Organized crime is nothing new to gaming. From Grand Theft Auto to the Godfather franchise itself, there’s a longstanding fascination amongst the gaming public to put on the shoes of a Wiseguy and threaten, blackmail or otherwise whack anyone who gets in the way during the long climb up the Mafioso ladder. Mafia II is the sequel to the 2002 Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, and comes from a pedigree with a lot of critical praise. While it tries to follow in its predecessor’s footsteps, it gets mixed results, surpassing the original in some respects while abjectly failing in others.
The Mob Needs A Few Goodfellas
Mafia II, like the original, wears its cinematic roots proudly on its sleeve, evoking shades of The Godfather, Goodfellas and other mob fiction over the course of its tale. You play Vito Scalleta, a child of Sicilian immigrants who, like many in the 1920s, come to Empire City (a stand in for New York) and grow up in an immigrant district, living in squalor and idolizing the mobsters that show the only tangible promise of bettering his station in life. When the action starts, Vito is now an adult, a war veteran and ready to re-join his childhood friend Joe, who already has promising ties with one of the Families in the area. As is the case in most crime stories, things go anything but straightforward from there. It’s not an original story, but it’s told very well.
Visually, 2K Czech has done great job with the graphics in certain areas. Light is well done, as seems typical of most European games, and the character models in particular stand up extremely well to the punishing demands of nuanced facial performance in up-close-and-personal in-game cutscenes. The environments in Mafia II themselves also largely nail the feel of the 40s and 50s eras the game takes place in, with a progression of seasons from winter to summer, and some striking detail on the buildings and automobiles that really drive home a sense of time and place. The total package can be a little sparse sometimes, and the cities lack the grime and grit of Red Dead Redemption’s crumbling towns, so in some respects it looks like a kind of idealized, super-clean, Norman Rockwell interpretation of the 50s. Technically there are still some flaws, with the PS3 version lacking blood and blades of grass, while both versions suffer from the usual pop-up and draw-in problems of games this size. Screen tearing is also a regular occurrence.
The sound of Mafia II is flawless. Uniformly strong performances from all the voice actors really sell this Rags to Riches story, and the sound effects of the automobiles and guns is both authentic and immersive. The icing on the audio cake, however, goes to the music. A well scored original, orchestral track accompanies dramatic moments of the game, while the in-game radio stations have an amazing mix of jazz, big band, pop and rock music from the 30s, 40s and 50s. If you were too young to sing along to Dean Martin on the radio while driving along the freeway, now, virtually, is your chance to give it a try.
Unbalanced In Empire City
One thing that players need to get out of their heads when they sit down and play Mafia II is that it is an open world game. It isn’t. If that’s what you’re looking for, Mafia II is not for you. Rather, Mafia II is a tightly focused, 3rd person action game that happens to take place in an environment the size of an open world game. This is an incredibly streamlined game compared to its predecessor, with its races and its emphasis on following traffic law and intricate car damage. Mafia II has been simplified for a console audience and the result is a game that beats out the standards of storytelling set by its predecessor, while falling short in gameplay because of balancing issues with the content and its pace.
The biggest culprit is the driving. There is a lot of it, and not in the exciting “car chase” sense, although that does occasionally occur. A large portion of this game is spent simply going from point A to B, because there’s no quick travel option. Sometimes, with a passenger, some enlightening dialog can occur, but often it’s simply Vito, alone, making his way to the next destination which is either a cutscene or else some real action. To say that driving makes up the bulk of gameplay is not an understatement, but whereas the original Mafia was almost a simulation, with its painstakingly rendered 30s cars, its realistic damage models and strict police, driving in Mafia II has been given a more arcade-y feel with better handling, faster cars, and police that can still raise a fuss but are easy to lose with a quick change of clothing or license plates.
When on foot, the action is competently done in the cover-based shooter with regenerative health style of expected in modern games. The weapons are distinct, and it’s impossible to win by being a hero, as a couple of rounds from a shotgun can—and will—drop you in short order. It’s not an inherently broken combat system, it just fails to add anything new or interesting to the genre. There’s also an option for fist fighting, although this is useful largely only in scripted game events, as you’ll probably still want to rely on a gun in most combat situations. It’s a simplistic combat system, lacking the depth or visceral impact of something like Yakuza, which made melee combat a focus.
All of this culminates in Mafia II being a game of mixed virtues. It’s got a story to tell and for players that enjoy a good story, the tale here is worth seeing. On the other hand, there are a long stretches of inactivity that involve just driving from one point to the next in a large game-world almost entirely devoid of side missions, barring some collectibles like Playboy Magazine centrefolds, Wanted Posters, and activities like robbing stores, or stealing cars for extra cash, but money is plentiful and almost unnecessary in the game anyway.
Mafia II is for players looking to “play” a good crime film. All the elements are there, they’re just scattered around a game that has pacing problems due to an overly large world with little content in it. People looking for a long term, “killer game” won’t find it here. Instead, there is a fascinating but flawed game with a great story and a world that needs polish. At 10-12 hours with no multi-player, this can be finished in a dedicated weekend so gamers are advised to rent it or wait for a sale.