Mafia II Review: Smelling The Roses In A Life Lived Too Fast

Morning. The phone rings, I answer. It's Joe, chirping the usual advice. Get dressed and get my gun. I go to the fridge instead for a Master Beer. In the bathroom I flip on the light. I flush the toilet.

None of these actions in Mafia II are from cutscenes, and that is both the novelty and the shame of 2K Czech's long-awaited gangster game noir. Shots and beers are chugged, lights turn on and off, windows open and close, tubs and taps and the john all run water.

For what purpose? Am I going to hide in the shower and blow away someone from behind the curtain, dripping wet in my suit and hat? Am I going to interrogate a snitch by jamming his head in the commode? Do these things foreshadow any purpose in the game? No, no and no.

Like the staggeringly beautiful architecture making up Empire Bay's landscape, so much of Mafia II's details serve only a cosmetic, background purpose. It's a city that oozes the delightful charm of a richly detailed model railroad. The game's engine, however, steams along a disappointingly short and predictable track that fails all the expectations of depth such features set.

Loved

A Feast For Your Eyes: Mafia II's rich visuals are the game's calling card, and provide an inspiration to immerse yourself and even roleplay through the open-ended portions, walking instead of running, buying a beer before you meet your boss. There's no clock on your HUD, but there doesn't need to be one: the game's amazing quality of light lets you know the time of day almost to the hour. In the dead of winter you still know it's about 2 p.m. outside the dingy bar where you're supposed to steal a car. In early autumn, you know you've finished a day's work when the action's just beginning. Cars don't just damage, they get snow and grime buildup. Cover, which you'll depend on throughout the game, is nearly always destructible. The sound is perfectly atmospheric. Playing with headphones, many times I thought a far-off siren was coming from my own neighbourhood. The immersion this game provides in its set design is both its blessing and its curse, because it leaves you wanting so much more from your experience.

Acting: Rare is the video game whose characters can communicate clearly by facial expression. Those in Mafia II do, through a combination of superb film editing and extraordinarily detailed facial animations. Mob movies depend on subtle and unspoken moments and the ability of this game's rendered characters to meet the emotion of their human actors' lines is a true breakthrough. Vito, the protagonist, gets an award-winning effort from Rick Pasqualone. Games typically get you to care about the main character through the actions you share; I cared about Vito the old-fashioned way, through the acting. Sonny Marinelli's portrayal of Henry Tomasino, who veers from authority to outcast, nearly steals the show and makes you wish the game featured much more of him. Robert Costanza's Joe Barbaro rounds out the trifecta as a versatile character, swinging from violence to comedy relief. The story may get threadbare in spots, but the acting and dialogue are among the best you will ever find in this young art form.

Hated

A Sandbox With No Toys: Mafia II offers very few incentives to explore the open world it's spent so much time creating. There are no side missions, like its predecessor. Unlike its predecessor, there's no dedicated Free Ride mode. If you want to explore or raise hell, you must do it before you trigger a mission at the beginning of a chapter, or after the job's over. The narrative does its best to discourage this, as nearly everything begins in the morning with an urgent phone call ordering you to a meeting spot immediately, and ends very late at night. You will make more than enough cash on missions themselves, and pick up plenty of useful weapons and ammo from the guys you kill, to make the game's barebones side tasks - robbing stores and stealing and cars - utterly pointless. The saddest wastes are features like Empire Bay's replicas of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, Yankee Stadium and the Brooklyn Bridge, whose pedestrian walkway is traversable. Such detailed renderings would seem to beg for a sequence set in or atop one, and yet all of the iconic settings in this world are ignored by the story.

Empire Bay 911: The cops in this game are as trivially useless as its toilets. Their AI is just plain bad and easily fooled. I was robbing a gas station and a squad car ploughed into the pumps, killing everyone except me. Their tendency to ram is easily exploited and they rarely recover from a wreck in time to continue the chase. When your car is wanted, cops pass by too quickly on the road to fill up the light blue suspect-o-meter, or whatever it's called, that triggers a pursuit. I don't think anyone ever noticed me picking a lock to steal a car. Speeding tickets are easily outrun in most vehicles, especially if you've paid the nominal fee to upgrade the engine. Running red lights, a no-no in Mafia I, gets you only a scolding from Joe if he's riding shotgun.

