We're constantly barraged with stereotypes of the mafia gangster. Television mobsters range from the emotional to the comical. Video games glorify the made man, and mob movies seem to have been around as long as the mobs themselves. It's hard to separate the glamorous images from the gritty realities and dismal outcomes of men like Al Capone and John Dillinger. The truth is, for every Michael Corleone, there are 10 Fredos.
It's no different in the world of video games, and Cosa Nostra capos like Mafia and Grand Theft Auto set the bar awfully high for the junior family members. So pity poor Gangland, a game that tries so very hard to rise through the ranks, but will never be more than a minor lieutenant.
However, you'll have to start off as a minor errand boy for your uncle Vincenzo. After all, you've only just arrived in Paradise City from Sicily. Your name is Mario, and you've come to kill your three brothers - a noble mission indeed.
Gangland claims to be an action/strategy/RPG, which is mostly true, but it plays mainly like a real-time strategy game. You highlight your little units and order them around. Instead of mining gold or chopping down trees, your runners will travel around the streets picking up the vig every week. Go to a shop and rough up the owner until he agrees to pay you protection money - that sort of thing.
Some of your frightened victims give you more than money. You'll need a couple gun shops if you want to stay supplied with ammo and you'll need restaurants and speakeasies to find new recruits. Breweries and other businesses can supply you with some more esoteric resources useful for trade- just don't let some rival gang kill your shopkeepers, and the neighborhood stays just the way you like it.
The "action" part of the game is far less successful. You and your rival gangs can get cars (apparently, civilians don't drive) and use them to get around quickly or do drive-by shootings. Unfortunately, the controls are difficult and the sidewalks are invisible, impervious barriers you will smack into over and over again until your ride finally blows up. Argh! It's a decent idea, but if they couldn't make it work better than this, they should have just dumped the cars in the east river.
The other "action" part might better be described as "stupid units"; you'll need to micro-manage your battles if you want to do well. Cover is very important and your tommy-gunner will live longer if he's kneeling behind a fire hydrant rather than standing in the middle of the street, but he won't think to do it on his own. Similarly, you have to manually tell your shotgunners and thugs to get in close where they'll actually make a difference or to retreat and use a medpack when they're hurt.
And you want your guys to survive, because they get more powerful if they do. Mario also gets better at both gunplay and business, which is part of the "role-playing" game and it's pretty cool. When you get powerful enough in your own right, women who wouldn't give you the time of day start looking at you differently. Pick one for your wife, and you can have kids who grow up to be the capos in your new crime dynasty, running jobs or maintaining safe-houses for you. It's like The Sims meets The Sopranos and it's a smart move.
Gangland manages to look pretty good while doing all this, featuring all the big, sparkling gold chains and medallions you could hope for. The city, civilians, cops, and various thugs are all well-detailed. Innocents and gangsters alike crowd the streets, stopping by the restaurants or checking out the flappers at the speakeasy, giving the game an organic, urban flavor. The only thing holding back the feeling of a real city is the total lack of traffic.
The sound isn't nearly as authentic and highlights a bigger overall problem: it can't figure out what decade it's in. The buildings and fashions are from the 30's, the cars are from the 70's, and the music is lame 90's hard rock. It's a fusion of all things Mafioso and it gives everything an unfocussed feel. Tommy-guns and Uzis just look silly when carried by the same gang.
So, Gangland is full of energy, looks good and introduces some cool new ideas, but like that movie mob character with the gambling addiction, it has a big flaw that eventually sends it to the fishes: you can't save your game.
If you beat a level - and there are many of them to beat - the game will save your progress at that point and unlock the next level and/or a bonus depending on how well you did. However, a single mission can have multiple objectives and take a few hours; if you have to leave for any reason, perhaps to let your sister use the computer or something, there's no way to save your game. You just lose your progress in the mission and have to start over from the beginning.
The same goes for actually losing, and you will lose a lot because even on the Normal difficulty setting, Gangland is damn hard. You will leave your bullet-ridden corpse sprawled on the streets of Paradise City quite a few times before you pass any particular mission. And again, back to square one.
The motivation to keep working at it comes from the multiplayer. Gangland has an arcade flair, and characters you unlock in the single-player game become available in the multiplayer. It's a nice touch that adds a little longevity.
But put simply, Gangland is an overachiever with too many character flaws to make it big. It just can't swim with the sharks. Save your money and pick up Mean Streets instead.