The Sicilian mob culture extends far beyond simple gangs of criminals. Mafioso refer to each other as “Men of Honour” as opposed to the ruthless criminal thugs that most of us have come to think of them as. But it is about honour. Sure, it’s a skewed perspective on the concept but the rigid rules and archaic customs are clearly defined and must be obeyed. Your word is your bond and if you break it you are nothing.
2K Czech have successfully captured that air of mystery, custom and intricate, time-honoured dogma. Unfortunately, that seems to be one of the few authentic things about Mafia II.
The game tries to set itself in a time, 1945-1951. The collectibles are pinups from a magazine (Playboy, which really did have some of the best writing on newsstands back then) which wasn’t founded until 1953. The soundtrack also includes at least a few songs (Long Tall Sally and Lucille by Little Richard and Smokestack Lightnin’ by Howlin Wolf from a quick scan of the song list) which weren’t released until 1956 or 1957.
Mafia II tries to set itself in a place, Empire Bay. The city is clearly intended to be a loose imitation of New York City but there are some landmarks which are almost identical (The Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge) among some almost desolate streets and what feels like a relatively small map for an open world game (or for a bustling New York City).
And there we have another case of awkward juxtaposition. Mafia II seems like an open-world game of a similar ilk to Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row, et al. The map-markers, waypoints, mini map and route divergence are all there but the mission progression is entirely linear. That little trick that Rockstar are so fond of where they give you several different characters, all offering you missions which intertwine, and you choose which order to do them in? It’s not here and it feels like it’s missing. In Mafia II you have a mission and you go and do it and then you get another mission. No messing around in between.
Sure, there are a couple of minor tips of the hat to the sandbox staples like the old “selling stolen cars at the scrapyard” schtick but it never feels like part of the world you’re playing in. It doesn’t feel natural and there’s barely any incentive to do it.
All of this may seem overly critical, and there certainly is an element of nitpicking here, but understand that this game is proud of its authenticity. Mafia II claims its attention to the detail of the period is impressive when it is actually rather obviously flawed.
There are moments of joy to be found among the linear mission progression, most revolving around all-too-brief sections of play involving the cover mechanism and gunplay (which are adequate but certainly nothing revolutionary). For the majority of your mission time you will be carefully driving (another element of the game which is merely “adequate”) from one point to another.
A typical mission might be to drive from one side of the map to another, watch a two-minute cut-scene. Drive, with a new passenger, back to the other side of the city. Work your way through a linear path shooting enemies and using the cover mechanism. Watch a two-minute cut-scene. Drive back to the place where you picked up your passenger, watch another brief cut-scene and collect some money. There is entirely too much travelling and not nearly enough action. That’s not all though, in many missions your final objective is simply to “Go home”. This involves more driving with little-to-no purpose.
Wouldn’t it have been just as simple, within this clearly lineated mission structure, to end the mission with the payout, fade to black and have you start the next chapter back in your bed at home (as most chapters of the game actually do start)?
There are even entire sections of gameplay which involve you following someone, on foot and at a locked walking speed (no matter how much you want to run in order to speed the process up), to meet another character for a cut-scene. And then you have to follow the person back before the game moves you on to the next section. Sometimes you’re allowed a one minute fist fight before you’re sent back to follow your guide.
The regularly tedious nature of the gameplay, punctuated as it is by enjoyable action sequences, may have been saved by the game’s narrative. Unfortunately, the effect seems to have worked the opposite way, with the narrative (which is immediately familiar to anyone who has seen the Godfather movies and Once Upon a Time in America) being hamstrung by the dire exposition.
The problem with this type of story is, that in order to sympathise with a protagonist who regularly murders people simply because they don’t hand him money, we have to understand why he is in this life. The main protagonist in this kind of story usually falls in to the life thanks to a corrupt police force, an abusive father, a family bereavement or simply because this is the life they were born into and have no way out. We need to sympathise with a character on some level. Vito, the protagonist in Mafia II, is in the life simply because he was a thief who was too lazy to work for a living.
There are a few early efforts to make it seem like he was trying to help out his family with a debt, left by a recently deceased alcoholic father, but even that pressure consisted only of a quick punch-up with a man who was shouting at his sister in the street a little bit.
Ironically, the game goes to some lengths to explain that Vito works with the Mafia in an effort to make his life more exciting than the drudgery of daily work at the docks. It then goes on to present elements of Vito’s life which are nothing but drudgery. Drive here, pick that up, go over there and talk to him, follow this guy, clean that floor. With the exception of an occasional visit to the cat-house, a few scuffles and the odd gunfight Vito’s exciting life in The Mob isn’t very exciting at all.
- Characters are enjoyable, familiar stereotypes.
- The action sequences are often tense.
- Linear gameplay is littered with tedious mission progression.
- The authenticity is simply missing in a lot of places.
- The city feels lifeless.
- Nothing stands out as a reason to enjoy the game.
Mafia II is a waste of a tried and tested concept in storytelling which fails to hit many of the right notes with the narrative. The gameplay has moments of pleasure but they are far too rare among the tedious drudgery of repeatedly completing mundane tasks without much of a pay off, either within the game world or without. Everything about Mafia II is average. From the tepid driving controls and the standard cover mechanism to the staid narrative which could still have been enjoyable, had they put a little more thought into it. This game is not terrible but it is some way from being good.