Reviewed: August 27, 2010
Released: August 24, 2010
Mafia II is going to be compared heavily to Grand Theft Auto, and it is a totally justified comparison on the surface. Both games look very simliar, have huge open world cities, lots of cars, and plenty of criminally inspired missions, but Mafia II takes a more direct and cinematic approach. You play as Vito, a mobster killing people and stealing cars in Empire City, an open metropolis that looks like what I imagine New York probably looked like in the forties and fifties. The game feels like Grand Theft Auto, often looks like Grand Theft Auto, but is different in enough ways, that it is not Grand Theft Auto. If you are looking for another GTA sandbox experience, look elsewhere.|
Vito is an Italian immigrant who came to the states as a young boy, and has decided that he doesn't want to lead the life your father did. He was a lowly dockworker moving boxes (a job you get to cleverly experience first-hand) and you want more from life. You hook up at a young age with your life-long and game-long pal Joe, and almost immediately you get arrested when a store robbery goes bad. From there, a bunch of stuff happens, a bunch of people get shot, a bunch of fancy trench-coat raincoats get purchased, and entirely too many pronouns get unnecessarily pluralized (e.g. yous guys).
Everything about Mafia II is in service to the story. The plot is the single most important thing in the game, and luckily it is an interesting one that is well acted and presented in Hollywood-style cutscenes. . It's a conventional mob story, with many twists and backstabbings, but none that come entirely from left field. This game fits comfortably into it's genre and it sits there stubbornly refusing to budge. Things that happen in the story have real lasting effects on your character, if you get robbed, you don't have any money, if your home is unsafe, you will have to leave, and if you get in too much legal trouble? Well, let's just say I'm moving into spoiler territory.
Even the city itself is structured in a way to service the narrative. Grand Theft Auto is praised for it's sandbox structure. The city is a playground that you are encouraged to get in trouble in while you roam freely. Mafia II's Empire City is a markedly more sedate set of streets. There is less going on, and there is much less to do, but it feels much more believable. Cars locks must be picked, and are more difficult to steal, speed limits should be followed, and police officers don't just pull you out of a car and point a gun out of your head. They politely ask you to step out of the vehicle and try to figure out, ďwhat happened back there?Ē For some reason though, stoplights, and driving on the wrong side of the road are still acceptable practices.
The idea of following speed limits may seem absurd at first glance, but many steps have been taken to still make driving around the city a fun experience. For one, the city really isn't that big. They have condensed the world down to its most interesting vistas, and this also means that the distance between point A and B is never that far. Some may demand a larger city, but I for one am thankful for the limited size. In almost any game, not just open-world pedestrian dodging sims, a larger map inevitably leads to artificially extended gameplay. If the map had been larger, half the game would have been slow-paced driving around repetitive streets. Bigger does not equal better.
Another way speed limit driving is fun, is that pushing a button will prevent your car from exceeding the speed limit. This does two things. One, you don't have to watch your speedometer, or look out for speed limit signs. You can just concentrate on driving. Two, when it is time to speed, you have to physically make the decision and push a button. Having to perform an additional action to speed means that driving fast becomes a much more compelling and exciting experience.
On foot you are either fighting with your fists, or you are fighting with guns in your fists. Shootouts become a cover shooter affair, and it works really well. Corners are sticky, but not too sticky, and aiming is precise and fun. There arenít too many guns to choose from, and they donít feel all that different within their own categories. All the pistols feel like the same pistol, and all the machine guns feel like the same machine gun. Walls break apart and glass shatters as you shoot away at the walls trying to coax enemies from their hiding spots. It looks good and makes the shootouts seem like they are having a real effect on the city. Youíre not just shooting rubber walls.
Melee combat is frequent and oddly mandatory at times and sadly, not nearly as fun. When you go into boxing mode, the camera becomes inconsistent and lazy. You can control it, but then you are pulling your thumb off off the face buttons, which means you can either control the camera or you can control your fists. This is not a decision that should have to be made. When you're not yelling at the camera to quit stumbling around like a boxer who just got face-punched, you are likely getting punched more than your face can take, and it's incredibly difficult to counter punch. The fights are manageable, but it just makes you really wish you could pull out your gun and just shoot the guy.
Mafia II is a good looking game, and bugs, while still somewhat present, are mostly gone. Itís really nearly impossible to make an open world game without a few glitches here and there, but Mafia II does not have anything like the plague of computer hacking locust bugs that riddled Red Dead Redemption. The PS3 version only runs at 720p as opposed to the 1080 on the Xbox 360, most likely to keep the framerate and draw distance manageable.
One of the best parts about the game is the music. The radio helps to set the 40's and 50's tone perfectly, and there is nothing like driving to perform a hit on a guy while blasting Buddy Hollyís, ďThat will be the day,Ē from your windows. Itís certainly a different world than the one that we are used to seeing in this genre, but it is a welcome one. Three stations offer everything from classical to rock and roll with plenty of news and historically relevant commercials that make the drive times in Mafia II far more enjoyable.
Mafia II is not a perfect game, and it wonít be taking the throne from Grand Theft Auto anytime soon, but it is welcome to sit in the same court. Empire City feels real at times, but it is mostly an empty shallow sort of place when it comes to things to do outside the parameters of the plot. The story is interesting and certainly a driving motivation to get the end, but it is full of cliches, and the ending, as all videogame endings seem to be, is disappointing and doesnít quite offer the resolution many will be hoping for. Of course, a story should not be judged entirely by itís ending, it should be judged by the relationships that have been built with the characters, and Mafia II excels in this regard.
It may not have as much sand in its sandbox as Grand Theft Auto or the diversity or even the longevity (unless you like scouring the map for posters and Playboy centerfolds), but it has a strong story and story is what 2k Czech decided to focus on. Overall, it pays off. Mafia II is a fulfilling mob tale, and you will want to play it to the end. Just donít say I didnít warn you about the finale.