Mafia II is upon us and ushering in a new era of wise guys and made men. If you’ve been waiting for this one, there is good news – the game is fun. Having shootouts in bars while bottles explode and glass flies, finding a mob hacking your friend to death, and going to brothels are all great times. Still, those moments aren’t the entire game, and the accompanying parts hurt the whole.
Mafia II casts you as Vito Scaletta, a young Italian who returns from World War II to find his mother and sister on the hook to a loan shark. Like any gangster in a gangster movie, Vito decides he doesn’t want a subpar life of the slums and goes down the organized crime route to make some cash. You’ll be with Vito as he whacks dudes, steals cars and tries on all sorts of snazzy outfits.
All of this is going on in Empire Bay, a New York-esque town packed with people, cops, cars and collectable Playboy magazines. Now, at first glance, Empire Bay looks like an open world – one teeming with missions and quests for you to take Vito on. It isn’t. You’ll have one mission at any time and it’s always one that drives the story forward. All the icons on the map – clothing stores, gun stores, and so on – are just ways to enhance that mission. Outgunned and dying a lot? Buy better weapons after restarting. Cops on your tail? Go pay to have the license plate changed on your ride. You’re not going to wander around the streets of Mafia II picking up odd jobs and meeting strangers; this is a world built around the missions you’re doing.
Is this a bad thing? Of course not – it’s just something worth pointing out, seeing as it’d be easy to look at this game and think there are hours of freedom in it. Problem is, because there’s only the task at hand in Empire Bay, the place feels awkwardly empty – it doesn’t feel alive. You cruise the streets and see other people and cars, but it feels like The Truman Show. Everything is happening because of you. There isn’t that “a-ha” moment seen in other games where you realize there’s stuff going on in these massive metropolises. Empire Bay is like an empty playset, and that hurts the believability of being Vito’s world.
That’s a shame, because what I dig about Mafia II is its story and the way it’s told. I love gangster movies such as Goodfellas and Public Enemies, so watching the exploits of Vito and his best friend, Joe, as they go from job to job, party with the ladies, and put the screws to people is an enjoyable experience. On top of that, Mafia II uses some cinematic tricks to really up the production value on the cutscenes. There are over-the-shoulder angles you don’t normally see and little touches that make the movies visually entertaining.
Get used to popping out of cover.Trouble is, the story is the most entertaining part of the game. I felt like everything between the cutscenes, which usually is shooting or punching people, was just something to get through to reach the next story bit. The mechanics of Mafia II are pretty much those of a basic third-person shooter. You have a bunch of guns, you take cover, and you kill all the bad guys so that you can move on. You can try to deviate from this strategy and get creative, but you’ll be blow away in a few seconds. Mafia II pretty much demands that you crouch behind boxes, pop out to shoot, and then go back to hiding so you can regain health. The cover system doesn’t get sticky, which is nice, but there were plenty of times that I thought I was totally protected but continued taking damage – especially when I ran into a fire-tossing boss.
There are some awesome breaks from this formula, like going undercover as a window washer to whack a main player and having to sneak into a guarded compound unprotected, but these are the exceptions to the rule. Most of the time, you’re just slowly moving forward and gunning down everyone in your path. It feels stiff – the animations drive that home and the aiming is never natural – and waiting to regenerate health is never a great time. The gunplay isn’t bad, but it’s just not that interesting.
When you’re not using a Tommy Gun or pistol, you get the job done with your fists. These are set sections – and there are a ton of them early in the game — where Vito needs to knock out his opponents. Again, it sounds cool and is used really well in an unexpected prison section, but the mechanics are nothing special – in fact, they’re eye-rollingly basic. You hold the dodge button until the opponent gives you the chance to land a light or heavy attack. Repeat the stiff animations and curse the camera from there until you win.
Mafia II also struggles with pacing. There are great moments, like when you’re driving a dead body to be buried and your friends are singing in the car, but there are mundane parts where you watch Vito pick up the phone and stare at the wall like a robot. You’ll finish a mission on one side of the town and then have to drive your car all the way home to park it, walk inside your apartment building, walk to your bed, and go to sleep. Nothing essential happens in this time. You’re just doing menial tasks to close out the chapter.
One second the cops are cool, the next they’re lame.In a similar vein, police in Mafia II can be interestingly aggressive and annoyingly conscientious. The game uses a cool mechanic where cops will report your license plate or clothing description, and then it’s up to you to make it to a chop shop or clothing store to throw them off the trail. Other times they’ll be stopping you for speeding or fender benders (while they ignore you blowing through red lights). Most of the time, I dodged these issues without a problem, but during one of the final missions, I ran into the fuzz three separate times on three blind turns and had to get out of the car each time so that I could wait while they wrote me a ticket.
Mafia II is an interesting mobster tale with some great voice acting and cool cutscenes; if you have a “made man” itch, feel free to scratch it here, but be prepared for a pretty standard third-person shooter in the gameplay department. The “take cover, kill everyone, do it again” mechanic didn’t wow me, but it didn’t let me down either.
Mafia II is a solid little game that’ll give you a fun ride – just don’t expect the world.