Action, Packed Loosely: There is a colossal amount of interstitial time spent either on boring tasks or watching cutscenes. There is a ton of mundane, non-chase driving as a lot of the mission points are scattered throughout the map, whose navigation never seems to guide you to the freeway. The worst example of Mafia II's imbalanced design came in a chapter in which you're tasked to warn someone of an impending hit. I timed it: 7:40 combined cutscene time, 8:49 combined driving time (three minutes of that was rushing to the scene, but there was no pursuit), and just 44 seconds of action trying to help the guy escape. The amount of interactive time spent on setup is simply too high for a game this short - especially when the guts of your rise in the mob, as a skullcracking soldier and a dope dealing renegade, are literally condensed to cutscene montages. You sell cigarettes off the back of a truck in this game; couldn't one more hit, one more drug distribution job gone wrong, be included in a mission set that's largely templatised in the first place?

Played Out Again, Sam: The first six chapters of this game are very well written - perhaps a bit fast paced, but still believable and compelling. And then, once you get out of prison, the game makes every grab it can for the low-hanging fruit of the mob genre. Joe, your fat Fred Flintstone of a gangster friend, plainly defines the screenwriting failure of unearned emotion. Of course he loses it when a hanger-on character, who has maybe five lines, gets killed on the game's major hit. Of course one of your associates is the FBI rat. Of course there's a late betrayal. Of course there's a reversal of that. The game's ending is plainly written to account for either a sequel or DLC, but even then it's nothing more than a shoulder-shrug that makes you wonder why this supposed buddy crime story was worth telling.

Mafia II is eminently beatable in a single sitting, and its achievements and trophies can be plundered in the span of a rental. With no multiplayer - not saying there should be any for this type of game - I simply can't see Mafia II as worth the full fare. It would take a lot of DLC to get this game to a satisfying length. PS3 owners do get a free game extension - "The Betrayal of Jimmy" - that provides some structured-yet-open-ended mayhem that crime sandbox fans expect. Another extension, "Jimmy's Vendetta" is due for both consoles and PC in the fall. It probably won't be free.

There may be nothing broken or dysfunctional about Mafia II, but it falls well short of expectations built by three years in development and a seven-year-old hit. It's hard to shake the feeling that 2K Czech built six awesome chapters expecting to provide a game twice or three times as long as this, then had to condense it when someone cracked the whip and said finish up.

Many will marvel over the game's visual polish, destructible and interactive environment, and it is indeed impressive. But this is a mob game. I'm here to steal money and whack people, not flush the john and turn out the lights.

Mafia II was developed by 2K Czech and will be published by 2K Games for the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC or the Wii on August 24. Retails for $US59.99. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Finished the game's singleplayer campaign mode and replayed several missions; played the free DLC included with the PS3 version.


Comments

    The thing I didn't like about the demo was that there's no blind firing from cover as there is in almost every other gun combat game. However I do like mob movies and TV shows so this is still going to be a game added to my collection.

      I just played the demo last night and the lack of blindfire REALLY annoyed me. There was plenty of times I could have used it when enemies were advancing and I would be killed if I poked my head out!

    i dont know what it was but on the pc demo the cars felt "heavy". any improvement on that in the final release

    I don't think that the "sandbox with no toys" argument against Mafia II is a particularly strong one. The first Mafia was pretty much the same - it went as far as to have a completely separate "sandbox mode" (Free ride). I'm beginning to wonder if the reviewer ever played Mafia at all.

    beredan - I actually quite like how the cars handled, but that's probably because I'm comparing it to the car handling in GTA 4 (which was utterly atrocious).

      I'm beginning to wonder if you read the review at all :)

    The car handling in Mafia I was challenging but satisfying. From what I can tell this has been maintained in the Mafia II demo. The weight of the cars feels realistic.

    I remember the car race chapter in Mafia I was one of the most frustrating but satisfying parts to play and pass.

    Lack of blind fire? I don't think I have ever used it in a game, even when it was available so it's no issue for me.

    I'm really looking forward to playing this.

    Yeah, i don't care what reveiws this game gets, i'm still getting it. Not for anything but the story. Played the demo and there's nothing really like walking down the street with your pistol at your side, walking into a bar, sipping a few beers then going to kill some guy still walking over to the spot casually.

    The Mafia are just so god damn cool. :)

    Hopefully LA Noire will come out eventually and be great.

    Such a let down for me with the demo.
    I also thought that the cops were stupid - I robbed the gun store and they either ran in trying to crouch behind the counter where I was or they poked their head into the door, shooting when it pleased them.

    I ran outside after killing at least 8 cops where my wanted level was no where to be seen.

    Thankgod Red Dead was more than just an awesome game, it exceeded every expectation. I just wished Mafia II was released first - both so it MAY have been more enjoyable and more the sake of 2K and the sales it COULD have received.

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