It's Tommy Angelo's first job. Don Salieri is testing his new footsoldier in the field with a simple errand: smash up and torch some cars of a rival mob. But this is Illusion Softworks' Mafia and Tommy's success is down to me. The game has little interest in an alternate future where Tommy dies, gets arrested or simply does badly.
Paulie, Tommy's minder, sits this one out in the car. As I stop the car near Morello's Lounge Bar, he suggests Tommy enters the parking lot via an off-road alleyway.
On the first attempt, I miss the entry point I'm supposed to use and walk around the entire block. Sweeping past the window of the bar, I can see the rival family's henchman downing beers inside. I then flirt recklessly with the main entrance to the car lot – and the stooge out front immediately clocks Tommy as the wrong guy in the wrong place. It does not play out well. Fade to black.
Next time around, I probe the edge of the car lot properly and find the correct ingress. I let rip with the baseball bat and start smacking some cars about, but the guard out front turns around, raises the alarm and...
Fade to black. Try again. I go right up behind the guard and knock him out with the bat before taking on the cars. This seems an incredibly risky move because he's standing on the edge of the road. Surely someone would notice if I knocked a guy out in broad daylight? The game doesn't seem to mind. Smooth wood connects with skull and he goes down. The Thief-phile within me is desperate to drag the body out of sight but it's not a verb the game offers. The guard lies there on the roadside, a message to the world that Tommy's life of crime has begun.
I take the bat to the automobiles again but before I'm finished, guys pour out of the bar and start shooting. Not sure what I did wrong but... fade to black. I try again but -
Fade to black. Fade to black. Fade to black.
Then there's this time Morello's henchmen rush the car lot and I scarper instead of trying to hold the line. Tommy gets back to the car and Paulie is sitting there like nothing has happened, eyes gazing into the draw distance limit. I try to get the car going but... it's simply not starting. It's not bloody starting! A platoon of made men are closing on us and we're sitting ducks.
I bolt from the car and flee. I spot a train station and decide to risk it, climb the stairs up to the platform and hot damn: it's a dead end. I can see Morello's men homing in on the station. My palms are sweaty; in this moment, I am Tommy and the city is real. A train slides into the station and... excellent! I can catch trains in this game! I've escaped!
I alight at the next stop which turns out to be a bad decision. Before I can consider whether it's possible to complete the mission, I'm shocked to see Morello's badfellas emerge from a side-street - they've followed me here on foot. Tommy is trapped as they storm the platform. Fade to black.
On the next attempt, I end up fleeing for my life again but forget to holster my weapon. A cop on his local beat spots it and now I'm being pursued by both the police and a bunch of trigger-happy mafioso who the police conveniently ignore. I evade the cop but the game HUD kindly informs me ALL POLICE HAVE BEEN ALERTED. I have to do a shitload of running and hiding before the alert status is dropped. But it is pretty impossible to finish the mission at this point.
Fade to black.
Of course, I eventually pull it off. The cars are wrecked and Tommy calmly closes the gate at the rear of the car lot behind him. He doesn't run back to Paulie, he walks, walks tall. He's proven himself now. He's one of the guys.
Mystery Before Mastery
To the player, a new game is virgin territory. Although a well-trodden game trope can suggest what kind of play is involved, those first few hours are like a honeymoon as the player feels out the contours of a fresh game. What verbs are available to you? What tools can you use? How does the game respond to your actions?
Not every game works like this and tutorials often take the virgin bite out of the game, leaving you with little to figure out. A review with a double helping of mechanical spoilers can blast away much of this sex-with-a-stranger excitement before you've even installed the game.
Inevitably, the mystery is worn away as a player masters the game. Beguiling GTA girlfriend missions become repetitive, rude interruptions. The narrative colour of Xen wildlife popping out of inter-dimensional portals in Half-Life eventually degenerates into a typical boo-shock enemy-spawning event. The post-apocalyptic roads of FUEL are sparsely populated with trucks that head to unspecified destinations: but they're just extra decoration like the abandoned structures on the roadside. AI bugs and patterns are exploited to get ahead. Game scripting becomes more obvious. The new reality fails.
But I'm fascinated with the early stages in a game where its world appears to be larger than it really is, the AI seems cleverer than it really is and the developers always have some new trick to confound you. Your imagination runs wild with gameplay rules that don't exist.
Enjoy those honeymoon hours while you can, because they don't last.