demon’s Souls is perhaps the best value for money that you’ll experience on this generation of consoles.

Probably the best part of Demon’s Souls is the feeling of accomplishment. You spend the game in a constant state of hyper alert quasi-panic and the idea of dying half way through a level seems unthinkable and defeatist. The need for survival is reflected in your heart’s pounding as you try your hardest to survive, exploiting anything you can to do so, from terrain to ranged weapons. When you actually do die, it’s such a punishing feeling that you can’t help but scream “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK”. Many of you that attempt this game for the first time might become frustrated to the point of turning the console off and throwing the disc out of the window, but once you’re rid of Demon’s Souls, you won’t be able to stop thinking about it. Demon’s Souls has a strange, alluring power that makes you want to play it and defeat it, even if you hate it. But, once you hit your groove and the frustrations become merely obstacles, that hate will become love. You will love this game. I love this game. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play it.

4/5

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Limbo

Take a short journey through the edge of hell

To say that I’m immediately suspicious when some new indie platformer gets labeled as an ‘art game’ would be somewhat of an understatement. I have never considered any game to be art, not that I didn’t expect to discover a game that is what I would consider a work of art. Truth is, what one considers art is so extremely subjective that arguing about what is or what isn’t art is an argument made in vain.

Having said that, I think I have finally found a game that I consider art. It makes me immensely happy.

Limbo is a Danish independent puzzle platformer developed by Playdead studios. It’s a fairly minimalist approach to platforming, there really is nothing more to controlling your little character than running, jumping, and interacting with certain environment based objects, such as crates and levers, the standard platforming fare. What’s great about the simplicity of Limbo is that it allows you complete and utter control, with pressing the right button at the right time never being a concern (I’m looking at you, Prince of Persia).

That doesn’t mean that Limbo is simplistic, there’s plenty of  ‘what the fuck do I do?’ mind bending puzzle solving moments. Some of these are much more difficult than others, meaning they feel sudden, like running head first into a brick wall. Depending on how hard you run, you might be able to burst through that metaphorical brick wall, but, of course, doing so will probably hurt your head.

The look of Limbo is probably one of the most remarkable things about the game. Draped in darkness and shadow, the world looks like a silhouette, created by an old black and white film camera filming a poorly lit landscape. Shapes are vague, with dangerous objects seamlessly becoming part of the environment, often leading to your death as the game teaches you, quite cruelly, that the shape you just walked into is bad. It’s one of the reasons I consider Limbo art, as the game’s graphics become part of the gameplay itself, meaning it’s not just a pointless dress over a board game. Watching intensely as you move through the environment, you doubt yourself as you take every step, wondering what is going to kill you next.

That doubt is exacerbated by the absolutely exemplary sound design. With every noise you feel you are about to die. Limbo’s sound is a tiny candle in the dimly lit room of gaming. With every game released, the consideration paid to attention to detail with regards to sound diminishes. Gamers don’t seem to care, and neither do developers. But sound should be, and is, a major part of how we experience games. Limbo’s developers understand this, and the result is a rich tapestry of ambiance. Low rumbling, wind, the clanging of metal, the calls of animals that aren’t quite visible. All of them create a sense of uneasiness, a veritable orchestra of dread. What little music there is just creates a tone for the scene, as that music is often nothing more than a series of tones itself.

Limbo doesn’t have a story, not in the conventional sense. There are no cutscenes, no dialogue, not even any text. Nothing is described to you, just a vague sense of what you should be doing. Like almost everything in Limbo, it’s obscured by shadow. There are, however, hints to a story, but in the visual sense, like you can understand the story of a painting. Children seem to be the only people in Limbo, and you seem to be attempting to approaching a girl who sits in the grass. Perhaps they are unbaptised infants, ones that died and are subjected to a cruel fate in Limbo. Perhaps this girl is someone the boy, your character, feels is important to him. Maybe she died, and the quest to find her is a metaphor for loss, the grief of a child that doesn’t understand death.

Limbo, I believe, sets a standard in art games. An extremely important game that everyone should experience, in spite of its slightly higher price tag.

5/5


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