Reviewed: April 2, 2004
Released: March 3, 2004
You are a member of the nefarious Sicilian Mangano crime family and you have come to America to wreak a terrible vengeance upon three of your brothers; Angelo, Sonny, and Romano, for their hand in the slaying of your fourth brother, Chico. Your stateside uncle Vincenzo has received information that they have come to his city, and you will see that they are buried there. Welcome to the seedy, ultra-violent underbelly of Paradise City. You’re not in Palermo anymore…
Don’t let the mob overtones fool you, this game is eons away from the none-too-recent Mafia. They are comparable only in tone, setting, and story, but even in those aspects they are quite different. Gangland does not take the GTA3 approach but instead exists as a blend of strategy, a pinch of simulation, and gobs of raw action. The single player campaign introduces you to the rigors and rewards of Paradise City by starting you out as an apprentice of your uncle Vincenzo, subservient to his commands. The initial tasks he gives you will familiarize you with the interface, combat, and the joys of extortion.
Though you can play any one of the four brothers in multiplayer, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, the single player campaign casts you as Mario. And in the first few moments you’ll find yourself locked in combat as you “convince” the owner of a gun store to supply Vincenzo with precious ammo. This is how the business aspect of the game works – you can either extort or takeover (for a fee) businesses and in return you’ll receive cash and resources. These vary from ammo to blackmail photos to hooch, just as you’re free to exploit gun stores, brothels, distilleries and fashion boutiques. Restaurants also enable you to farm new recruits, though whether the unit you need will actually show up or not is entirely random.
In the spirit of strategy you are provided with a few different units with which to enact your vengeance, and in addition to these there are 12 super units which can be unlocked through optional challenge missions. The ordinary units are useful, but it’s really the super-units that shine here. Whether it be snipers, ninjas, bombers or revenue-enhancing businessmen, these special units are effective and interesting. As Mario you have the administrative powers and combat abilities, while your henchmen will mostly be used for combat only. All of Mario’s skills, as well as the other three brothers, can be leveled according to a scale unique for each brother. Henchmen can only achieve two levels in combat, and weapons can be upgraded.
Once you leave Vincenzo’s side and become your own boss, you can find a loyal wife to marry and produce offspring. These strapping young lads (or gals) grow amazingly fast, and in short order you’ll find your child has become an underboss. So much for raising them to make smarter decisions than you did. They have more leverage than a regular unit and can be useful in a number of different ways, like running a safe house while you’re gone or spraying lead by your side.
Speaking of lead spraying, you’ll find that most of your time in Paradise City will be spent dodging bullets. Combat is rife in a city dominated by multi-ethnic crime organizations and roving gangs of corrupt cops.
Unfortunately, this incessant violence doesn’t necessarily bode well for the game. When combat is initiated you’ll have scarce time to find cover, which is necessary for survival, before the storm of bullets is unleashed. And I do mean storm…it takes a staggering amount of ammo to kill anyone, some of them even withstanding direct blasts of dynamite. Bullets veer in every direction it seems, and though this is a nice effect, it makes combat artificially long. Things get worse when armed civilians (lots of ‘em) or wandering police join in the fight, though if the gods of vice and greed are with you, they might fight on your side.
Melee units can incapacitate opponents, whether using pepper spray or bare knuckles, and this helps when you’re surrounded by gunfire. Mario can also holster his guns and instead throw high explosives, but his aim is often flawed and if this isn’t used carefully it’s only a matter of time before you hit your own units. For most of the game you’ll find yourself on the offensive, charging into heavily populated safe houses to whack other bosses.
This is where your business sensibility is tested, because you’ll need all the resources you can muster to keep your gang alive. Dying means starting the entire map over again, because there is no ‘in media res’ save feature. Charging in isn’t always the best method and the game does give you other options. Certain units can steal identities; others can use stealth. You can poison a rival boss rather than giving him a few hundred copper migraines or slowly suffocate him by eating up all of his businesses and depriving him of resources. Innovative tactics aren’t always rewarding in single player, but should make for some interesting strategies online.
