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It’s been a long time coming – almost exactly three years since it was first announced, in fact – but Mafia II is finally here. We’ve seen a lot of the game prior to its release; learned about its characters, its attention to detail and its aim to immerse players in its sharply realized mid-century Mob fiction. So far, it’s seemed like a worthy enough successor to the original Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, but obviously it’s got a lot to live up to.
So, here’s the first thing you should know about Mafia II: It’s not the revolutionary game that its predecessor was. In some ways, it even feels like a big step back for the car-crime genre, with a structure that’s so linear and narrowly focused that we have to wonder why the developers bothered to set it in an open world at all. Once you come to terms with that, though, you’ll find a charming, brilliantly written mob drama that’s enormously fun to play through.
Unlike your Grand Theft Autos and just about every other open-world game, Mafia II features no side missions to pursue, no mission-givers to go and find, and no spontaneous events to distract you from the task at hand. The game is divided into chapters, which usually begin with Vito being woken up at home by a phone call. You’re then directed to drive somewhere and meet with someone before being thrown headlong into firefights, car chases or (and these are rare) stealth missions.
Above: Shoot cars in the gas tank, and you can make them explode with a single bullet
Apart from a couple of annoying “follow that car but don’t get too close” tasks, the missions tend to be enjoyable even at their most thuddingly straightforward, and the action will be more or less instantly familiar to anyone who’s played a car-crime game. Vito can steal cars, either by jacking them while in motion, by breaking their windows when they’re parked or – if you don’t want to deface your new ride – by picking their locks with a quick minigame. The cars themselves, which range from crawling 1920s shitwagons to beefy ‘50s hotrods, all handle well enough (and are enormously fun to ramp up to ridiculous speeds on the freeway), although it isn’t uncommon to fishtail or spin out during high-speed pursuits.
Gunfights, meanwhile, follow the Gears of War model, with lots of emphasis on sticky cover and enemies who know how to use it as well as you do. Better than you do, in fact; while Vito can’t blind-fire around corners, his enemies can, and that’s kind of a pain in the ass. When you’re not getting into fights in the streets – which can break out if you do anything to piss off the cops or rival gangsters – the missions take you through big interior spaces, ranging from a warehouse to a hotel to a huge Chinese restaurant, which tend to be filled with cover points, destructible scenery and faceless goons to gun down. Which, by the way, you can do with an improbably large arsenal that includes several types of pistol, Tommy guns, Molotovs, grenades, shotguns and a full array of World War II service weapons from both the Allied and Axis sides.
Above: That includes a devastating German MG-42 machinegun. Sadly, you only use it twice
If you prefer a more nonlethal approach, there’s also a simple system for dealing out hand-to-hand punishment. Run up and punch an enemy, for example, and you’ll enter into a one-on-one fistfight that revolves around two- or three-button combos and context-sensitive finishing moves that enable you to slam your opponents against walls.
It’s fun, but it feels artificial and weirdly out of place, and has limited uses at best. Sometimes it’s mandated by the story, but you can also start a fistfight in the middle of a firefight, which will usually get you plugged. Either way, fistfights are always fought one-on-one while the others wait their turn, like in a kung-fu movie. And while that makes sense in certain instances, it seems like an awfully counterproductive tactic when used, about a third of the way through the game, by a gang of would-be prison-shower rapists.
That just leaves the one constant in nearly every open-world game: the cops. Cops in the original Mafia game were an enormous pain in the ass; they’d pull you over for speeding or running red lights, and God help you if they actually saw you commit a crime. In Mafia II, meanwhile, they’ll still try to pull you over for speeding (but not running red lights). But that’s OK, because the cops themselves are kind of a joke, easy to outrun and even easier to outwit.
Above: "I bet I wouldn't be such a cop-killer if I gave you $600, now would I, Officer?"
Even if they manage to catch you, well, two things you’ll learn from breaking the law in Mafia II are that all police officers are corrupt, and money fixes everything. Everything. Even if the police manage to “arrest” you, bribing them a few hundred on the spot will instantly set you free and clear your record. And if they decide they’d rather just shoot you on sight, as they will if you rob stores or commit murder, all you need to do is kill all the cops in your immediate vicinity (more won’t usually be sent after you right away) and then steer clear of the rest long enough to change your clothes, at which point they won’t recognize you at all anymore. They might still recognize whatever car you were driving, since vehicles have a separate “wanted” status, but hey, that’s what Empire Bay’s many illicit body shops are for.
