Home | News | Reviews | Previews | Hardware
Mafia II
Score: 80%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: 2K Czech
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ Adventure/ Free-Roaming

Graphics & Sound:
If you took a look at the score up there, you already know that I was not as hot on Mafia II as FenixDown. That's not saying that Mafia II is bad by any means. In fact, it is better than many other games that came out this year. Where FenixDown felt it was Game of the Year material, I simply thought it was "okay."

It probably should be noted that the developers of Mafia II, 2K Czech, have stated on record that the PlayStation 3 version had to have some features tweaked in order to fit into the development cycle, most notably the visuals. 2K Czech spent an awful lot of time detailing Empire Bay in painstakingly beautiful ways. This is, by far, the most beautiful and vibrant city to come along in quite some time. The problem is that, for the PS3 version, that beauty is fleeting. Everything looks great from afar, including the main characters, but when the camera comes in too close, it reveals the tarnished underbelly of Mafia II like rough textures and poor animations; something that becomes a major problem during climactic cut-scenes.

But where physical limitations of character models exist, Mafia II makes up for it with brilliant amounts of retro advertising and propaganda. Maybe I am a sucker for vintage designs and the wishful rose-colored glasses of what early generations experienced, but I loved the art direction in general for Mafia II. The 3D rendering did not always match up to the original concept, but seeing wanted posters, pin-ups, and authentic Playboy centerfolds for the 40's, 50's, and 60's really made it a joy to explore. (Side note: I mean "authentic" as in true, hardcore, photographic images of naked models from early Playboy Magazines. The "M" rating is definitely appropriate.)

If I had only one nice thing to say about Mafia II, it would be that the presentation is simply stellar. Everything from the art direction to the sound design and voice acting are top-notch. The spot-on voice acting for main characters like Joe and Leo are what makes the story so believable. A good cast goes a long way to develop good stories and Mafia II nailed it.

The music is also another impressive touch. Period accurate (sometimes crossing the line of anachronistic) music lends a sense of believability to the city of Empire Bay and it is always good fun to murder pedestrians and mafioso to the sultry tunes of doo-wop and blues. I wish there was a bit more variety in the score, though. As well done as the dramatic string instrumentals are, I hear the same violin piece one too many times. Since the soundtrack and score are so good, it would have been nice to hear more from it.

Mafia II has you playing the role of Vito Scaletta, a young Italian-American, as he manages to find his way into the mob. You follow Vito from a young age during his time in World War II until 1951 where he meets (and kills) enough people to last a lifetime. After returning to Empire Bay after his service in the war, Vito meets up with his childhood friend, Joe Barbarro, who has already made some connections in the growing world of the Italian mob. Joe pulls some strings and BOOM, Vito is in the mob business too.

Empire Bay is a huge, open world that Vito can explore, but there really is no need. Empire Bay may be beautiful, but it terms of gameplay, it is big and empty. There are three types of shops that are worth visiting: gun shops, clothing shops, and the auto-repair garage. There aren't any additional side missions nor are there any easy ways to make money that don't draw the cops. So the question really becomes: Did Mafia II need to be an open-world game? The answer is "No." The design is so focused on telling the story of the Italian Mafia during the 40's and 50's, that it forgets to implement engaging gameplay.

About 90% of Mafia II has you doing one of two things; driving or shooting. Entire mission structures only involve driving from point A to point B, picking up someone along the way, only to turn around and drive back point C. It would be understandable if there were story-related dialogue that fills up the long rides instead of just the first few seconds and then another five to ten minutes of dull silence (or radio.) So the fact that Mafia II uses an open-world is wasted on the design. It would still be possible to tell the same story without the needless tedium that exists between story missions.

So, how is the story? For me, it was Mafia II's strongest element and the area where 2K Czech obviously spent the most time developing. It feels a bit rushed near the end, but watching the rise and fall of the illegal underground is always interesting as long as there are characters that can carry the weight of the narrative. Vito's friend Joe is the most interesting character in the story, (Vito's senior tutor, Leo Gallante, is a close second.) Joe works as a character because he has a story arc and proper motivation. Joe got into the mob because he was greedy and wanted wealth and women. It may not be morally justified, but it was simple. Throughout the story, Joe goes through events that start to change his outlook on the lifestyle that he leads. It makes him compelling.

