September 11, 2010
Glorifying the Mafioso lifestyle for entertainment purposes is nothing new. For years we’ve been watching classic Mafia related films like The Godfather, Goodfellas and Scarface; and playing games that have taken inspiration from those films that we’ve come to know and love. While the films are generally held as classics, games that are specifically Mafia-centric though have rarely captured the imagination. Sure, Vice City had elements of Scarface and many GTA games have used the Mafia as a means to an end, but the Godfather and Scarface games are closer to shovelware than triple-A. There is one aptly named franchise though that has really portrayed what it means to be a wiseguy, but its last outing on console was a complete mess. Of course, I’m talking Mafia, and with original developers Illusion Softworks – now 2K Czech – behind the helm once again, they have a point to prove and intend to put Mafia on the map. Well, on consoles anyway.
Set over a ten year period, Mafia II tells the story of Vito Scaletta and his rise from rags to riches. Son of immigrant Sicilians, Scaletta as a young boy moved to the fictional city of Empire Bay and grew up with lofty goals of being a somebody. After being caught in a precarious situation with long-time childhood friend Joe Barbaro, Vito is shipped off to fight in World War 2, leaving his childhood friend and the inevitable life of crime behind him. The tale begins with the recently injured Vito, returning to America and reuniting with Joe, who is now aligned with some seriously connected people .
The main story in Mafia II revolves around the three Mafia families in the 1940s and 1950s in Empire Bay and maps the internal power struggle amongst them all. While for the most part, the events told in Mafia II’s story are as clichéd as you get and as predictable as the UK’s weather, the game’s highlights revolve around its strong cast of characters and their powerful voice performances. Sure, it’s easy to guess what’s coming next in the same way it was in Casino, but watching the events play out is the lure of 2K Czech’s return to the franchise.
The biggest character of the title though, and I realise it’s become somewhat clichéd to say this in terms of sandbox games in this day and age, is the city itself. Empire Bay could be deemed as close to a perfect authentic replication of a mid-nineteenth century city that we’ve ever seen in digital form and that’s not just down to its impressive draw distance and general ambience, but also its attention to detail. With its scripted mission structure, that not only allows 2K Czech to be able to control events like the time of day and the weather, but the placing of NPCs going about their daily life; like the elderly woman scrubbing the floors in your apartment block and the locals recognising you after your long absence, to the police banging on your neighbour’s door and a wife shouting down to the street telling her husband’s friends to take their troublesome antics elsewhere. It’s all pretty marvellous stuff.
The city wouldn’t seem as alive though if it wasn’t for the game’s soundtrack, which is suitably authentic, and in a word, sublime. Not only does Mafia II feature an eclectic mood-setting original score, but with the likes of Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Little Richard and Eddie Cochrane supporting with classic tracks as well, the accompanying audio helps embed you in this 1950s American setting.
Starting as a nobody, Vito will have to gain the trust of his esteemed colleagues across 15 chapters which will see him silently infiltrate a slaughterhouse, perform drug trades with the nefarious Chinese locals and generally be the Mafia’s go-to guy.
The third person shooter stuff is of standard fare really, with only a small array of guns and projectiles to use at your disposal and a fairly competent cover mechanic. The hand-to-hand combat system is pretty mundane and thankfully, it’s not often you’ll have to resort to using your fists – only in certain fight situations. Interestingly, 2K Czech opted not to give the player the ability to blind-fire, which is an oversight if you ask me, especially seeing as your foes can do it. Your foes’ AI though, flicks between stunning and completely idiotic at times. One minute they’ll be switching cover, moving positions and generally working together to flank you and the next minute they’ll be charging at you with their gun in the air without a care in the world. Don’t even get me started on the “stealth” mechanics and detection AI, which are as bad as Alpha Protocol. You can near enough stand next to them and they wouldn’t even see you.
