Mafia II review

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“A great linear story, unfortunately set in an open world.”
Pros
  • The setting feels fresh
  • A lot of variety to the missions
  • The setting is brimming with personality
Cons
  • The open world is empty
  • The game tricks you into thinking there is more
  • So much untapped potential

2K games really swung for the fences with Mafia II. Unfortunately, at the last second, a ridiculously fast outfielder scaled the wall and caught the ball to deny the homerun. Then the fielder turned around and threw it back. After that the metaphor kind of falls apart.

Mafia II is a great game, with high technical marks and a compelling story tailored for an adult audience, but its lack of depth and substance will ultimately drop it from being a classic to just being a good game. Which is a shame, because it really is a fun game, and with a little more time, 2K Czech’s Mafia II could have been something special.

Mafia II will both benefit from and suffer from inevitable comparisons, and the release date will be the best and worst thing to happen to the game. With the shadow of Red Dead Redemption still looming, fans of the open world genre hungry for more will likely flock to a mafia-inspired game, but the depth and surprises that made RDR (and Grand Theft Auto IV before that) such a hit, are noticeably missing from Mafia II.

Welcome to Empire Bay

After a brief tutorial level in 1943 Italy, the game begins in 1945, as juvenile delinquent turned war hero, Vito Scalleta, comes home to the New-York-esque Empire Bay. Scalletta, the son of Sicilian immigrants, returns to find that when his father died, he left the family with $2,000 of debt, and the bill is due. Vito talks with his childhood friend, Joe Barbaro, and the two embark on a life of crime that entwines them with the three dominant crime families in the city, the Clemente family, the Falcones, and the Vincis.

Although Mafia II starts in 1945, the majority of the game is set during 1951, and both eras have their own look and feel. Empire Bay itself is meticulously detailed, and while it does serve as a New York fill in, it’s also a mash-up of American cities from the time that draws upon Midwestern and West Coast influences.

The various neighborhoods feature multiple locations to interact with, including clothing stores where you can give Vito a touch of class, garages where you can pimp your (stolen) rides, and gun shops to stock up on the tools of the trade. In the tradition of most open world, sandbox-style games, Mafia II will have you explore the city of Empire Bay from the docks, to the affluent neighborhoods in the hills above the city, as Vito progresses from a lowly grunt, hustling to earn money for his family, to a made man on the rise.

Fans of the mobster genre, rejoice!

If you missed the original game, Mafia II is a sequel to the award winning 2002 PC hit Mafia: City of Lost Heaven by Illusion Softworks, the company that eventually became 2K Czech. There was also a PS2 and an Xbox port that was graphically nerfed to meet the system limitations for each system. Mafia II, while building off the themes of the original, is its own game, with no direct connection between the two. If you played and liked the first game, you might be surprised to see the shift in tone from the original that romanticized the 1930s mafia life, to the darker and more realistic world of Mafia II.

The single best thing about Mafia II is the story. The screenplay for this game is said to be over 700 pages compared to the original’s 400, and that seems reasonable, with over 2 ½ hours of cut scenes sprinkled in. You follow Vito as he climbs the rungs of the underworld, avoiding backstabbers and cutthroats, and fighting his way up. Taking heavy inspiration from movies and books like Godfather II, Once Upon a Time in America, and Goodfellas, odds are most players will rush through missions to see what happens next with the story, and I mean that in the best way possible.

The story of the game is for a mature audience. Not mature in the sense that blood will explode from people like fountains of red death, nor in the sense that hookers can be picked up then hilariously killed in ways that are sure to piss off avenging soccer moms, but in the sense that the story is written for adults, with adult themes, and it is grounded in reality. Where in the GTA games, you might face off against a gang of dozens, and a realistic course of action would be to wipe them all off the planet, in Mafia II it isn’t that simple. You still wipe out a lot of people, but there are rules.

Where similar styles of games like GTA and RDR also feature mature themes and lots of violence, they temper it with humor and over-the-top characters. Mafia II is a dark and gritty game, made for people that want a fun time in the same way that watching Casino is fun. The game plays out like a movie, with a linear story that builds the tension up throughout, and by the end you are seriously worried for the fates of the characters you have grown attached to. Mafia II deals with adult themes, and it does it well, something that more games will hopefully take note of.

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.

Aaaaaaaand done, thanks for coming

With open world games, you expect a long and lengthy game. RDR can take anywhere from 20 to 100 hours. The same is true for all the GTAs. Mafia II will take you 12 or so hours.  Maybe 15 if you really, really want to spend time pointlessly exploring. Typically, 12 hours is a solid length for a game, and one that you don’t mind shelling out your cash for, but open world games are different. If you take out all the driving from point A to point B, driving that is there just to convey you from place to place and not part of the action, this game would probably be about 7 hours with 2 ½ being cinematics. That might be unfair, since the actual driving is fun, but with no multiplayer, few to no side missions, and not a mini-game in sight, anyone that has played a similar game will wonder where the rest of the game went.

There are scheduled expansions in the form of two DLCs. In general, I am a big fan of DLCs. I know a lot of people feel like the DLCs might be a cash grab from the developers, but if the original game gave me enough content to satisfy me, I have no problem paying a little more to continue playing a game I really enjoyed. With Mafia II, it feels like there was enough room to include the DLCs as part of the original game, and I am disappointed that they did not.

The first DLC is available now as a free PS3 exclusive, and is titled “The Betrayal of Jimmy.” While it is nice that PS3 owners get the exclusive content, 2K was forced to take out certain technical features from the PS3 version, including things like blood pooling under bodies, and better physics for clothing in order to increase the frame rate. In reality, these differences are negligible and you probably won’t ever notice them, so the PS3 probably has the edge between the platforms for the content alone.

A second DLC called “Jimmy’s Vendetta” will also be a PS3 exclusive, although no date has been set for a release.

Conclusion

Mafia II is a fun game, but there are others with similar gameplay that are much better. Fans of the mafia theme shouldn’t be scared off by that, and if you give the game a try, you will probably enjoy the 10-15 hours you put into it. But limited replay value, a lack of surprises, and a linear story in a non-linear world prevent this game from being the classic that it could be.

Mafia II is in no way a bad game. It just isn’t a great game, and the missed opportunities haunt what could have been a classic open world game. Still, fun is fun, and Mafia II is fun. Just try to dismiss all preconceived notions, and enjoy your time in Empire Bay.

Score: 7 out of 10

(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by 2K Games)

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