But Vito... he is either poorly thought out, or the performance from the actor is so completely lifeless that it is completely uninteresting. I did not play Mafia II to see what happened to Vito, I kept playing because I was more interested in the cast around him. Unlike Joe, Vito does not go through any sort of change nor does he have proper motivation for getting in this line of work to begin with. After the war, Joe basically asked Vito if he wanted to join the mob, and Vito might as well have said "Sure, it's not like I have anything better to do." Vito is such an uninteresting character that I honestly did not care one single bit when close friends and family around Vito are put into danger. They could have died and Vito would not have known any different.

It isn't often that I resort to yelling at the TV screen when playing a game. Usually, that sort of immature temper tantrum is reserved for "special" titles like Mario Galaxy or online shooters. But I have never filled an gaming session with so many four-letter expletives as I have with Mafia II. Sure, there are three difficulty settings: Easy, Medium, and Hard, but even choosing Medium results in wild difficulty spikes that range from a literal stroll in the park to a controller throwing, vile-spewing fit that was caused by problems resulting from the open-world nature of the title.

At certain times throughout the story, the game places you at a checkpoint and instead of creating a fair default state to resume when you die, it checkpoints any enemies or police in the nearby vicinity. So what should only take roughly one minute to drive from here to there, takes about twenty minutes to run away from the cops or rival family because you picked a beat up car when you were running from the scene of a crime because there were no other options before the annoying police officers were hot on your tail.

Mafia II also introduces an idea for law enforcement that not many others have tried. Conditional responses from the cops based on your driving habits or shadiness alerts them to your illegal activity. So accidentally bumping into a parked car causes a high speed chase that just takes up time. You can bribe the police or make a phone call to eliminate your wanted level, but I never found myself without the funds to bribe the officers, so it amounted to more wasted time waiting for the cops to pull me over, bribe them, then go on my killing spree again unabated. As it is, the idea is neat, but the implementation of the police left a lot to be desired. Either make them super cops so I should be terrified, or make it easier to lose them because all it is now is a game-interrupting annoyance.

Game Mechanics:
Since so much of Mafia II revolves around two mechanics (the driving and shooting), it only seems fair that I explain the nuances of the two methods and how it should have been better.

It doesn't matter what car you choose to drive. Every single vehicle has terrible handling at first. There is an upgrade system available to "tune" the cars which gets better handling for whichever vehicle you sink enough money into, but because the missions often restrict you to one type of car, it never conveyed the need to upgrade, so at any given time, your choices are either a car that handles too clunky and slowly, or a speedster that squirrels all over the road and causes more problems for you in the long run.

In much the same way that driving feels like I might have been missing something, the shooting mechanics also leave me wondering if I was doing it wrong. All of the shooting is of the standard third-person cover based variety, with (L2) aiming the sights and (R2) handling the business end of the Tommy gun. There is an option for Aim-Assist, but I tried it both ways, and tweaked the settings numerous times, and I could never find a setting that felt right. I was always over-shooting my target, or aiming too high when adjusting for recoil. I was simply frustrated during most of the shootouts and given that the last full hour is dedicated to everything hitting the fan, I nearly didn't finish the story because the controls hindered me too much.

To be honest, I had zero interest in Mafia II when it was announced. Now that I have played it all the way through, I'm still indifferent. I didn't hate it, but I can admit that although it is rough around the edges, there is some merit to the mob storytelling. For fans of The Godfather and Goodfellas, there is plenty of greed, betrayal, crime, and corruption to scratch that Mafia itch, but the frustratingly empty open-world and the unimaginative gameplay makes it the fall-guy for other open-world epics. It is disappointing to see the same company that brought us the stellar Red Dead Redemption earlier this year, take a step back with Mafia II and not live up to the potential.

-HanChi, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Hanchey

Related Links:

This site best viewed in Internet Explorer 6 or higher or Firefox.