Really, though, the focus here is less on action than it is on story – and Mafia II’s story is relentlessly entertaining, filled with interesting characters and carefully laid plans that routinely go horribly wrong. Following the misadventures of one Vito Scaletta, a two-bit hood-turned-war hero-turned-mafioso, the game spins a blood-soaked 1950s crime yarn that sees Vito and his loutish buddy, Joe Barbaro, struggling to carve out a niche for themselves in the New York/San Francisco-inspired city of Empire Bay.
Vito starts the game in abject poverty, but gradually claws his way up to mediocrity before doing some time in prison. He gains and loses increasingly posh homes and possessions, kills a lot of people he shouldn’t, and is ultimately forced to weigh loyalty to his family against loyalty to his other family.
What sets all this apart from most other Mob games is Vito’s enduring bromance with Joe, a likable slob who speaks with a Jersey accent, busts out a lot of Italian slang and seems to genuinely care about Vito. Vito, for his part, is a typically earnest (if somewhat greedy and homicidal) everyman for players to project themselves onto, but Joe is flawed, goofy, sometimes tragic and (most importantly) indestructible, which makes him a much more interesting character to hang around with. It’s hard not to get attached to him – or to any of the other charmingly devious rat-bastards who move in the circles Vito and Joe so desperately want access to.
Above: That includes Henry Tomasino, the gravel-voiced, on-again-off-again third member of the group
Couple all that with some amazing vocal performances, a ton of snappy dialogue and some expertly directed cutscenes, and you’ve got a genuinely heartfelt, interesting story to follow. Sure, it may borrow heavily from Goodfellas, The Godfather and even the original Mafia game, but that doesn’t make it any less engaging.
One word of warning, though: Mafia dudes are generally portrayed as racist pricks, and that goes quadruple for Mafia dudes living in the ‘40s. It’s actually kind of refreshing that Mafia II doesn’t gloss this aspect over, but if you’re the type to get easily upset over protagonists who casually sling around racial slurs, well, consider yourself warned. It’s not a huge part of the game, but it’s there.
At the center all this is what might be both Mafia II’s biggest asset and its biggest liability: the city of Empire Bay itself. Over the last few years, we’ve heard a lot about the amount of effort that’s gone into painstakingly recapturing the look and feel of the ‘40s and ‘50s, and that genuinely shows in everything from the car designs and fashions to the neon shop signs and the furniture, appliances and posters that decorate every building interior. Everything looks amazing – more so when you factor in the occasional rain and snow that cover the streets – and it’s difficult to not be impressed.
Above: It's worth noting that while your friends can lean out of the car and shoot, you can't shoot while driving, ever
It’s not limited to the sights, either. Empire Bay is also host to (just) three radio stations, which play a staggering selection of jazz, ‘50s rock, blues and classical music, along with original (and almost totally straight-faced) commercials and news reports that track your misdeeds. A word of warning, though: the radio stations, varied though their playlists might be, can get awfully damn repetitive, and the songs themselves are awfully damn catchy. So try to switch up what you listen to, or you might end up with a faintly racist song about Chinese food, sung by a band called The Gaylords (yes, really), stuck in your head for days at a time.
Ultimately, though, Empire Bay feels strangely lifeless, all careful detail and little spontaneity. The crowds are thin, the traffic is light and – most importantly – there’s very little to actually do in Empire Bay. Apart from the missions mandated by the story, there aren’t any side-tasks to pursue apart from stealing cars, robbing stores or scouring the city for collectibles. Oh sure, every once in a while you’ll find a woman who needs her car fixed or some guy who needs a punch in the mouth, but that stuff’s rare, and it's always a pre-planned part of whatever mission you're on. There’s no real incentive to explore; nothing to spend money on but clothes, guns, car upgrades and bribes; and no reason to ferret out collectibles aside from seeing vintage Playboy centerfolds and earning an eventual Achievement or Trophy.
Above: Still, though – pretty
None of that stuff is particularly interesting or necessary, and it leaves us disappointed to find out that Empire Bay’s impressive aesthetic achievement isn’t much deeper than Grand Theft Auto III’s version of Liberty City. It’s like a photo come to life; it’s very pretty and evocative of its era, but if you expect much more from it than that, you’re going to be let down.
