Mafia II is 2K’s update to 2002’s surprising Mafia, then published by Gathering. The original title blended a solid storyline with fun gameplay, giving a fun twist to a shooter genre that even eight years ago was becoming stale. Mafia was immersive and very well done, everything The Godfather should have been four years before that title would see the light of day.
Mafia II capitalizes on that pedigree. It too is immersive, gets the details mostly correct, and has Easter eggs buried in the dialogue that mob movie aficionados will love. The game is beautiful; the city is unbelievably detailed, modeled, and rendered. At every turn, eye-popping era-appropriate details emerge. It’s a good thing that the city is so realistic and well done, because you’re going to spend a lot of time basically driving from one cut scene to another.
"…the game is completely on rails."
And that’s the basic flaw with Mafia II. Others have made a big deal about the linear storyline, but find me a shooter that isn’t linear at its core – presenting a player with one or two choices that then define them as more evil or less evil and moderately change reactions is still linear — but the real issue is that the game is completely on rails. Player actions make zero impact on how the game plays out, either during the levels or through the cut scenes. While keeping a player along a linear story path isn’t necessarily a problem for a shooter with an immersive story, having a part of the story become incongruent because a cut scene references something that didn’t happen makes the linear approach too rigid.
The bottom line, though, before getting too deep into nitpicks, is that Mafia II is fun, faithful to the original, and worth the time and money. Graphically, the game is beautifully realized, so that even something as minor as concrete dividers on the highway look like they were taken from photographs of New York during the 40s. The storyline, which follows the Mafia’s Prohibition Era into the time after WWII is perfectly set during the golden age of gangsters: a time of relative peace after the gangster wars of Prohibition but before the FBI took organized crime seriously. The voice acting and character animation during the cut scenes are exceptional. With a couple of exceptions, the dialogue is never cheesy. The characters have lifelike reactions and sometimes communicate through body language and expression, which is something very advanced for a game. All of this builds an experience that is worth the purchase price.
The game isn’t going to be for everybody, though. The lack of any ability to change the storyline in any way will have its share of detractors. Choices, large or small, made by the player in no way affect the game’s story. Want to stealth or blaze away? It’s all the same. Think it’s worth the time and effort to pick a lock rather than break a window? It’s not. Want to rob a store or steal a car for a few extra dollars? It won’t matter. No single choice you make in the game has any tangible effect. Stealth mode for this game is thrown away. Even in the stealth missions, if you go in guns blazing, there aren’t any real consequences. In fact, the stealth mission is particularly annoying because if you take the time and effort to complete it stealthily, in which your promised payoff would be higher, the cut scene still refers to you shooting up the place. It does this because the story demands that you have to get a smaller end of the money to launch the next chapter. If the game is going to give you a choice on how to complete a mission, it should react to that choice.
Similarly, the money you gain through the missions is worthless. You never are able to bank or use cash to unlock anything. Money comes and goes, as the story demands it. The only time cash comes into play is when you want to reset your wanted level by buying a new shirt and changing your appearance, and the amount of cash that requires is a pittance. The other big items cash is used for, either buying ammunition or repairing/legalizing a car, are equally worthless. You’re generally never at a loss for ammo. Your car isn’t noticed as stolen by the cops unless they see you steal it. Repairing a car generally means a five minute drive to some out-of-the-way garage to spend money when stealing another one takes a few seconds and is free. When you steal a car, you have two choices, either picking a lock or breaking a window. In practice, though, it doesn’t matter, because breaking a window is instant and doesn’t really make it more risky. A citizen may stare at you but do nothing. Cops aren’t more apt to pull you over with a broken window. In truth, you’ll probably bash up the car so much so quickly that a broken window won’t stand out at all. The game gives you many, many choices, but no consequences. That doesn’t really make it a choice.
The first half of the game plays like an extended tutorial. There is the Driving Level, the Navigation Level, the Lock-picking Level, and the Fist-fighting Level. These introductions are spoon-fed and go on much too long — especially since reminders crop up on screen during every action throughout the game. Once the story gets rolling — roughly when your character emerges from his prison term — the game becomes more fun. That this doesn’t happen until a couple of hours in will probably frustrate some gamers into quitting before seeing how the story starts to play out. Generally games with very steep learning curves are frustrating and unplayable. Mafia II goes in the opposite direction but with similar results. What’s worse, however, is that just as the action gets going, the story starts circling the bowl. What starts as an interesting tale becomes overly clichéd toward the end. There’s an annoying wannabe hanger-on that the main character hates but his sidekick loves. You can guess what happens to him. There is a mission where money is borrowed from a loan shark to fund a dope deal. You can guess how that deal goes. There are a couple of double-crosses and surprise revelations, but you can probably also guess who was involved and what was revealed. A plot point concerning the main character’s sister abruptly ends. I know this was maybe meant to show the losses mounting as the protagonist gets deeper into the underworld, but the way it was handled was ham-fisted. A story-based game that starts to fall apart just as the action starts to get interesting could have used some more time in development.
