Games

'Mafia II': The Boundaries of the Open World Experience

At first glance, the open world of Mafia II might seem a wasted one. That first glance is probably a misunderstanding of the game, as that unusable world seems to underscore part of the point.


Mafia 2

Publisher: 2K Games
Players: 1
Price: $59.99
Platform: Xbox 360 (reviewed), Playstation 3, PC
ESRB Rating: Mature
Developer: 2K Czech
Release Date: 2010-08-24
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At first glance, the open world of Mafia II might seem a wasted one. Despite a myriad of details, both visual and aural, that set an authentic tone and atmosphere for the game, there is very little to do in the world that other open worlds might offer. There are no side quests, very few side jobs, and exploration is something that the player is likely to be motivated to do in order to simply take a look around because there are few meaningful things to interact with in this world. The game constantly drives the player back towards his mission.

However, the fictional city of Empire Bay in the game's context of a 1940s and 1950s America (the first several chapters of Mafia II take place in 1943, while the latter chapters occur in 1951) is rather lovingly crafted. While some elements of the world are slightly anachronistic (Songs appearing in the 1943 and 1951 section are from the decade but often were actually released in a later year. Likewise, the Playboy magazines collected by the protagonist were certainly not available in 1943 or 1951, since Playboy's first issue appeared on newsstands in 1953.), nevertheless, the cars, architecture, and music are still evocative of these decades and are authentic in their sense of tone, if not their literal historical exactitude.

Empire Bay is a fun city to look at and listen to, even if time spent in the open world is usually just occupied with moving from here to there in between and during missions. The opening scenes of the second chapter, marking protagonist Vito Scaletta's return home during the Christmas season to the Italian Quarter are especially well designed and scripted. Even while simply walking through his old neighborhood, people talk to Vito, welcome him home, and provide something to gawk at (like watching residents yelling at one another through open windows and the like), making the world feel alive and painting a picture for the player of the place that has made Vito who he is in a far more useful manner than the opening voiceover of the initial chapter that is intended to explain his background. These lived moments make Vito seem like he really comes from something like a real place, rather than is the result of few didactically explained bits of biography.

The focus of the missions then, as is the world building, is on Vito himself. Empire Bay seems less to have been built for the player to play in, then as a place to really authenticate the protagonist and his story. This is a different approach than other open worlds generally take with their emphasis on player freedom and the ability to do what you want, and it proves really to be just a different approach rather than a superior or inferior one.

Indeed, it might be the most appropriate one to take given the sort of story being told and the kind of character that Vito Scaletta seems to be. While Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto story seems like a bit of a love song to lawlessness and libertine attitudes in its “go anywhere, do what you want” gameplay and criminal characters that do exactly that, Mafia II's more linear approach to an open world, in which the player simply moves from mission to mission in order to allow the story to progress is a bit more appropriate given Vito's slightly less autonomous position in his world.

Right from the outset of the game, we learn that Vito has ended up as part of an American unit in Italy as a result of getting into trouble with a neighborhood buddy, Joe Barbero. Choosing military service over jail, Vito's coming of age occurs within the context of a social organization in which he doesn't get to decide what he will do; he has to follow orders. Indeed, even as the game begins and Vito is freed from his military obligation with the aid of Joe's criminal connections (made while Vito was abroad), Vito once again doesn't really make a choice to break free from the military; Joe chooses for him.

In this regard, Vito differs an awful lot from the presentation of most open world protagonists (and the player's own circumstances in playing as this character result in a similarly different experience). While characters in the GTA series achieve success by carving out a place for themselves in their world and eventually build criminal empires (as they do in San Andreas or Vice City) through their social climb from street thug to kingpin, Vito is a considerably less successful or self made man. While in GTA, the protagonist usually starts with little money, begins accruing a little wealth, and then sees an exponential growth in cash (so much so that in-game purchases are more or less meaningless in the late game), Vito (and the player), however, struggle throughout Mafia II.

Vito is, indeed, a soldier, not a boss. He is mildly successful at times in the game, usually before taking a tumble. The player will struggle to have enough cash to buy a decent suit for Vito or to repair a car in the early part of the game. Later, Vito will make big bucks from doing some big jobs, before having his house burned down and losing all that money and property. He will rebuild that fortune before finding that he owes someone else more powerful than himself, and, well, the reality is that those people get to make the decisions in his world and he has to pay.

Like many mob stories (like The Godfather II and Scarface or GTA IV, for that matter), this is an immigrant's story, a story about chasing the American dream through the only avenues seemingly possibly available to an alien to the United States. Why we usually sympathize with mobsters is that, while they act criminally, they exhibit a tenacious attitude, a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude, and a challenge to conventional authority, like the law and government (all very American values as a nation built on the idea of freedom from authority and self determination). Mafia II, though, is much more ambivalent about this rise to success. As Vito says in voiceover when explaining his arrival in America and first impressions of it, to him Empire Bay was “the most beautiful thing” that he had ever seen as well as the biggest “shithole” that he had ever been to. The arc of Vito's story punctuates this theme, as every time he is up, he gets put back in his place again.

Much like the linearity of the game experience, Vito finds that pure freedom is always illusory despite the promise of an American dream. You do the best that you can in the context of a world whose design belongs to someone other than yourself.

9

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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