[1 December 2010]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
Like the previously released DLC for Mafia II, Jimmy’s Vendetta, Joe’s Adventures largely consists of a series of more “arcade-style” missions set in the open world of Empire Bay. Also, like Jimmy’s Vendetta, most of these missions are only briefly backgrounded through textual introductions to mission objectives, mission objectives that mostly consist of perpetrating mayhem and violence in this fictional city that is the setting of Mafia II.
The extremely lean quality of the storytelling in that first DLC was very much to the game’s detriment, as Mafia II‘s strengths lie in its storytelling rather than in its fairly familiar third person shooting/driving gameplay. Indeed, I have argued that the limitations of Mafia II‘s open world actually complemented its story in many ways by emphasizing the ordered qualities of the life of Mafia soldier, Vito Scaletta (”Mafia II: the Boundaries of the Open World Experience”, PopMatters, 30 August 2010).
While many criticized the game for MAfia II‘s lack of “things to do” outside of the main storyline, in my mind Jimmy’s Vendetta laid bare the fact that side missions that may have been left on the cutting room floor to begin with may have been better left there. With only a loose sense of plot provided by few cutscenes and the aforementioned text-based intros alongside a pretty bland protagonist, the game suffered from redundancy and a bland “arcadey” style (”Mafia II: Jimmy’s Vendetta”, PopMatters, 22 September 2010). The game is more a series of side missions than a game interested in telling a story of any sort.
Joe’s Adventures initially promises to provide something different. By taking on a role of a character of real importance to the plot of the main game and by taking place during a crucial medial point in the main game’s plot (Joe’s Adventures takes place during Vito’s incarceration in the Mafia II time line), the game seems as though it might serve to fill in some gaps in the main text while spending some time in the shoes of a likeable character.
In that regard, Joe’s Adventures begins well with a mission punctuated by cut scenes that explain a bit about what Joe was up to when he heard the news of Vito’s arrest and how he tried to help Vito out of his predicament. Unfortunately, the game then lapses into the Jimmy’s Vendetta model of storytelling—no cut scenes and voice acting for awhile, just text to read—as Joe undertakes a series of misadventures with the mob while Vito is in prison. This is a disappointment, as the game gives the impression that it will clarify some of how Joe ends up allying himself with the wrong guy late in the plot of the main game, which the DLC actually might do. However, I’m not actually sure.
While Joe’s Adventures offers a few more additional cut scenes during “more important” missions, these moments of coherence are so spread out that the player easily loses track of who all of these Italian fellows that Joe is consorting with actually are. The text intros that serve as bridges to the more cinematic storytelling are no particular help either; they remain too brief and underdeveloped to recall who is who and what is what. As a result an opportunity to explore one of the better characters in Mafia II pretty much gets lost in the driving forward momentum of a mission structure that feels only loosely moored by narrative.
Joe himself gets lost in all of this, as the affable ladies’ man really gets his hands dirty in some bloody missions and doesn’t seem too much like the character that I met in the other game. Playing as Joe is a brutal experience; watching him in Mafia II, he seemed far less capable of the activities taken on by Vito. As a result, playing Joe makes this character often seem much more the stoic soldier than Vito ever did, a far cry from his actual role in Mafia II and from sercing as foil to Vito’s persona for that matter.
However, what Joe’s Adventures does get right is much more variety in missions than Jimmy’s Vendetta, escaping some of that game’s often repetitive, often tedious quality. Indeed, the more that I played Joe’s Adventures the less I was reminded of Jimmy’s Vendetta and also the less I was reminded of Mafia II itself for that matter. For all of Mafia II‘s effort to create a retro vibe, through its recreation of 1940s and 1950s settings, Joe’s Adventures really evokes memories of the early part of this decade through its gameplay. It feels an awful lot more like playing Grand Theft Auto III than it does Mafia II or any other open world game made in the latter end of this decade for that matter.
Now part of this sense of familiarity has to do with a few specific missions. There are a couple missions that place Joe in the uncomfortable position of having to drive a car really fast that contains a whole lot of volatile explosives that are extremely reminiscent of GTA III. However, the similarity really comes down to the way that certain means of “aiding” players of open world games have changed over the last 10 years. Being able to set waypoints, step-by-step onscreen instructions during missions leading to the next mini-objective in a mission, and maps that show the shortest route to take to the next goal have generally been met with appreciation by fans of the genre. These are useful features in open world games that have also made playing them much, much easier and, ironically in an “open” world game, much more linear in terms of finding solutions to missions.
Early GTA games are more difficult than GTA IV, for instance (as well as games like The Saboteur, Red Dead Redemption, and Assassin’s Creed), in part because the player is given a sense of what needs to be done when assigned a mission in the seminal title but then is left to his or her own devices in figuring out how to accomplish that goal. Additionally, many missions in open world games have become so much more scripted that a lot of the “random acts of God” that affected mission success and failure in early GTA games (the cop just came around the corner at the wrong time, a car swung out into the intersection just as you were about to reach a checkpoint or just in time to cut off your challenger in a race, etc.). These non-scripted have largely disappeared as a means of wreaking random havoc or random beneficence during a mission.
While Joe’s Adventures is modern in the sense that it includes mission mapping, the ability to set waypoints, and the like, nevertheless, you will find that some of the seeming obvious ways that the game directs you to play out a mission are really often not the best solution to actually solving that mission. Yes, the onscreen prompt says to “get rid of the mobsters” but that could mean by killing them all or by fleeing them, trying a mission each way will yield different results and ultimately a little trial and error will suggest the better course of action for you. Yes, the red line that charts the shortest route on the map seems like the best way to complete another mission, but once you realize the kinds of enemies that stand in your way and the placement of later checkpoints, adjusting your course in a less obvious way early on in a mission might turn out to be the only viable way to finish it within the limited time allotted for every mission in the game.
As a result, Joe’s Adventures can be downright difficult at times, forcing the player to think beyond the arrows that we have become accustomed to trust to get us reasonably safely from point A to point B. Likewise, Joe’s Adventures can be frustrating at times. Unlike GTA IV in which I might fail a mission two or three times, I found that (again, more like my experience with early GTAs) I might have to fail a mission a dozen times before I figured out a more innovative approach to a problem that I kept running into—an approach less often dictated by waypoint markers and the “helpful” onscreen instructions and more related to me having to actually get creative about the problem at hand.
Strangely, I began to find all of the frustration fairly satisfying. I felt more challenged and engaged in adapting tactics in missions than I have in a long time in this, my favorite genre of gaming, the open world game.
Joe’s Adventures will make you suffer at times, but it is a suffering related to the trial and error of problem solving. Solutions to these moments are made more satisfying because of the difficulty in overcoming them, which is probably not going to thrill everyone interested in playing an open world game. However, I enjoyed getting back to the genre’s roots for the few hours that it took to play Joe’s Adventures.
Players looking to gain insight into some of the events and characters of Mafia II are likely going to be disappointed by this new release. The storytelling is slightly more robust than Jimmy’s Vendetta‘s was but by no means as good as that of Mafia II. The presentation lacks far too much cohesion. (Maybe unless you want to take notes on who people are and what they want—be my guest. I’m not feeling old school enough to break out colored pencils and graph paper anytime soon.). However, players looking for a little more “openness” in terms of the way that they have to adapt to missions and the like in this style of game may find the challenge and frustration that that challenge provokes strangely satisfying and a reminder of what the genre was more like even just a few years ago.