The good, and there is plenty
While there may be things that Mafia II fails to deliver on, it also does some things very right, especially from a technical perspective. The graphics teeter between very good and amazing, with one or two minor exceptions. The facial animations are stellar, and each character has a unique look and style. Even in a sea of medium-height, medium-build, Italian Americans with dark, short hair that all wear suits, it is easy to identify who is who, thanks to the details. Oddly, while the faces look incredible, the characters’ hands and bodies occasionally look blocky and out of place. It is a minor quibble, though. The voice work is also very good, and the casting perfectly matches actors to the characters they play.
Amazingly, for an open game world of this size, there isn’t much loading time. In some games of this size, whether it is an open world game or an RPG, the loading can be an issue. So much so that you fear opening a door to avoid the dreaded delay of game. There is little to none of that in Mafia II. The game is split into chapters, so most of the loading happens at the beginning and end of these cuts. There are some load times, but they are few and far between, and their omission is awesome. It is a small, but positive technical feature, and it won’t sell copies of the game, but it will make it a bit more enjoyable.
The city of Empire Bay is also beautiful. While not all that large (at least compared to maps like RDR’s New Austin and Mexico, or Assassin’s Creed II‘s Italy) the city of Empire Bay is graphically impressive. The jump in time is also handled well, and there is a very real sense of change between the Empire Bay of 1945 and of 1951. One reason for that is the music, which is also a big part of the game’s immersion. Although there are only three radio stations, the music is well chosen, and there are enough songs between the two eras that it never gets stale.
The combat is not bad!
Yes, saying the combat is “not bad” isn’t really a glowing endorsement, and it isn’t meant to be, but it is fun at times. Most of the missions that are combat-based tend to be fairly straightforward, and the story is woven so tightly to the missions, that you are excited to tear through them to see what happens next. There are a good selection of guns — not great — but you’ll always have the right tool for the job, and the targeting works well enough. The cover system is actually very good, although the hit mechanics can be a bit off, and you might still catch the odd stray bullet even when you are covered. The seemingly random headshots that suddenly and mysteriously kill you can get a bit frustrating, but you can generally avoid them if you have patience.
Hand-to-hand combat plays a significant role in the game, especially during a few sections where using weapons is not an option. The boxing-style fighting is fun and easy to use, and it adds a little something extra.
Going to the mattresses with your expectations
I am the first to admit that when it comes to video games, I am spoiled. Once I see a new game hit a high mark, I inherently want and expect all other games to match that feat. Go big or go home. It is a tough mentality to break, so some of the problems I had with Mafia II were mostly based on the expectations I had, and the things I expected but did not find.
If you have never played an open-world game before, then Mafia II will rock your face off. You will love it and have no qualms about the things that it is missing. It might seem unfair to judge this game based on others, but once you upgrade software, it is unlikely that you are going to be excited about using the old version, and that is what it feels like at times while playing Mafia II.
One big problem with Mafia II is that it lacks variety. The story is satisfying and deep, but for an open-world game, there is a shockingly limited number of things to do. In fact, it is very possible, and even becomes more likely as you progress, that you will simply follow the map from destination to destination without once bothering to deviate. And that wouldn’t be all that bad, but many of the missions are so similar that they feel repetitive. The story keeps you from looking too closely, but essentially you drive from one dark warehouse to an empty factory to a dark alley, or some slight variation of that. None of the missions are ever really bad, but they aren’t really good either. As impressive as Empire City looks, you don’t ever feel like you get to really engage with it during the missions.
Besides the missions, there really isn’t much else to do in Empire Bay. There are almost no side quests worth mentioning, and the additional things you can do are rarely worth doing. You can earn money to make cosmetic changes like buying new clothes, but if you do begin to invest in the add-ons, you will soon regret wasting your time. Without giving away the plot, there are a few separate occasions where Vito loses all his money, clothing, and weapons. Each time it happens it makes sense with the story, and each time it happens it is irritating. You do manage to keep your cars, but until you find the 50s sports cars, there really isn’t much point in tuning them up or customizing them.
Empire Bay feels sadly hollow, and lacks the spark of life that similar games project. There are a few reasons for this, but for the most part, the missions are spent in the shadows of the city, so you never really get to feel what life would be like in Empire Bay. Another reason for this is the supporting characters. The main plot follows a handful of people, and those characters are interesting and well rounded. Unfortunately, there are several random characters that are introduced, then simply disappear. It does help keep the focus on Vito, but it also is a missed opportunity to expand on the world around the main character.
Nothing to see here, move along, move along…
Perhaps Mafia II’s greatest failing is the lack of imagination. There are no little touches that surprise you or keep you guessing. While the story holds some twists, you will almost never be surprised by the way the somewhat repetitive and predictable missions unfold. You could spend hours driving around Empire Bay, but after a few minutes, you would get bored, because there really isn’t anything to do, and no matter how hard you look, there are no great surprises waiting for you. There are some hidden Playboys, which are interesting and further push the adult nature of the game, plus there is unlockable art, but the collectibles are not worth the time to investigate every deserted corner of the map. There are also areas that you may never go, and streets you may never see, but you won’t be missing much.
When most people think about America in the late 40s and early 50s, there are a few things that immediately spring to mind. Things like baseball, the early days of rock n’ roll, big event movies, things like that. None of that is present in this game, and it feels like a sadly wasted opportunity to delve into the psyche of the period and immerse players in the eras. If not for the cars and the historical reality of the mafia during this time period, you could easily replace the skin of the city, the cars, and the clothes to a modern setting, and you wouldn’t have to change more than a handful of lines of dialog.
There are also a few maddeningly inconsistent moments that seem to be thrown in to keep things spicy, but for the most part just make the game irritating. For example, you can blow through a red light while driving on the shoulder of the road swerving in and out of pedestrians without anyone batting an eyelash, but if you speed while doing it, the cops will be on you like a taser-happy mall cop on a skateboarder. As for the police, at times they are dogged and relentless… until you pull a 180 and drive past them, then they more or less forget about you. The wanted system will remember your car and your clothing, but neither present much problem. You can always bribe your way out of trouble if you need to, and so the police in the game feel almost like an afterthought and an occasional annoyance more than a significant part of the landscape.
The there are also the checkpoints, or lack thereof. Mafia II seems to not believe in them as a concept, meaning that you might very easily fight through several levels of a building and finally get to the end, when a single lucky headshot kills you and forces you back to the last save point, which could be a long, long way back. There are also no real save spots beyond event saves, so you can’t just choose to stop, you need to play until the game saves or risk losing your progress. It is not a major issue, but it is maddening when it happens more than once or twice on the same chapter.