In the runup to the game's release last year, Mafia II's development studio and publicity team tried, with limited success, to set reasonable expectations of the game. "It isn't Grand Theft Auto," I was told, more than once, in emails and in the game's review notes.
The talking point reflects the popular expectation, built over a decade of Grand Theft Auto releases and numerous imitators, that open-world games necessarily meant a sandbox. In popular expectation, they'd come to mean large maps littered with side quests and diversions, and key story missions that could be triggered out of order. This is especially true of crime thrillers, and absolutely true of major releases.
But it wasn't true of Mafia II, by a longshot, and it was beat up pretty bad for not being something it never said it was.
Mafia II was disappointing for other reasons, but I want to replay it now that I've spent a solid week playing and replaying L.A. Noire. Yes, both are crime thrillers set in postwar America, but that's not their chief similarity. They're open-world games that, in ways large and small, are both linear, sometimes rigidly. And if L.A. Noire splits, in the popular mind, the 10-year arranged marriage of open world to sandbox, then it should be acknowledged that Mafia II had the unhappy duty of taking a crack at it first.
I have to wonder how we'd feel about Mafia II had it released this year, and L.A. Noire last year. Mafia II may still have been a disappointment; both are story-driven enterprises and Mafia II's, while set up well in the game's first half, nosedives into a tremendously unsatisfying resolution. L.A. Noire holds up throughout, though chiefly by connecting you to your character through the interrogation minigames and your own offline analysis of the evidence he collects.
Yet the game still keeps him at a distance. Cole Phelps is available only when he's on the clock. You're not going to a bar with him; you're not going on a date with a secretary in records. You're not going to shoot pool with your partner or bet on a fight. Though, given how time consuming these diversions were in Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV, Team Bondi's choice to keep this focused on a compact narrative is certainly defensible.
What it ultimately means, is like Mafia II you are given a beautiful, vast landscape that the game allows you to explore only on strictly controlled terms, especially within the main story. And I'm trying to figure out why I find that acceptable in Los Angeles but not in Empire City. Especially when L.A.'s environment in Noire is double the size of Empire City's.
Mafia II may have built a world that fetishized trivial interactions-light switches, toilet flushes, buying gasoline-but there was, shockingly, more interaction on its map than there is in L.A. Noire's. In Mafia II, a clothing store, auto shop or payphone provided a means of losing police pursuit that was critical in some missions. A diner's food offered health recovery. In L.A. Noire, there's only the gamewell phone, which glows blue on your map, practically demanding that you use it to unlock the next location to investigate.
L.A. Noire's broader story - the career of a cop - is more undermined by that kind of linear structure than Mafia II's is by its. It takes until L.A. Noire's 12th chapter to find yourself investigating evidence in two different cases. Real-life detectives work multiple cases and the most sensational ones lead to an arrest after months. A sandbox format would allow multiple cases to be presented realistically, and not as discrete stories to be solved sequentially, but as a series of developments happening concurrently.
In this regard, the lack of a sandbox environment is more of a missed opportunity in L.A. Noire than it is in Mafia II.
That's not to say L.A. Noire is a better game only because of some double standard applied to Mafia II. L.A. Noire's characters are more believable, their emotions are more honest, their personalities more unique than Mafia II's, which started strong but descended into a color-by-numbers story of mob-movie stereotypes. L.A. Noire's investigation game is fascinating to me; Mafia II's action was often served up in derivative shoot-outs and courier missions. Its main continuity is shorter than L.A. Noire's. And Mafia II's downloadable content was abysmal, where prospects for L.A. Noire's are much stronger.
Structurally, though, they're much the same. I have no more map-memory in L.A. Noire than I do in Mafia II. They aren't places to me as much as they are stages. But I can tell you how to get from Washington Beach to Prawn Island; or from Ganton to Vinewood. Vice City, San Andreas, to me those are open worlds, with an emphasis on the latter.
There's a location in L.A. Noire that I found particularly ironic, the crumbling set of Intolerance, one of Hollywood's earliest box office flops. You visit it twice. L.A. Noire in 1947 is, like the set of Intolerance, very magnificent scenery, much of it unused.