Mafia II Review

By Adam Sessler - Posted Aug 23, 2010

Audacious in its design and story choices, Mafia II shows new possibilities in the medium and merits interest by anyone wanting an adult change of pace.

The Pros
  • Incredibly well articulated world
  • Engrossing storyline and characters
  • Shocking attention to detail in game's presentation
The Cons
  • Minimal reasons to deviate from main story and explore Empire Bay
  • Stop-and-pop combat grows tiresome
  • Some character rendering poorly done, pulls you out of the experience

With Red Dead Redemption and now Mafia II, 2010 is slowly becoming the year of the American period piece in videogames.  Both games exist in remarkably well articulated worlds that exist less in history than in a collective American mythology built from decades of pulp literature and film.  Simultaneously, they function as something fresh and new and comfortingly familiar. Not just in their aesthetics, but in their logic and morality, yearning to recapture a time that may never have existed.  The ability to transport the player into unavailable worlds is the cornerstone of contemporary videogames, but these two titles stand out from the pack in their melancholic sense of loss. Not just of a time period, but of cultural motifs that have given way to the commercial avarice of current popular entertainment.



The World Is Yours

In these broad strokes and some superficial gameplay devices, Mafia and Red Dead bear similarities, but Mafia II is a significantly different game that offers up a tight, narrow narrative that is unlike anything I’ve seen.  You play as Vito Scaletti, a young Italian-American from the NYC stand-in Empire Bay who, after an unsuccessful foray into petty crime is conscripted into the military and shipped off to Europe during World War II where he is injured and sent home in early 1945.  Upon arrival his close friend Joe makes a call, gets him out of the service, and ushers him into the criminal underworld of Empire Bay.  From here, the game could traverse a conventional path: tracking the rise and fall of a gangster a la Scarface. However, Mafia II treads a less conventional path while still incorporating the iconography and conventions of the genre. 

This is an advertisement - This story continues below

Vito moves through a couple of families and sees his status rise, but throughout, he is mainly tangential to the major dealings of the crime families and the narrative focuses primarily on his and Joe’s decisions -- many of which are unwise -- and the consequences that follow.  In so many games, what’s at stake is something large: civilization, a city, a family. Here, it is just Vito and Mafia II is about saving your own ass. 

This unique focus allows the story to be told with far less bombast than normal games. There’s maturity to how the tale unfolds in that only slight phrases and facial expressions convey Vito’s uncertainty about the course his career is taking. It’s one of the few connections Vito allows with the player who, assuming they have ever seen a gangster film, is far too aware of the inevitable ramifications of his behavior.  This narrative is strong enough to drive the game even when the gameplay itself starts to grow weak; there really is nothing else out there like it.



Location, Location, Location

How the story unfolds in Mafia II is perhaps the most significant departure from the prevailing structure of open-world games.  While the city is freely traversable, there is minimal reason to do so, with little need to buy items or take on side jobs.  Missions are doled out one at a time, eschewing the “choose-your-order” style of other games and for good reason: this is what keeps the narrative so strong and compelling. 2K Czech has a story to tell and to break it up into self-organizing tidbits would only serve to dilute it. 

Empire Bay serves as a fully articulated backdrop for the action, giving the events a sense of place and context. This daring approach should be commended although I fully expect it will confuse and frustrate many players.  Where it does manage to drag on the experience is with the sheer amount of driving it asks of the player, with little else going on than getting from one location to another. Mid-way through the game, long stretches in traffic seemed as appealing as it does for me in Los Angeles.



The same care given to the story is evident in the shocking attention to detail in the game’s presentation.  Spanning 1943-1951, Mafia II is an exercise in the painstaking evocation of a historical sense memory.  The first time you are driven through Empire Bay, it’s a snowy evening in 1945 with “Baby its Cold Outside” playing on the radio. The elegance and innocent hope of the city is laid forth and continues throughout the game as a continual comment on the unsavory role Vito plays.  The cutscenes are choreographed with equal attention, evoking the requisite moodiness and menace. In particular a scene involving a loan shark where the minimal lighting, dingy setting, and menacing music playing with perfect pianissimo conspire to make the sequence drip with Shakespearean foreshadowing and dread. 

While superlative moments like this abound in Mafia II, the game does fall into a trap of “realistic” styled games. When so much is so well presented, elements that are not up to the same standards stick out rudely.  While male characters in Mafia II are rendered nicely, the women are another story, in particular are the prostitutes that work a “cathouse.” Simply put, Diane Arbus would think twice about capturing them on film.  Many of the scenes also involve characters eating food, a staple of any Mafia movie, here they are a single, flat texture.  In most games I would look past such imperfections, but in the case of Mafia II, the efforts in the design allow these blemishes to throw the player out of a deeply engrossing experience, if only for a moment.



But What Should I Do With The Cannoli?

The central gameplay to Mafia II are shootouts that are plentiful and, for the most part, fun.  The level of detail in the game extends to the combat with breakable scenery that is very successful at heightening the drama of a tommy-gun jamboree.  The combat is very cover based and you will die quickly if you are not behind a solid object. Although, the decision to hold down the a/x button to enter and exit cover is questionable and can cause great hardship in tense situations. 

While the combat, with all its drama is quite compelling early on in the game, over time it gives way to the limitations of the level design and enemy A.I.  The combat is stop and pop in the most direct sense of the term.  Almost all enemies will hide behind objects to occasionally lean out to shoot and this is when you shoot them.  Rarely do they move to alternate cover or keep you on your toes.  Similar to issues I found in the original Uncharted, you are trying to hit slender enemies from a distance and the controls, while solid, do not offer that extra level of finesse to comfortably lock onto a rather small target.  More importantly the repeated whack-a-mole combat loses its spark as you enter into most encounters knowing how they will play out. 

In addition, the health system alerts you to damage you incur by desaturating the color on screen, while this is typical of many games, in Mafia¸ it can take as few as two shots to bring the screen to black and white, which would be manageable if so many of the combat spaces were not so dark to begin with.  Throughout the game I found myself unable to see virtually anything on the screen as I waited for it to brighten enough to get back into the game.  The intentions are well placed; however, in practice, it only serves to unnecessarily lengthen action that would benefit from brevity.

While this would typically seem like a serious drawback, in the end Mafia II is such an impressive package and an act of such effective mood that it never impeded my desire to see what happens next.  Audacious in its design and story choices, Mafia II shows new possibilities in the medium and merits interest by anyone wanting an adult change of pace.

Want to play it? Why not rent it at Gamefly?