Unfortunately most of your time in Mafia II is spent driving; and that’s not because the driving mechanic is bad. Oh no, it’s actually quite good and gives the good ol’ authentic fishtailing and drifting you’d expect in a 1950s gangsta’ flick. The problem is that you do so much of it. Drive here. Drive there. That’s all it seems like you ever do, and with no fast travel, things can start to get a little tedious quite quickly, especially considering if you’re caught going too fast or grinding bumpers with the locals by the authorities, they’ll take pursuit and want to fine you on the spot. There is a speed restrictor which is handy when dealing with that, and the whole speeding thing isn’t really an issue, but when you spend so much time in the car, it really starts to grind and you can only concentrate on getting from A to B as fast as possible.
The wanted system incidentally is multi-staged, with there being the traditional star system, but the police can also attach permanent wanted statuses to a car or Vito separately. So if your car is wanted, you ditch it or get it sprayed. If Vito is wanted, you simply change clothes. All you have to do to get away from the active stars though is simply break the line of sight and stay out of the way for a short period.
Although Mafia II may boast a huge open-world, the structure of the game as a whole is disappointingly linear. There is next to nothing off the beaten path. Yes, we understand that 2K Czech are looking to deliver a cinematic experience with high production values, but to throw you into this world and give you no chance or reason to really explore it is an interesting choice. One that ultimately impacts and holds back the title.
Speaking of holding back the title, the individual mission structure in Mafia II also borders on the absurd. It’s another area where 2K Czech have obviously opted for story over gameplay, because it’s as if every mission is structured exactly the same: wake up, answer the phone, drive somewhere, watch a cutscene, drive somewhere else, shoot some people, drive back your passenger and then drive home yourself. The very few set-pieces that exist are the highlight, but they’re too far and few between.
My only other gripe is with the game’s checkpoint system. Any game that makes you replay the same 5-10 minutes of action on multiple occasions just because it thinks you haven’t done enough to satisfy its archaic system, needs to go back to the drawing board and reassess its options. It’s a cheap way for developers to extend the longevity of the game, at the detriment of the gamer’s enjoyment and Mafia II definitely suffers because of this.
For a story driven game that offers very little off the beaten path, the achievement list isn’t all too bad. It has a good mix of story associated achievements, some that you get for completion of certain missions and some that require you achieve a certain goal mid-mission, and there are others tied to various other aspects of the title: a few combat achievements and vehicle upgrade achievements, etc. The collect 50 Playboy mags achievement may upset some, but that one isn’t all too bad. The collect 159 wanted posters though is a complete pain. That aside, an easy list with a little originality that will take you around 20-25 hours.
It’s abundantly clear that 2K Czech put an emphasis on story and ambience over gameplay in Mafia II and it really shows. With a repetitive mission structure, long arduous drives across a limited open-world and a bog standard shooter mechanic, Mafia II as a game rarely delivers. As a Mafia experience though, it delivers in spades. There are few open-worlds in video games that show this much depth, this much character and this much charm. While the gameplay is hardly stellar and the open-world is disappointingly limited, 2K Czech need to be commended for creating one of the most realistic and authentic mid-nineteenth century environments we’ve ever seen in a video game. The story’s not bad either.
It’s as good as it gets here. With an eclectic original score, stunning performance from the voice cast and a fantastic selection of licensed music in support, it’s like being back in the 50s.
The driving mechanics are pretty well crafted and the third-person shooter combat is fairly solid. It does its job, rather than excels at it. No blind-fire though is an interesting choice.
The mission structure and overall delivery isn’t on par with the high production values instilled in the story and such. Too much “Go here, kill this person, drive home;” not enough set-pieces. Also, an open-world city, but with no real freedom or incentive to explore? What’s all that about?
A solid list, which is relatively easy and does show a little originality at times. The list I would say though is as restricted by the mission structure as the rest of the game is.
Mafia II’s strengths lie in its high production values and the cinematic experience it offers. Not very often will a developer capture the ambience and mood of a period like 2K Czech have done here. The emphasis on story seems to have been made at the detriment to the rest of the game. The mission structure is mundane and repetitive, the scarcity of set-pieces is perplexing and the lack of interaction and ability to explore the rest of the world seems like an odd fit. If you’re looking for a great story – with an odd ending admittedly – and a perfectly recreated 1950s America, then Mafia II is for you. Just don’t expect much in the terms of actually emphatic gameplay.