Mafia II – PlayStation 3/Xbox 360/PC
In the wake of Grand Theft Auto III’s unprecedented success in 2001, Czech developers Illusion Softworks released the sleeper sensation Mafia. The boxart claimed the game to be “the greatest gangster film Martin Scorsese never made,” and in many regards that declaration was spot on. Mafia boasted some of the best game storytelling to date, complete with vibrant and diverse characters, tense and violent missions, and an epic narrative borrowing some of the best moments from the Godfather, Goodfellas, and other classic gangster cinema. Despite universal praise and decent sales, Mafia never became the hit it warranted, largely due to the growing dominance of console gaming while Mafia remained a PC exclusive, only to receive a subpar console port two years after its release.
Eight years have passed since Mafia’s release, and Illusion Softworks (now 2K Czech) have returned to the rugged streets of organized crime with Mafia II. And while the criminal sandbox genre has grown leaps and bounds in those eight years, 2K Czech apparently failed to notice. Mafia II leaves off strikingly resembles its predecessor, improving on almost none of the original’s gameplay and even regressing in a few areas. While this certainly doesn’t make Mafia II a bad game, it begs to question what 2K Czech tried to accomplish with Mafia II.
Off the bat, Mafia II doesn’t attempt to duplicate Rockstar’s formula of a sprawling sandbox environment full of sidequests and mini-games to distract from the task at hand. Mafia II remains focused on its story, pushing the point home with a main objective always on screen. Players can choose to ignore those objectives for a time, instead cruising the streets of Empire Bay while collecting cars, clothing and guns along the way. But like its predecessor, Mafia II focuses on its story first and foremost – sandbox elements are largely an afterthought to add both immersion and freedom to the universe. Unfortunately, Empire Bay doesn’t offer the same narrative punch Lost Heaven. Mafia II’s storyline spans three timeframes – the opening chapters during the winter of 1945, a closing chapter in the spring of 1951, and a bridging chapter between the two. While the first Mafia spanned the entirety of the 1930s, it’s not the length that sustained the game, but rather its consistency to sustain the decade story. Certain missions may seem meaningless at first, but ultimately pay off down the line. Mafia II instead is a scattered mess of largely unrelated chapters that ultimately leave an empty feeling upon the game’s conclusion.
Mafia II attempts to fill the downtime between missions with various jobs across Empire Bay that Vito can complete. However, every time Vito would arrive to one of these markers, the character waiting had no jobs for Vito at that time. While I only checked a few times, this even regressed from the previous Mafia, where Lucas Bertone would give Tommy certain cars to pick up after nearly every mission. If Mafia II contained the same depth and character as its predecessor, most of these underdeveloped areas could be forgiven. But unfortunately, Mafia II seems like a hollow, confusing and brief affair.
The game spans 15 chapters, lasting no longer than ten hours. Some of these chapters offer visceral combat on par with Gears of War or Uncharted, complete with a very good cover fire system and a huge arsenal of era appropriate weaponry. One mission involves Vito and Joe blowing up a building, firefighting their way through several floors of Mafia muscle, and finishing with a cross city car chase. But not every mission packs a similar punch, and this mission is one of the few in the game that carries consequences to a future chapter.
The only facet Mafia II definitively improves over the original is its presentation. Empire Bay is a deceptively stunning city, growing in splendor with each passing chapter. Barren whiteness covers the city in the game’s opening chapters, transforming as the game moves to the roaring 50s. Suddenly Empire Bay springs to life, each district of the city a vivacious, unique burough in Empire Bay’s New York inspired cityscape. Even more impressive are the destructible environments most levels features. A firefight in a Chinese restaurant saw fish tanks exploding, pillars peeling away from the edges and railings disintegrating into splinters as bullets flew from every angle. And for the most part, each level offers a unique environment. Beyond the Chinese restaurant, Vito and Joe find themselves shooting up construction sites, strip malls, and observatories through 15 chapters. Character models also mark a vast improvement and convey much of the character and acting of each character, particularly the two leads. While Mafia II may not reach the Uncharted 2 benchmarks, there’s no denying that Mafia II is one of the best looking games around.
Unfortunately the visual improvements don’t do enough to lift Mafia II from its doldrums. The brief story and cyclical mission structure fail to make Mafia II anything more than a nice diversion, and with so many great games competing for your attention today, a nice diversion rarely seems worth the time or money anymore. While mission to mission Mafia II sees some real sparks fly, it doesn’t do enough as a complete story to make up for the elements its seemingly lacking. While the original Mafia won fans over with its epic narrative, Mafia II seems trite in comparison, a highlight reel of the Mob’s Greatest Hits rather than “the greatest gangster film Martin Scorsese ever made.”
Presentation – 7.5
Mafia II looks and feels great, but the inability to start at a specific point in each chapter makes tedious driving portions even more tedious, and for longer chapters towards the game’s end can just be downright annoying if you’ve missed something.
Graphics – 9.5
Mafia II may sport the best looking environments in any game ever, including Uncharted 2 and Bioshock. Character models also look fantastic and the quality of facial expressions is top notch and adds to the fantastic voice acting.
Sound – 8.5
Great voice acting does its best to carry the story. The game’s 50’s superhit soundtrack may be one of the best soundtracks ever assembled, despite nearly every song actually being released five years after the events of the game take place.
Gameplay – 8.5
As far as cover shooters go, Mafia II provides top notch gameplay with a great arsenal of weapons and a slew of fun missions. The only aspect of the gameplay that needs an overhaul is the driving.
Lasting Appeal – 6.0
The sandbox world offers very little for long term appeal, and after a playthrough or two the missions lose their luster. Future DLC will be available, elaborating on the story of Vito and Joe.
Overall – 7.8