Because of the aforementioned linear nature and the spoon-fed approach, the game isn’t challenging even on the hard difficulty. Most of this is due to the dumb AI. Getting away from pursuing cops is shamelessly easy: cut a corner too sharply, and the cops will wreck on a lamp post or another car while you make two quick turns, then suddenly it’s Code Green. Sometimes making a quick turn into an alley and just getting out of the car is enough to make the cops completely forget who they were following, as if the guy who is three feet away from the car they were chasing has nothing to do with anything. The one mission where shaking a pursuit is actually challenging, the game cheats at it: the G-men’s car is unreasonably fast, impossibly maneuverable, and is basically glued to your rear bumper. The driving portions of the game aren’t the only places clueless AI appears. The shooting and fist-fighting bits of the game aren’t much better. Gun-fighting always devolves into hiding behind cover and waiting for the enemy to poke his head out. There isn’t much AI coordination or reaction — unless it’s scripted into the story. The AI enemies work together, but are incapable of making independent decisions and always follow the same patterns. Fist-fighting is the same way: hold dodge until your enemy is off balance, then counterpunch. Rinse and repeat – other than the sections where the game cheats. Even though the enemies start to become very lethal – one well-placed shot will put the player down towards the end of the story — the game is never very challenging because the pattern is so repetitive.
As good as the cut scenes are, they can also be obtrusive. There are vast stretches of the story where the player basically spends time driving from one cut scene to the next. It becomes annoying that, in an effort to extend gameplay time, 2K decided to force the player to drive ten minutes across town to watch a three-minute cutscene, then drive another ten minutes across town to pick up an NPC, then drive five minutes in another direction to watch a two-minute cutscene that precedes a short action sequence. Since driving like a complete terror has no consequences — cops will notice if you back into a cop car, hit-and-run right in front of them, or speed egregiously, but evading their pursuit can be done blindfolded — there is nothing more to these vast swaths of driving gameplay other than trying to make sure you don’t off yourself by hitting a culvert at 100 miles-per-hour. That becomes boring in a hurry, especially if the only reward is more cutscenes! Movie critics like to complain that video game movies are universally bad because they remove the interactive component — something the Doom movie tried to add back in to comical effect. By removing a lot of the interactivity-per-hour-played, 2K has colored Mafia II to be more similar to a bad video game movie than to a kick-ass video game.
Finally, four minor issues emerged while playing the game. First, the nVidia PhysX implementation seems superfluous. Other than some, albeit very cool, flame and light effects, the game doesn’t look much different with PhysX turned on or turned off, nor did I notice appreciable performance changes regardless of the level of PhysX detail I selected. Secondly, the checkpoint system can be annoying, but only because of the brain-dead AI. In one chapter towards the end of the game, the NPC that needed to fight alongside me got stuck at the beginning. Without the NPC standing next to me, I couldn’t complete the level (the exit point wouldn’t spawn without him). Long story made short, I had to reload from a much earlier point – about an hour lost. The third item is that while this game is definitely for adults – the swearing is hardcore, the player is rewarded by finding pictures of topless centerfolds, and the game is ultra-violent – but the intimate scenes are all wrapped in underwear. It’s almost like 2K decided that they weren’t going to get called out for a Hot-Coffee episode, even though the game is chock-full of adult material otherwise. It’s a minor thing, but when this game has as much verisimilitude as it does, that is something that takes the player out of the game world and lessens the immersion. Blood is OK, profanity is OK, and nudity is OK, as long as it’s a photo and not an animated model — I don’t quite get that.
"While that may be one thousand words of criticism, overall I would recommend Mafia II."
While that may be one thousand words of criticism, overall I would recommend Mafia II. It’s hard to deeply explain the positives because I’d hate to give away some of the more jaw-dropping ain’t-that-cool aspects to the game. It is fun. It is beautiful. It runs well. It’s very immersive. Just be aware of what you’re getting into and the flaws that may well bug you. If you like the genre, want to play a shooter that doesn’t denigrate into a horror-show gross-out (Crysis, F.E.A.R., Doom 3, I’m looking at you) and want to see a state-of-the-art immersive storyline, this game is a solid buy. If you want a fairly addictive twelve hours of gameplay, give Mafia II a shot. There might not be much replay value beyond downloadable content from Steam (along with a price tag) but for a game that gives no room for improvisation, it can be damned fun to work some Artistry with the Thompson.