Review: Mafia II

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Mafia II is a deceptive game in its appearance. Without actually playing it, chances are you’ll believe this game to be just another open-world “GTA clone.” The similarities are certainly present, but while Mafia II looks like a free-roamer and has elements of a free-roamer, it’s actually a very linear, story-driven experience trapped inside a sandbox environment.

That sandbox environment is Empire Bay, a fictional ‘40s / ‘50s-era American city clearly inspired by New York, which servers as your mobster stomping grounds in Mafia II, with the game placing you in the role of a young man by the name of Vito Scaletta. Vito, the son of a poor, hardworking Italian immigrant, isn’t an inherently bad person, but his lack of work ethic and lust for wealth and respect quickly leads him down the wrong path – and you get to come along for the ride.

Rife with cheap racial stereotypes and mafia clichés, the storyline — which took me just over 10 hours to see through to the end, for those curious about how long the game lasts — is hardly original. However, the characters are so well animated and acted, and the cinematic production values as a whole are so impressive that the lacking originality matters very little in the end. I certainly haven’t experienced a more gripping video game mob drama than that of Mafia II.

The game itself is built like any typical open-world crime game. You drive around the city of Empire Bay completing missions as they are given to you, with a familiar circular map in the corner of the screen guiding you to the next objective. 10 square miles in size, Empire Bay is a large virtual city, and the proprietary Illusion Engine used to power the game produces an exceptionally detailed world with a realistic, lived-in quality about it.

However, this environmental expanse really only serves as a backdrop to the storyline and chapter-based mission structure — to create an immersive environment that pulls you into the mob world – as there are no side missions or other substantive activities to do outside the narrative. Sure, you can earn money by stealing and selling cars, you can collect cars for your personal garage, and you can buy new outfits. But at scripted points in the story you lose possessions and money and start back at square one, so even these minor sandbox elements prove fruitless.

You don’t even get a “free play” mode after completing the game, so going back to hunt down the game’s awesome collectibles – wanted posters scattered around the city and vintage Playboy centerfolds – requires you to load into individual chapters and skip through cutscenes. The only comparable mode is exclusive to the PS3 version of the game, as the free pack-in DLC, The Betrayal of Jimmy, is essentially an arcadey free play add-on with around 30 score-based missions and leaderboards to post high scores to. It took me five hours to complete every mission too, so it is a meaty DLC pack — and it definitely makes the PS3 version the most attractive in terms of value and longevity.

The open scale and realism of Empire Bay’s design does create immersion, but it does so at the expense of entertainment. There is simply way too much time wasted on driving between mission objectives. Sometimes you’ll literally have to drive from point A to point B to pick someone up, then drive to Point C to see a cutscene, then drive all the way back to drop your friend off, and then drive back to your home to end the chapter or gain the next objective. 15-20 minutes pass and you’ve done nothing but drive around and watch a cutscene or two. I don’t mind watching games – I am a huge fan of Metal Gear after all – but having to complete so many mundane tasks just to get to the meat of the story and gameplay is straight up boring.

The cop AI is also ridiculously idiotic. You can speed through red lights or stop signs — sometimes even bump into other cars — right in front of a cop, but they won’t do anything to stop you. Yet in other instances you can be driving quite a ways BEHIND a police car, and out of the blue they’ll sound their siren and come after you for speeding. It makes absolutely no sense, and constantly having to fend off “wanted” status only adds more frustration to getting where you need to go.

Honestly, the only good thing about the driving sections is listening to the game’s outstanding period soundtrack, which is chock full of jazz, oldies and other classic music of the ‘40s and ‘50s from artists like Bing Crosby, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Dean Martin, and many others.

Mafia II also suffers from polish issues in terms of small bugs and glitches. In one in-game cutscene, for example, a citizen walked right through another character and the door he was exiting from. Another time, I went to stealth kill a seated guard and my character wound up choking thin air while the guard stood up. Then, as soon as he was standing he instantly keeled over from the attack. In another instance, I went to climb over a fence and walked right through it as if it didn’t exist. And a few times throughout the game I noticed that the voice acting would suddenly go mute for a line or two – the character’s lips would be moving, but I had no idea what they said. These things hardly break the game, but collectively they show the product in an unfinished light.

These drawbacks are unfortunate, because once you finish driving from point to point and get into an actual mission, Mafia II is a richly compelling game. Many of the main missions take place in confined environments and are more set-piece-driven like an Uncharted game, and the core play mechanics are fantastic. The cover system works nicely, guns pack a satisfying punch when fired, realistic environmental damage modeling adds a feeling of chaos to the gun fights, and the melee system, though shallow, is surprisingly visceral in its simplicity. When you actually get to whack some fools, this game is a treat. It’s just too bad the good parts are hidden behind so much unnecessary tedium.

For the first couple of hours, I really struggled to find my way in Mafia II. The way I see it, this game lacks clear direction, almost as if the development team couldn’t settle on whether to make the game a true open-world experience or a linear one – so instead the two styles were forced together like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

But I must admit that the more I played, the more the game grew on me. Had 2K trimmed away the false open-world grandeur and focused the game on its linear storytelling — using cutscenes as transitions between missions rather than dull vehicular navigation — Mafia II could’ve been something truly special. But as is, it’s a very solid game held back from reaching its maximum potential by a questionable design choice.

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Pros:
+ Gripping cinematic storyline
+ Detailed character models and high-end voice acting
+ Authentic period soundtrack
+ Core third-person shooter gameplay is great fun
+ Free Betrayal of Jimmy DLC adds great value to PS3 version

Cons:
– Way too much driving between missions
– Police AI is nonsensical and annoying
– City exploration keeps you from enjoying the good stuff
– No post-game free play mode
– Lots of silly bugs and glitches show a lack of polish

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available on PC and Xbox 360
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: 2K Czech
Release Date: 8/24/2010
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!