Mafia II. A Rahu Review

(this review is based off of the PS3 version of the game)

Crime noir, it seems like we can't get enough of it as gamers, hell Rockstar made an entire franchise out of it, complete with a guilty pleasure installment and an overconfident gamble that failed in the long run. It seems that when a crime game is released on next generation consoles two things happen, they sell like hot cakes and radical groups hold it up as an excuse for how videogames are spawn of the devil and are corrupting our children into hooker shooting, child molesting, cocaine doing, little puppy strangling, crapping in a public toilet then not flushing, demon worshipping fiends. Good news is, if sales figures are to be believed, Mafia II is doing well for itself and it has enough meat in it to beat those radical groups' knee jerk reactions on its own merits, bad news is it also isn't that great of a game.

The story of Mafia II takes place in the fictional New York area of Empire Bay during the time of World War II and revolves around an Italian immigrant by the name of Vito Scarletta. Times are tough, Vito gets stuck with the wrong crowd, is caught stealing and is drafted into the army. Few months later, he returns home to find out his family is in a financial bind and resorts to doing dirty jobs to help them, causing him to go deeper and deeper into the world of the Mafia. There are shootouts, car chases, and yes, some guys get whacked.

The good news is for those gamers who enjoy a good story, Mafia II has that in spades. The world changes over the span of time that you play, from the cars to the outfits to the weather, Vito shows himself as a man with good intentions despite the means he goes to see them through, and the pacing really helps not only reinforce relatability with Vito, but also never fails to keep in mind the gravity of risk that is taken in every job. The problem with the story that I can see, however, is that it is a bit of false advertising, given the Slam Bang Pow! presentation of the trailers and other ads. This isn't the light hearted, ridiculously humored crime game like GTA, nor is it the stupid fun that can be had of Saints Row 2. Mafia II shows the effect and appeal of organized crime through the historical Everyman, or in this case, Vito. He doesn't join the Mob for kicks or for the benefits, he did it because the pay was good and he needed to help his family. This mentality helps pace the game, a bit slowly, into Vito becoming a full blown Mobster, instead of the juvenile montage cutscene in which you're given the pin striped suit and fedora and tommygun and free reign to go nuts. It isn't exactly that original of an idea, but at least it helps move things along. Suck on that Jack Thompson!

Does the Don look like a bitch!?

The problems start to creep up in Mafia II when you look into the gameplay. The game seems to be the victim of mindlessly following trends, specifically that crime games must have a sandbox style set up. The reason why crime games have sandboxes are usually because there is a lort to explore and a lot to do, plus the immature notion of crashing into people and causing mass panic. The problem with causing panic in Mafia II is that the world just isn't that open. There is nothing to do besides the story missions, you can buy weapons from the shops with money you have, but the game has the same problem Red Dead Redemption had in which you get weapons for free on missions anyway, also, the story sometimes demands you lose all the weapons you have so screw that. Causing a pile-up might turn into you swearing yourself hoarse because, unfortunately, the cars handle realistically for the 40s and 50s, which means no crumple zones on the cars, which means, you can actually kill yourself if you're not careful in a car, pair this with a bad sense of checkpoint setting and the most paranoid cops you'll ever know that will shoot you down if you so much as go through a red light, and it turns the open world aspect into something that can lead to a tension headache. As for the ability to collect things, there is nothing of collectible value in Mafia II except for Playboy magazines, and if that's enough for you to get by on, maybe you shouldn't be playing this game, you pervert.

So the sandbox is just there to move along the story missions, but what about the missions themselves? The missions are a bunch of relatively uninspired variations of fistfights, stealth missions, cover based shootouts, and car chases. These missions aren't bad, they're wel thought out and there is some fun to be had with them, it's just that all of them pretty much adequate at best and don't really excel. The fistfights are pretty much interchangeable with the pattern of "dodge, punch, combo, then finisher." The gunfights are your standard 3rd-person shooter faire but with no additional mechanics like bullet-time or blindfire, it turns into a lesson in caution and flanking. The stealth missions, what few there are, are intense but can easily break down into a gunfight if messed up so it has the banner of "why did you even bother?" hanging over them. The car chases should feel pretty much right at home and they do, until you hit a sign post and you spin out. Once again, these missions aren't bad, it's just that they have been done better in other games.

The good news is for those lovers of atmosphere, there is another point in Mafia II's favor. Everything from the characters, the locations, and most importantly, the music, help immerse you in the time. From the bulky looking radio playing classic rock music to the attire women are wearing down the street, you are in the time period and it feels right, even if the world itself remains unchanged through it all. Also, the characters, though a bit archetypal, are well voiced and are relatable as far as anyone in your standard mob movie, even if the lip synch during cutscenes is a bit hit and miss. I almost wish there was some more emphasis on the open world aspect of this city just so I could see more of the world, but sadly, as stated before, only the story missions are of relevance and everything else is just so much light and sound.