It also doesn't help that, while you’ll occasionally see ordinary citizens walk up and engage each other in conversation, these chats always seem stiff and tacked on. It’s also not uncommon for them to be entirely voiced by ubiquitous voice actor Nolan North. The illusion is cracked even further by weird design decisions, like characters who show up in cutscenes with speaking parts, and then turn out to be standard NPC models – which can be jarring if you’re not prepared for it. Probably the most notable example is Joe’s nameless, redheaded “girlfriend,” who shows up in cutscenes…
… outside Joe’s apartment, needing to be saved from some dumb greaser…
… and, frequently, on the street next to clones of herself.
Above: Not an unusual occurrence
It's important to note that, as disappointingly shallow as Empire Bay is as an open world, it likely won't affect your enjoyment of the story and action, which stand well enough on their own. So long as you think of Mafia II as a linear game that just happens to be set in a freely explorable landscape, it's still a pretty amazing experience.
Finally, there’s that eternal question: which console has the better version? In spite of the recent revelation that the PS3 version of Mafia II actually looks inferior to its 360 counterpart, it’s not always easy to spot the differences, as they’re limited to details like blood pooling and cloth movement.
Above: Huh. That's... kind of a big deal, actually
If that bothers you, and you’ve got the option to do so, you should get the 360 version. But if you don't, then you should know that aside from the details, the versions look more or less identical. See for yourself – here’s a 360 screen, followed by a PS3 screen:
Above: Can you tell which is which? What if we hadn't told you?
Of course, that’s just graphics. While the 360 version looks a bit sharper, it also has some annoying glitches – things like minor graphical hiccups and loading freezes when switching radio stations at high speeds – that we didn’t see in the PS3 version. These appeared on the retail version of the game, and may or may not be fixed by a patch, but they’re a minor annoyance and didn’t lead to any serious problems with the game.
Also, the PS3 version comes with a download code for an exclusive add-on story, Betrayal of Jimmy, in which you’ll play as a hard-nosed mercenary enforcer in a points-driven, mission-based version of Mafia II that’s reminiscent of the first two Grand Theft Auto games. It’s not a significant-enough add-on to affect the score, but it’s fun to dive into after you’ve finished the (somewhat unreplayable) story mode, and it gives the PS3 version extra weight. It might have made Mafia II a more complete game if its missions had simply been an optional part of the game world, but it’s still hard to argue with getting an add-on adventure for free.
Above: Jimmy isn't a more compelling protagonist than Vito, but he is considerably more badass
Grand Theft Auto IV? No. Both games are about on par when it comes to writing and action, but everything about GTA IV is ultimately more involving: Niko is a more interesting lead than Vito, GTA IV’s secondary characters have more substance, and Liberty City feels more like a living, breathing world than Empire Bay’s giant dollhouse. Mafia II has a lot to offer GTA fans, but don’t expect it to unseat the king of car crime anytime soon.
The Godfather: The Game? Yes. They’re very similar, both thematically and from a gameplay standpoint, and Godfather has more side stuff to do – but its “more” is a long trudge of repetitive extortions and robberies. And its story, while good, has the disadvantage of being essentially fan fiction based on an existing work, while Mafia II’s is original (its obvious debts to Goodfellas and other Mob movies notwithstanding). In the end, though, this comes down to the cities: Godfather’s version of New York was always a big, gray façade, while Empire Bay at least looks and feels a little more like a real place, shallow though it may be.
Red Dead Redemption? No. Comparing Red Dead with Mafia II might seem like apples and oranges – or horses and cars – but it’s hard not to hold up a game like Mafia II next to the wildly successful open-world game that released just a few months prior. Besides, both games try to re-create a point in history, and they both pull it off beautifully – but, again, Red Dead’s world feels much more alive than Mafia II’s, with lots more going on and lots more to do. Also, its visuals, action and characters all beat the pants off Mafia II. Again, that doesn’t mean Red Dead fans won’t adore Mafia II, but one’s clearly better than the other.
While its story and action are fantastic, Mafia II is an open-world game with an “open world” that never becomes anything more than an elaborate backdrop for the story. It’s a lot of fun while it lasts, but don’t expect to be playing this months from now.
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