The Chicago Way: On "Mafia" and Open World Driving
2002's Mafia is either a good game when it lets you play it, or it's a bad game with pockets of good story and gameplay. I'm undecided because of its central means of interfacing with its open world: the driving. In open world games ease of travel is not only expected, but required. Without it, the game becomes a nightmare to navigate and stretches out its already thinly spread content, a natural pitfall of the open world if not given the respect it deserves. Mafia ticks a few of the desired boxes such as transport being easy to come by, destruction (in more ways than exploding) and variation in kinetic feedback. What isn't there, and what's most important, is speed. Being set in a fictional 1930s American city I hardly expect super cars, but I do expect to be able to navigate a world that is large and desolate by design at a reasonable pace.
Where Mafia stands out against other open world transport is its realism. All cars are equipped with a speed limiter, the universally accepted (in the context of Lost Heaven, the game's locale) speed being 40 miles per hour (Mph). Going over this speed will cause any police officers to chase you for a ticket, and resisting this will result in an arrest, and serious crimes being met with fatal encounters with the thin blue line. It's a novel system I rather enjoy. Once. After reloading save after save due to the game's spiteful hit detection and weapon range and sometimes poor placement of checkpoints (though generously provided), it becomes tiring to move at a snail's pace when the cars you unlock only get better. Outdriving the police seems like a good idea in theory, except despite their cars lacking in the evolution over the course of 10 years, they can "rubber band" to catch up to the player and shoot them, their passengers, tires and gasoline caps.
Hitting wheels to cause cars to swerve out of control wasn't particularly new, but losing the measurable gasoline was rather painful if your vehicle was mission critical. One mission had me following a truck to steal, be loaded with cargo, and then driven to a safe point which is nothing new in this game. What was new was losing fuel and running on fumes in a hot pursuit between the habour guard and the police. These moments are rare, and I'm both thankful and sorry for that, because they straddle a tightrope of awesome and awful.
If there's one thing all open world games can claim it's realism, especially the bad ones. Like real life, vehicles exist to get one from point A to B, and that's it. A good open world game can provide a wide variety of civilian and enthusiast models of vehicle, different modes of transportation as well as features to include. But realism in that single sense isn't enough, especially when there's no justification for not being able to turn it off if (or rather when) it gets in the way of a player's enjoyment of the story, setting and gameplay. It also falls flat when it forgets that NPCs will talk during car rides, or switch radio stations, something Mafia is rather absent with compared to other games at the time such as Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City and San Andreas. Only its sequel had characters talk regularly to take the sting out of long, slow car rides, in which the realism of legal driving worked to its benefit.
However little I may enjoy Crackdown as the games went on I have to say I loved cars had a secondary purpose as a large blunt object to throw at an enemy or as an explosive device. RAGE 2 mimics the Mad Max video game's vehiclular mayhem but without the terrain to suit it, but I admire that it features ad hoc and organised races. Before the superpowers of Saints Row rendered transport null there were demolition derbies which rewarded you the more progress you made with them, as did all minigames.
It's a hard balance to strike. Ask any fan of Grand Theft Auto which game had the best driving, and the answers will all be varied: from III to V the discussion never really reaches any satisfactory conclusion, so varied are the means of transport. The Crew with its quasi-simulation driving has a poorly bolted on arcade-like upgrade system, and games like the Just Cause series stop caring about vehicle controls when the grappling hook and parachute or wingsuit combination are far more appealing to use.
The open world is often a playground for exploration, combat and a developer's ability to tell a story, and yet the means of navigating it is in need of consistent standards above the current ones. Perhaps designers need to look back at games like Crash Team Racing (1999) where the "hub worlds" allowed the player to practice powersliding and jumping before a race. Where open worlds now mostly have features such as stunt jumps as some kind of honorable mention it'd be nice to see the gamechangers that 2014's Watch_Dogs introduced with hacking, shortcuts with Saints Row's GPS among many other features from yesteryear.
In addition to features, the most important thing to driving is the feel. Cars can have weight which developers seem to have down pat, but more than that there should be friction, throttle and if the developers can help it, engine sounds unique to each car (see, or rather hear Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing - it is noticeable). It's not something you can show in a trailer or a screenshot or in a fancy marketing slogan, but nothing helps me know immediately if I'll like a game or not quite like its driving.
Or just don't bother trying to make an excessive open world game.