When publishers set out to make an urban crime game set in a realistic city, they walk a fine line. While no one (except maybe the Saints Row people) wants to be known as simply a “GTA clone,” game makers also don’t want to stray too far from Rockstar’s extraordinarily successful recipe. With Mafia II, 2K Czech has certainly made enough changes to differentiate the game from GTA, but some of their choices, while new and interesting, strip away many of the elements that make open-world games so much fun to “live” in and explore.
Mafia II tells the tale of Vito Scaletta, an Italian-American World War II veteran who attempts to join a mob family to get his family out of a financial conundrum and make himself some money. Starting out small, Vito and his lifelong friend, Joe, embark on a series of heists, double-crosses, and massacres that gain the attention of very important people in the major families of Empire Bay, which is just like New York City, except it’s called Empire Bay. As the story progresses, the perspective jumps from 1945 to 1951, offering two slightly different versions of the city.
Modeling itself after Goodfellas, The Godfather, and every other mob movie ever, Mafia II’s story ends up feeling more like a direct-to-DVD effort than a blockbuster. Vito, with his stoic demeanor and dry sense of humor, makes for a pretty good protagonist, and Robert Costanzo gives a stellar performance as Joe, but the rest of the mafioso characters come off a bit generic, and tend to blend together into one big nebulous goomba who alternates between telling you what to do and trying to kill you. Most of the characters, even if they’re a bit indistinct, are well voiced, but one character, Vito’s sister, sounds like a cheesy damsel from a Dick Tracy serial. Her scenes are pure torture.
Mafia II is in no way a GTA clone. Despite the fact that both games take place in expansive, lightly fictionalized versions of New York and involve criminal endeavors, the two games actually aren’t all that similar. Most open world games fill their city maps with side missions and diversions to extend the games’ play-time and make the city feel more robust. Mafia II is a much more linear experience. When Vito wakes up every day, he’s funneled into a series of cut-scenes, driving, and action sequences that make up a chapter. Other than buying new weapons, cars, and clothes, there isn’t much to do outside of the main missions. Players can choose to collect and upgrade cars, then store up to ten of them in their garage, but since the game forces the player to use specific, non-customized vehicles for most of the mission, there’s not much point in it. It’s a shame, too, because so much of the game is spent driving to the next objective, which is invariably all the way across the city. Technically, Mafia II is an open-world game, but it does nothing to take advantage of this fact.
Once Vito is in a mission, players will face one of three types of challenges. Most missions include at least one shooting section, where Vito (frequently accompanied by a surprisingly capable AI teammate) must blast his way through enemies using cover. Gunplay feels good, with suitably powerful and accurate weapons, and the cover system is excellent, letting players remain in cover while working their way around corners. Wise use of cover is absolutely essential to success, as enemies often swarm, and have uncanny accuracy, especially later in the game. The only major knock on gunfights is the annoying tendency of enemies to suddenly spawn in the same room as Vito, setting players up for unfair deaths from enemies that were never visible.
When Vito isn’t blasting opponents, he’s often found punching them in the head. Many missions, especially in the middle of the game, when Vito leaves the city for an extended period, involve one-on-one hand-to-hand combat. These sequences are overly simplistic and extremely easy to beat. Players need to hold down the block button until their opponent throws a punch, then counter-punch when they block. Luckily, Mafia II’s stealth sequences fare much better, offering a simple, but fun alternative to the constant firefights.
Instead of allowing players to explore the city, seeking out new side jobs and diversions, Mafia II forces the player, as part of the story, to take part in a series of menial tasks. Vito will spend time in a warehouse stacking boxes, in a prison scrubbing urinals, and squeegeeing the windows of a skyscraper. These sequences are intended to further immerse players in Vito’s world, but they’re actually just boring, and add nothing to the experience.
Despite the fact that so much of Vito’s time is spent driving from point A to point B, driving is something of a chore in Empire Bay. Since the game takes place in the 1940s and 50s, cars just aren’t that fast. Even after fully tuning a vehicle, road travel can feel sluggish and tedious. There are a few new mechanics when on the road, and while several of them are very interesting innovations, in practice, they end up hurting the game. Police in Mafia II are far more vigilant than the ones found in Liberty City; they’ll pull players over for speeding or colliding with another vehicle. While this may make the game more realistic, it definitely doesn’t make it any more fun. Luckily, minor violations like these can be dealt with by getting out of the vehicle and paying a $50 fine, so players won’t constantly be on the run, but stopping to pay a ticket is a great way to kill a game’s momentum. A speedometer in the lower right corner of the screen is a nice touch, and the ability to turn on a speed limiter helps players navigate Empire Bay with less police interference, but it also makes an already slow driving system even slower. It may, however, save Vito’s life a few times; Players who are used to 90 mph collisions with no consequences should be prepared to watch their protagonist die frequently, as major crashes are almost always fatal.
As uneven as Mafia II’s gameplay is, there’s no denying that it’s an absolutely gorgeous looking game. Empire Bay is beautiful, with an incredible amount of detail that no other open world city can match. The period-accurate cars look great, and show realistic damage modeling, and even wheel wells that fill with smoke when players burn out. Every store front, trash can and lamp post is highly detailed, and really makes the city look like a real place. Character models look fantastic as well, especially in cut-scenes, but they do suffer from some weird, stiff animations. Mafia II’s level of visual polish is apparent in every aspect of the game; characters’ facial muscles move subtly while talking, wine glasses contain “wine” that’s subject to gravity, and gun barrels, even close up, look round instead of octagonal. Destructible environments further enhance the game’s visual presentation, and some excellent set pieces help to make the somewhat straight-forward shooting sequences more memorable and unique.
For the most part, Mafia II sounds great, too, though its audio presentation isn’t nearly as consistent as its graphics. All the standard city sounds are present and accounted for, though pedestrians are mostly silent (except when you try to run them over). Cars can tune into three radio stations, which feature a ton of period music. The problem is that every day, and every time a player restarts a mission, the radio stations reset, meaning that the same ten songs are repeated ad nauseum. If I never hear “In the Still of the Night” or “Who Wrote the Book of Love?” again, I’ll be a happy man. Far more jarring, however, are the occasional news stories that interrupt stations’ regularly scheduled programming. These are delivered by a hacky radio DJ type who would feel more at home in the 1970s or 80s than in post-war America, and they only serve to pull the player out of an open world that isn’t all that engrossing to begin with.
Mafia II isn’t a bad game, but it’s an extremely uneven effort that fails as often as it succeeds. Every clever new innovation is matched by a frustrating game mechanic or mission element. Every thrilling combat sequence is sullied by a tedious manual labor sequence. It’s a game that can’t seem to get out of its own way. There are some intriguing gameplay concepts in Mafia II, and some of them will undoubtedly be aped by other games. Hopefully, other publishers will be able to implement them better, and make them enhance the open world experience instead of holding it back.