A couple of years back, I embarked upon a self-imposed mission: to bring back the spirit and style of the 1940s and ’50s. I began wearing a tie to the office every day. I bought a fedora and brown derby, and made sure to wear one of the two Monday through Friday. I even bought a trenchcoat, for crying out loud. All I needed was a tommy gun and I’d have been eligible for digitization in 2K Games’ era-dependent game Mafia II. Minus the Italian accent, mind you.
If anyone was made to eat this game up, it was me. I love the era, so its period-perfect soundtrack, environments and themes were right up my alley. I’m a huge proponent of plot and narrative, and Mafia II excels in both of them (almost to a fault — more later). I enjoy multiplayer games but am more engrossed in single-player experiences, which Mafia II excels in. Yet with all that said, and in spite of my personal mini-mission mentioned above, Mafia II doesn’t entire float my boat. To be fair, it doesn’t sink like cement shoes either, but for all the promise and development time this title had, it just doesn’t quite live up to any of it.
The mob has inspired its fair share of third-person shooters lately, and from just about every publisher. Mafia II is the most recent of the bunch, and it’s one of the better titles too, particularly since it manages to pull original characters and situations into the archetypal “made man” storyline. The game’s 12-hour campaign puts players in the blood-soaked shoes of Vito, a wounded WWII vet who’s returned to Empire City to help his family find a better life and, in the process, help himself to some of the finer things in life. Time to take-on some of those errand-boy missions from the local families, wouldn’t you say? Sure enough, Vito gets some dough, but money (and weapons) in Empire City have a way of disappearing just as fast as they entered the picture. Time to assume some bigger, “dirtier” jobs — and make some enemies along the way.
You know where this all goes, right? Enemies mean guns, guns mean shootouts, shootouts mean fast escapes in period vehicles, and vehicles mean long trips through a sandbox world. If only all of those things had been executed perfectly. The combat begins and ends with guns, of which Mafia II delivers mixed results. Like the environments, which are absolutely gorgeous and detailed, the weapons in Mafia II look great, but their beauty is only skin deep. Pull the trigger, and you’ll find that the simplest pistol packs just as much punch as the fastest-firing automatic, which completely defies logic and inspires more than a few WTF (What The Family) moments. Add the fact that some enemies seem to be bullet sponges, and you’ll be scratching your head on numerous occasions. The cover system is a bit hit and miss as well. The destructible environments do a good job at providing temporary shelter, for instance, but they don’t actually allow you to blind-fire from behind them, leaving you completely out of luck if and when you find yourself flanked.
This means that sometimes it’s just time to run, or to be more accurate, time to drive. The cars in Mafia II, 10 of which you can fully customize and stockpile in your garage, look and act just as you’d expect: gorgeous, hulking, slow-to-respond beasts. Whereas EA’s latest Godfather outing used a racing-game engine for its vehicular chases, Mafia II uses an engine that’s much more Forza than Burnout. Ain’t no powersliding here, folks, unless it’s accidental and leaves the driver wrapped around a telephone pole. Fortunately (or not?), the cops’ AI is marginal at best, so even if you do find yourself on the losing end of a Kudos run, it’s safe to bet that you’ll be able to “evade” the local law enforcement by standing behind a garbage can.
With no real worry about the cops, then, it’s tempting to run wild in Mafia II’s sandbox world and turn Vito’s bank account into a certifiable Fort Knox. Only problem: the sandbox is empty. Mafia II’s game world is gorgeous. It’s vibrant. It’s teeming with unique characters that seem like they’ll give you numerous side missions to justify poking around Empire City’s dark alleys. But they don’t. For all the strides Mafia II makes in plot, character interactions and environmental detail, the game never provides enough reason to really explore the world. It’s not unlike the game’s narrative, to a certain degree: great concept, intriguing plot points, but it’s told more through interrupting cutscenes than actually gameplay. The Metal Gear games may get a bad rap for their exposition, but Mafia II’s is even more frustrating if for no other reason than there doesn’t appear to be a reason for half of them.
I acknowledge that I may be overly harsh because I wanted Mafia II to achieve open-world perfection. In light of my personal style and gaming tendencies, 2K’s game could have been one of my all-time favorites. Instead, I’m left with a few fond memories but more head-shaking than anything else. I’ll just have to put my hopes on Rockstar’s long-in-development but seldom-discussed LA Noire instead. In the meantime, if you’re looking for an open-world shooter, head for the Old West and Red Dead Redemption instead.
- Score: 7.7
Platform reviewed: PlayStation 3
— Jonas Allen