We live in an age these days where violence plays a big part in our lives. Some argue that crimes have rocketed through the roof, whilst others blame the media for reporting more incidents. Just think of it; how many times during the day have you threatened or thought about threatening someone with death? It’s quite scary really, but then again I have dreams of going round to the kid who bullied me as a kid and putting a baseball bat through his window, then swing at him in the front garden until his spit turns into blood. These criminal acts are usually linked to gangs around the world, most famously the Mafia (again, is it more crimes that have happened or just more media interest?). With references to the most famous family in history in many films, such as The Godfather, Goodfellas and even The Italian Job, it’s no wonder we all know who they are. Hell, there’s even a TV series from HBO called The Soprano’s, which follows the everyday life of said family. And now the Mafia are creeping onto our gaming screens. The appropriately named Mafia, Grand Theft Auto 3 featured them heavily and now Chicago 1930.
The two main development points that were made to push Spellbound Studios newest title are that you can take control of either the hoods or cops, meaning two sides to the story and a chance to bust some ass rather than chopping off horses heads and putting them into peoples’ beds. The other selling point is you can level up your team of crooks and cops in an RPG-type way, making for some new and interesting types of character building. And after the relative success of Desperados and Robin Hood: Legend of Sherwood Forest you’d have thought that Spellbound would have managed to grasp the concept of the isometric action strategy genre by now. Like I said, you would have thought so.
When I saw the playing area the first things that came into my mind were Commandos and The Sims, and that’s not a bad thing either. Streets have those old fashioned parking meters on the sidewalk, along with the old ‘two light’ lamppost. Back streets have cracks running across to give the feeling that no one really gives a *beep* about them, and cars look really convincing. It’s inside the various buildings you encounter that things start to go more EA-style (again, not such a bad thing). Almost all of the items in the room have a comical feel about them, from bathtubs to snooker tables and sofas. Lighting is also well used, giving off that old-fashioned orange glow plus shadows. Sometimes you walk into a room and see a massive shadow strewn across the floor and think ‘crikey, that’s a big fella’, only for the object to be a conveniently placed coat stand. What makes the graphics stand out above the rest of the game is they stay simple; give the player the sense of playing in 1930 without trying anything too ambitious. And I like that.
However, the problem that surrounds Chicago like a big black cloud full of rain is so much that was promised turns out to be just a load of tat. Just like countless other titles, on PC’s and consoles, the foundations are laid but not built upon. For example, you see your map to play in. The big areas fool you into thinking ‘wow, I can go anywhere I want’. No you can’t. What should have been the isometric equivalent of Mafia has instead turned into a horribly linear prospect of do this, then that, then go. When walking into a room stuffed full of items, such as paintings, a piano and bear skinned rugs you’d think you could actually interact with them in some way, like have a game of pool whilst the don talks over his ‘business’ deal. Nope, instead you can simply run the cursor around the room to see what you pick up and search. And the way the game progresses is frustrating too, as you can only talk to people when the game lets you. So to talk to the bar tender at the pub you have to follow a strict path until the game sees fit to have a chat with the man behind the bar. So strict in fact, that the game forces you to complete each mission in a particular way by either restricting the order in which you can talk to people or ensuring death everytime you try something new.
The other big element of surprise is the RPG-style level up, which sounds fairly decent at first but turns out to be mere window dressing for the horribly sterile and linear gameplay lurking somewhere underneath. This is because the various stats you can increase over time for your party have little or no effect on their actions, so increasing a member to the max won’t necessarily mean he’s going to be a god in the respective department.
Of course, you’re not alone whilst doing dirty deeds for the hoods or good ‘uns for the pigs, but the AI comes across as quite useless. If you find yourself being attacked, all you have to do is weather the storm for a few seconds because the foe doing the damage will return to his original position, satisfied he just kicked seven shades of *beep* out of you. What they don’t realise if you are standing right behind them, waiting to deal the killer blow with a bottle. Now I’ve never hit anyone over the head with an empty cask of Jack Daniels, but my guess is I’d have a bloody good chance of landing it on the money every time. Not here though, as swinging a litre bottle at an enemy’s head from only a few inches can result in an embarrassing miss. But not to worry though, the guy is so dumb he won’t notice you fumbling past, you can go round the front and have a go instead. Nice one.
To sum it up in one shot, Chicago 1930 is more Final Fantasy than it is Mafia. The poor level-up scope has no appeal and the unbelievably linear gameplay makes you believe you’re in a crap interactive movie rather than playing a game. Lets face it; If Chicago 1930 had been released a few years back then we might have been looking at an acceptable game worth a good look. But the genre has moved on, which leaves titles such as this outdated and far behind. Had Spellbound given us more freedom to roam the streets rather than take part in what is essentially a tutorial then we could have been looking at a pretty decent (around the 7 mark to be precise) title. All we can hope for is the release coincides with Desperados 2 so the credible reputation that Spellbound Studios has built up so far won’t be damaged too much as this title slips away to sleep with the fishes. Sad but true.