The original Mafia was the kind of game one felt like one "discovered;" a not-really-mainstream title blending a variety of gameplay elements into a mishmash that, while frustrating at times, offered plenty of rewards for the discriminating gamer looking for a hint of gaming's next big thing. It didn't get a lot of press at the time, was dismissed by many critics as an overly-ambition Grand Theft Auto clone and by all rights should never have been optioned for a sequel.
And yet it was, and I, for one, could not be more grateful. Mafia, as immersive and rewarding as it may have been, was just unpolished enough to make you feel as if you had to work to love it. The layered, well-written and well-told story evolved at a pace that was then-unheard of in gaming, and the feeling of being in a real place at a real time in history was overwhelming.
Mafia II misses the mark somewhat in that it fails to significantly evolve the core gameplay of the original in spite of being released nearly a decade later. While it does feel more highly polished than the original, the lack of rough edges make the choices made by the game's designers feel less risky and uninspired.
In spite of this, the game still manages to captivate through the sheer blunt force of its incredible immersiveness, first-rate story and excellent performances. 2K Czech have proved they know how to create a realistic period game that feels real enough to live in. The drivable vehicles, weapons, set pieces and overall ambiance mesh seamlessly into an appealing whole that's inspiring enough to forgive its lapses.
Splinter Cell: Conviction
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell series of games largely established the stealth action genre all on its own, and have made major contributions to the revitalization of spy movies as well. So it would be fair to expect such an influential series to be making major waves with its latest videogame installment, Conviction, and it does not disappoint.
Conviction is a high water mark for the series, successfully blending a first-rate narrative with a return to the kinds of missions that made early entries great. Impositions placed on the character through narrative circumstance create a genuine tension as you play the game. Sure, it would be nice to have unlimited gadgets and explosives with which to solve your problems (who can't relate?) but the joy is in the discovery of how, even with limited options, multiple solutions still exist. Part puzzler, part stealth, part shooter, Conviction is the kind of game that blends just enough of the rights parts of different genres to make the whole feel more than the sum of its parts.
It also doesn't hurt that, through innovative use of texture and light, load screens and out-of-game mission briefings have been largely abolished in favor of delivering critical information directly to the player through the game. Critics and gamers alike largely overlooked these innovations, because they felt so "right" it was hard to recall they hadn't been there all along.
Sometimes a game doesn't have to be revolutionary or even evolutionary to be one of the best games of the year. Not for me anyway. Crackdown 2 is in that camp.
While Crackdown 2 offers only marginal improvements to the formula of the original game, the original game was so much damn fun that it really only needed marginal improvement. As a friend described it to me at the time, the premise of Crackdown is basically, Grand Theft Auto, except you're Superman. It's an open world, full of things to destroy, and your ability to destroy them is limited only by your imagination and the current state of your character advancement. It's one of the very few games in which the fun is not overly inhibited at lower levels, but becomes even more fun the longer you play.
Crackdown 2 adds a beefier story to the mix, along with some extra firepower, a new enemy and a tweak to the original game's faction system. You're still in Pacific City, you still work for The Agency, you can still leap and you will still drive a supercar and be able to throw it at people. Basically, it's the same game, but better. And just betterer enough to be more awe than "aw, man."