So, what do you want us to do about it?

To recap, Mafia II is a very atmospheric, very well written, story driven game let down by some gameplay issues and a lackluster open world.

Buy or Rent?: I have to say if you want something to just pass the time, Mafia II is a safe rental, but not worth its pricetag at 60 American Dollars.

I kinda guessed from the demo that it would need to have a good story...

The shooting, and the shotgun in particular, just felt sloppy. And the reticule was almost unusably bad.

A great review altogether, very informative.

I wasn't going to get this anyway, but at least now I won't have any doubts while I'm waiting for Birth By Sleep. Good review, short and sweet.

Ah yes, the game that doesn't want to be a sandbox fails because it isn't a very good sandbox.

Sounds about right; most other reviewers seem to have come to that conclusion. I wonder how many suddenly thought: "wait, this is really crap as a sandbox game, MAYBE that's because a sandbox isn't what they wanted... AHA! Now I can enjoy the game and rate it on it's own merits!".

Brilliant review, Rahu. I'll be sure to pick this up at the rental store as soon as I get better.

It's a shame. The first Mafia was absolutely utterly brilliantly ingeniously fucking great. I own three copies in three languages. I can still play it at this day and age and have fun.

M2 is not totally bad, but a real letdown. Also-ran. Boring. I don't know why they bothered with such a nice big city, when there's nothing to do (and I don't mean sidequests, even the missions themselves are boring).

There was one stroke of greatness in mission 14... When it started, I immediately knew what's going to happen and was sooo excited about it - but even that mission was a failure. Boring.

Rent, and even that only if you like a driving game.

Excellently done review, Rahu. Glad I'm saving my pennies for Cataclysm pre-orders instead of playing this.

The only thing I don't understand is why they added, for example, the car junk yard where you can sell stolen cars... but the owner always says he has no missions for you AND to "sell" the cards you fricken run them through a compactor. WTF? Same goes for a few other named characters you meet. Would be nice if they put a few little side missions in there. But I don't really mind the non-sandbox since it's really just meant to be a means of getting around to missions. The driving is the important part of the open city and I really really enjoy that aspect, but I wish I could use a driving force feedback wheel. Instead I use my PS3 controller for driving, mouse+keyboard for shooting.

Just a couple nitpicks with the review. There is also wanted posters to collect, and artwork unlocks. And about cops, they NEVER chase you for running a red light. If you break the law (run someone over, cause a big accident, or blatently steal a car) with cops near by, they report the liscense plate and then all cops will come after you if they see it. Otherwise you can drive like a madman, run lights, swerve around, do donuts around cops without issues. Just don't hit anyone.

Other than that, I'm finding the story really great. Just finished a couple chapters past the jail bit. Did anyone else find that was basically a rehash of Shawshank Redemption???

Ah yes, the game that doesn't want to be a sandbox fails because it isn't a very good sandbox.

Sounds about right; most other reviewers seem to have come to that conclusion. I wonder how many suddenly thought: "wait, this is really crap as a sandbox game, MAYBE that's because a sandbox isn't what they wanted... AHA! Now I can enjoy the game and rate it on it's own merits!".

If it wasn't intended to be a sandbox then... why is it open world? It's perfectly alright to make a linear game. Also, you say "judge it on its own merits", but the open world is a part of the game, the reviewer must take it into consideration.

Good review, informative and clear. Nice job.

This is the one reason i'm probably going to pick it up eventually, because of the story. I'm a story buff, i almost ways want the games i play to have a good story in it.

Very good review, very in depth.

Ummm... From what I think you just said is that they can make a sandbox, but if people don't like it they can say they didn't mean for it to be good?

Empire Bay is basically the same as Lost Heaven was in Mafia. An open city for you to drive around in, but the emphasis on the game isn't on the city (like it is in Saint's Row or GTA) and what goofy/psychopatic antics you can do in the city. The emphasis is firmly on the story and the narrative and in that respect Mafia II deserves its' cred.

Though, occasionally the city does shine. After one mission I was being chased by the cops and my car was totally wrecked, so I ditch it and start escaping by running through the backyards of suburban villas. Eventually, I lose the cops and find myself standing on a normal suburban street that could have been taken out of the 50's, I kid you not. One man was fixing his car on his driveway, his neighbours sitting on their porch playing cards. Two women stood chatting on the other side of the street and one man left his home, got into his car and drove away. Sure, it isn't the sandbox of GTA or Saint's Row, but to me that attention to detail made the world of Mafia II come alive.


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