So how does driving fare? Not so well. It’s nice to not have to travel through Paradise City on foot all the time (some units are horrendously slow), but driving brings its own frustrations. There is the obligatory awkward period as you learn how to control the vehicles while crashing into everything, but even after this, it’s nearly impossible to navigate the streets without colliding several times with something. Probably the curb, since there is an invisible barrier that keeps cars from coming anywhere near sidewalks. Or the giant red Xs that mark map borders. None of the vehicles are very fast, even the Viper, but it’s a small matter since there really aren’t many good streets where you could open up. Drive-bys are still nonetheless possible and useful in many cases, but in a serious firefight, your car will be shot to hell in no time.
One of the more disappointing aspects of the game is empire building. You can only interact with the businesses you extort or take over in very facile ways; it would’ve been nice to have more options available. But then, you probably wouldn’t have time to do anything, because a large empire means constant opposition. Protecting your business partners and family will eat up a lot of your time and interfere with your ability to conduct attacks. Since most maps require you to off a boss or two before continuing to the next one, maintaining a lot of territory is an uphill struggle. Not to mention, at the start of the next map all of your hard won prizes will be gone, as well as your henchmen and their experience.
When in control of your own safe house you will receive calls offering you various things in trade for cash or resources. These are useful, as some calls will offer super units, vehicles, or just raw, cold cash. Mercifully you can take the phone off of the hook if you want the calls to stop. There is a bit of interaction here, for example if you were to fail to come through on a deal you made via the phone, you might get a none-too-friendly call suggesting none-too-friendly things.
The great thing about Paradise City is the camera. The angle of your perspective is easily changed with the mousewheel, and you can also zoom in for a closer view. After seeing this implemented so well in Gangland, you sorely miss it in games that do not allow you to change the perspective. The graphics are pretty decent, especially in terms of small details, whether it be steam rising from a manhole or the furnishings of a fancy bistro you just took over. The city teems with pedestrian traffic, despite an inexplicable lack of the vehicular variety, and the character models look fairly nice. They do have a Sims ambiance about them.
The game could do with a bit more diversity, as your surroundings are basically the same throughout the single player campaign. The setting seems a little confused, as it is a blend of prohibition era Mafioso and modern day technology. Again, the super units excel in this category – snipers carry their firearms in violin cases, ninjas stalk like ghosts with sais in hand, big mammas look like amorphous polka-dotted blobs, etc.
Another thing that was done excellently was the bombings. With the bomber unit you can lay waste to any business or safe house, watching it tumble with fiery vengeance and become a pile of rubble. After going on a bombing rampage the suburbs looked like Dresden after World War II.
You’d think this game’s soundtrack would sort of fit into the era that it is a pseudo part of, but you’d be wrong. The music is a fusion of rock and techno, and though it isn’t unpleasant, it seems out of place. The combat music does eventually wear away at you, since you spend so much time fighting.
Units will sometimes spew out catch phrases as you command them, and most of them are grating after the first utterance. About eighty percent of the time you will be hearing the combat music and gunshots. Think O.K. Corral with Tommy guns.
There is a generous amount of content to be found here, with 16 conquest maps and 12 optional challenges. You can take your skills online or match them against computer opponents in multiplayer, which adds to the replay value. With all units considered there is definitely enough variety to invent some devious tactics. Multiplayer is a bit buggy though, and the game isn’t as solid as it should be, so this isn’t necessarily a slam-dunk, must-have, hold-my-calls sort of title. But then, few games are.
If the game has piqued your curiosity, and you enjoy some light strategy with a lot of action, you might consider Gangland. With a second patch in the mail, those who are turned off by certain things (like the lack of an ability to save during a mission) may be interested to know that MediaMobster is addressing some of those concerns. It would be far too harsh to say money on this game would be wasted, but if you’re saving up for that next gaming obsession, you’ll probably be disappointed with this.
Paradise City is not as innocuous as it sounds. This is Hollywood’s version of the mob taken even further over the top, but it does make for interesting and amusing game material. The game is hampered in many ways though, and it drags down the entire experience. Perhaps Mediamobster will whip the game into shape with a few patches. They should because it’s not a fundamentally poor game, at all, it’s just that what flaws do exist will haunt you the entire time.
A little more complexity and a little less assault with deadly weapons would be welcome, although it is an ugly business. If the real mob acted like the characters in Gangland do though, we’d be disintegrating them on sight by now. The super-units are great and show an appreciation for strategy. Overall, this game is good but not spectacular, falling a bit short of what is promised on the box.