Mafia II Review
Developer: 2K Czech / Publisher: 2K Games / ESRB: Mature (Blood, Intense Violence, Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Use of Drugs and Alcohol) / Played on: PS3 / Price: $59.99
Hands-up, who played the original Mafia on PC? It sold some two million copies, but that was a long time ago. If you didn’t, what you missed was a stylish third-person action game, heavy on lore, overly burdened by minutiae, but ultimately compelling for its setting and story. Flash forward eight years and the sequel makes you wonder if the developers hadn’t spent all that time at film school. Mafia II is a game high on cinematic art and story, but surprisingly lacking in core gameplay. Here’s the details.
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There’s no doubt, Mafia II is all about its story. It lives and dies on your acceptance and appreciation of its narrative. Set in Empire City, an amalgam of New York city and a couple of its boroughs, it tells a very tightly scripted tale of hoodlum Vito Scalleta returning from war and getting ahead by working for the city’s leading gang bosses. Throughout, the dialogue is brisk, with each line realistically delivered. That’s important because so much of the draw of the 10 to 12 hours you’ll spend in Empire City depends on you wanting to find out what happens next. While the story is not particularly earth-shattering or mind-bending, it’s well written, gritty in the right places, and stuffed with believable characters straight out of The Sopranos via Goodfellas.
The setting, though fictional, is also decidedly real. Empire City itself looks phenomenal; it’s richly detailed and well laid out. The period cars, outfits, and even attitudes don’t let you forget that this is 1945, and after a few chapters, 1951 Americana. The three radio stations you can listen to in the cars or on your apartment’s radio blare out licensed classic tracks from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, the Angel Sisters, and more. It definitely helps reinforce the time and place, but if your musical preferences don’t dip that far into the past, you may want to hit the off button. Similarly, I’m a longtime Playboy subscriber–for the articles–and the inclusion of classic pin-ups is an appreciated bonus (though the statistic tracking the time you spent browsing your collection is a little unnerving).
Where Mafia II comes undone is really rather surprising. It pretends to be an open-world game, but in fact, while all of Empire City is accessible from the first moment, you’re led down such a narrow and linear path that there’s little reason to deviate. On a breakdown of what you actually “do” in the game, it’s about 60% driving, 30% watching cutscenes, 7% shooting bad guys, 2% exploring the city and locations, and 1% chasing the requirements for the Achievements and Trophies.
Though the story tells a tale of wrangling between gang cartels you don’t have any choice in its direction. Certain set pieces give an indication that the result could go one way or another, but your successes or failures appear pre-determined. I’ll caveat that with having done one playthrough, and at least one trophy suggests that I may have seen a different outcome in one rescue mission. But it’s shallow player involvement in the core story at best.
The shootouts themselves are fun enough without being overly challenging. The interface lets you carry a couple of machineguns to support your hand gun arsenal, all of which can be boosted with a visit to the town’s gun shops. An effective cover system works well enough to keep you safe when the environment explodes in shrapnel. Neat details like apples rolling out of a box when it’s hit in the crossfire illustrate a cool attention to minutiae.
As any Mafia veteran will recall, avoiding the police is vital. They’ll not bat an eye if you blow through a red light, but if you’re speeding they’ll be after you, though losing them really isn’t too difficult. Even if you shoot one of the city’s finest and they turn up en masse it’s possible to escape and change clothes and car to remove the Wanted tags. In fact, I rarely died in combat. Most of my restarts came when trying to earn the Trophy for driving 125mph, but then hitting a lamppost or wall causing an insta-death.
Mafia II is a little bizarre. Like, I thought I might be playing it wrong, such was its so well choreographed direction. Trophies suggested I could do car-stealing duties for extra cash, but each time during the chapter progression that I visited the car dealer he said he didn’t have any jobs. So while Empire City is open, it’s no GTA. The fact that you can turn on faucets, lights, and flush toilets is cool but totally useless. An extra DLC mode for the PS3 does make up for the widely reported graphical details that had to be nixed to maintain framerate.
In the end, Mafia II is a new kind of genre: the Occasionally Interactive Movie. Given its time in development, the lack of significant gameplay depth is more surprising than deeply disappointing. I mean, I certainly enjoyed it, appreciated the attention to detail in its depiction of the period, but was surprised there was little meat in such a large playground. Fans of gangster fiction will find enough to plow through to the finale, but will also have expected more to do along the way.