Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Nintendo Switch, PC and Microsoft Xbox One
Action-shooter Milanoir shakes our television screens with the graphic violence of 1970s Italian crime films, as we guide a heartless vigilante through the seedy streets of Milan to take revenge on the guys who screwed him.
Milanoir's homage to the lo-fi brutality, corruption and car chases of cult euro-crime cinema reaches nauseating heights at times, with a soundtrack too groovy to kill to and a tendency to always cross the line. But, like many of the films to which it pays tribute, Milanoir just about falls short of the promise of its trailer, and frustrations with difficulty and control tug back at what’s an otherwise sharp reflection of exploitation cinema.
After an attempt on his life in the toilets of Osteria Bar, Piero shoots his way along a dark corridor to revenge and finishes up stained with human ragu. Someone's set him up and he’s sent to a cell for a life of punishment. When he finally gets out, he takes to the streets with a bad attitude and a fistful of bullets. Cue the atmospheric rain and explosive hair-dos, and Milanoir is all set to take you on a night drive through the hidden identities and duplicity of its low-life cast.
Disillusioned as these characters are, their words are often hilarious, a little crass, and capture the tone of the dialogue we’d expect to see in the movies Quentin Tarantino watches in his PJs at the grindhouse. Expect bad language and nudity to go along with the bloody violence. Elsewhere in the pixelated environment, the streets are stained with oil, scooters are parked all over the show, and blinds hide shadowy assassins. This attention to detail gives the world of Milanoir its cold blood, if Luigi Di Guida’s accelerated, cinecitta-inspired soundtrack provides its pulse and soul.
Milanoir is a twin-stick shooter with a seemingly satisfying cover mechanic at first. Shootouts in abandoned subways and tramyards are filled with tough guys and places to hide. Crouch in the shadows behind crates and vehicles, wait until the right moment to shoot, and kill them all. The action has an arcade simplicity, and in the early stages of the game it feels as though you can lay down your own interpretation of street law like Dirty Harry in an alternative dimension.
Shooting at street signs rewards you with instant kills, as bullets ricochet and rip through your rivals while the signs are still spinning. This provides additional strategy and climatic moments when overwhelmed with enemies. If you have the auto-aim feature set too high, however, it favours bodies over the signs so you’ll probably want to dial this down to get the most fun out of it.
Black-glove stealth breaks up the action, as you hide and roll through fruit markets like Solid Snake, as well as some twitchy driving sections that aren’t too hot, and boss fights that drag on way beyond their welcome. But the main problems here are related to control, and they may not have been so obvious in the opening scenes but start to reveal themselves when the difficulty ramps up without warning.
With no health bar on show, you’ll have to rely on on-screen film damage to indicate how close to death you are, as the action becomes increasingly obscured with blisters and spaghetti stains. But celluloid burns fast and it only takes a few seconds of exposure before it’s lights out for Piero.
While its a nice visual effect, the transition towards a permanent state of sleep is too swift. Raise your gun from cover and prepare to swallow a string of bullets, fade out and start the screen over, each time forming a clearer memory of where the tough guys appear. “Cover, shoot, die” becomes a mantra until you can move the unwieldy crosshairs quickly enough to wipe them all out. At least there are checkpoints. There are options to adjust the sensitivity of the cursor and to set auto-aim at an incremental level, but I never found a setup that gave me the level of control I wanted.
I get the impression that aiming would fare better with a PC and mouse, so keep in mind that I only spent time with the console version. Bullets fly at you from all directions to the point that the game feels unplayable in parts. Sometimes bullets even pass through your cover, making it feel as though dying was never your fault. It takes longer than the handful of hours it should take to complete, as you move from one frustrating sequence to the next, and I just wanted to get on with the story. But just when you reach the height of your frustration, the euphoric music sets in and reminds you why you're still playing, and you're propelled towards the dark conclusion of its tale.
I’d have had a much better time with Milanoir if the difficulty had been dialled down. Playing with a friend in co-op eases this somewhat, but it may not be long before they betray you and go home unless they too have been enthralled in the story from the start.
I enjoyed being wrapped up in the drama and the atmosphere of the city so much that the shooting element became a secondary part of the experience for me. The soundtrack is the real standout and captured the feel of the films that inspired it - Almost Human, Caliber 9, and an entire history of Italian exploitation cinema. As well as a back-catalogue of films, Milanoir also borrows from the aesthetics of a rich history of gaming, with nods to Double Dragon, Grand Theft Auto and River City. It is clear that sound and vision were a high priority for the developers, and in this area it’s a real success. It's Milanoir’s compelling story and tone that drove me to play it through to the final scenes, rather than any compulsion to return to its problematic gameplay.