Mafia II is a lot like its theme song, at first you feel lucky to be playing, but it soon becomes a kick in the head. It’s not that Mafia II is a bad game, but it shows you glimpses of how great it could have been without ever achieving that success.
You play as Vito, a poor immigrant freshly back from fighting in World War II (you get to play one mission that is kind of like the old Call of Duty games) with no real prospects. Having seen the world, you are no longer content to sleep on a cot in the back of your mother’s apartment. Your solution is to hook up with your buddy Joe, who’s a low level thief and thug that sometimes works for the local Mafia boss. Thus begins your quest to become a full-fledged member of criminal elite.
WARNING: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD
The game takes place in two eras, the 1940’s and the 1950’s. The world looks really good, with period cars in the streets and all types of clothing that was worn by people at the time. The majority of the game takes place in the 50’s, so if you like the previous era, be sure to soak it all in before the game flips over. You’re last chance to play in the 40’s takes place in chapter five. The remainder of the game, which is about 75 percent of it, is in the 1950’s. It all takes place in Empire City, which as far as I can tell is supposed to be some type of alternate reality New York.
The two eras are separated by a long stint in prison, which makes up all of chapter six. This is probably the best chapter in the entire game, which is odd to say, but it’s true. I don’t think a stay in prison has ever been realistically portrayed in a game before, and this one hits pretty close to the mark I would guess. At least there are no zombies or monsters running around. Instead, the guards make you scrub the urinals, you have to fight not to get raped in the showers and eventually can hook up with a mafia-associated gang that runs the underground prison boxing ring. Eventually you are let go after serving about six years, and suddenly it’s the 1950s. You will really feel the change too. People are dressed in 50’s fashions, new models of cars are on the streets and the music has changed.
The graphics are complimented by the addition of real Playboy magazines you can find lying around that feature playmates from the 50’s. It was fun seeing what was sexy back then compared to today, and I really liked the girls. I could have done with a few more magazines while in prison, but moving right along…
Besides the prison level, the best part of the game is the music. Every car or radio in the game can pick up three stations, each with its own take on period music. Empire Classic plays classic hits, like those you might hear in an Italian restaurant today. Empire Central plays popular songs that you know came from those timeframes, like Sinatra tunes. And Delta Radio plays blues and jazz hits. The game even plays different songs in the 40’s and 50’s eras, which really helps to set the mood.
Cars in the game seem realistic, but have fake names. So you won’t find a Ford Panel truck. Instead you’ll find a Ford Panel Truck that has some other name on the front. I guess I can’t blame 2K Czech for not wanting to pay big money for the real car names. The vehicles themselves handle like you would expect the huge boats of yesteryear to drive. They can go really fast, faster than most of today’s cars, but turn like you’re underwater. There is a normal and a simulation mode to driving. Sim mode is more realistic but a bit harder, so the default is the normal one. A couple vehicles in the game handle better than all the others in either mode. These are mostly convertibles with the tops permanently down, so you can easily find them.
Cars can be upgraded at garages. You can change the paint jobs on them, improve their handling and speed, change out the rims and even customize the license plates. I love my black Ascot convertible with the plate that now reads FU COPS. Changing the plates or the paint has a practical use too, because it will remove wanted levels from your car. Up to ten cars can be stored in your personal garage, and if you abandon them on a mission, which happens a lot because your friend will insist on taking his vehicle, they somehow find their way back home ready for use once again.
You can also change your clothes. There are a variety of shops in the game where you can buy shits, trench coats, hats, suits and leather jackets. Shops can also be robbed by holding a gun on the cashier. She never puts up a fight, but you may have to gun down customers who want to play hero. If you rob a place, you can take all the suits it has for free, as well as money out of the register. But you need to be quick because the cops show up eventually. Like you car, if you are personally wanted, you can change your clothes to throw the cops off your trail.
Unfortunately, while all the elements seem to be in place, the game never really comes together, and I have to say this was a huge disappointment for me because I was so looking forward to an awesome new mafia-type title.
The game’s biggest sin is that it places you in an open world that makes up the city and surrounding areas, but then does everything in its power to keep you from having fun within it. Almost every chapter starts with a phone call telling you to "grab a piece and come quick" for whatever reason. From there you are lead by the nose from linear mission to linear mission. It’s like 2K Czech decided to create a GTA-style open world, and then squandered it with a bunch of linear junk so that you can look but not really touch. I think we all know by now that the best way to run a game like this is how Rockstar does it with the GTA titles and now Red Dead Redemption, by giving players the freedom to wander the map however they choose, but to put mission points down in case we want to advance the plot. However, that probably wouldn’t work with Mafia II because there are no side quests at all. Nothing. None. Nada. Zip. You either do the main missions the developers want, in their order, or you walk around the world doing nothing, which turns out is actually rather boring on its own with not much to do other than look at the scenery.
The combat needs work too. While there are an unusual and somewhat diverse selection of guns, there is no way to tell which ones are better than others, not in the descriptions of the guns or in any type of stats. I bought a bolt action rifle thinking it would be a powerful long range killer for example, but found that the zoom levels on it were identical to that of a pistol. And both took at least two shots to bring an enemy down. There was no functional difference between the pistol and the rifle. Enemy health is also a mystery. Sometimes you can spray a guy with Tommy gun, only to have him stumble like he tripped over his shoelaces, jump back up and keep shooting at you.
There is no lock-on feature either, which is sorely needed in this game. Many times I was confronted with so many enemies shooting at me from all angles that I didn’t know where all the shots were coming from. I simply sat there and took damage. I would look around and couldn’t see anyone. Perhaps they were up on a rooftop, or shooting through a hole in the wall, or ducked down behind a table, or way across the map on a balcony. You just never know. Without the ability to lock on to bad guys, combat is frustrating at best since you don’t know where they all are. The only saving grace is that the developers put save points very close to the start of combat zones, so that when you die, and you will, you don’t have to go back and replay too much. I guess a little frustration is better than a lot, but still, it could have been much better implemented.
Another issue is that you can’t shoot from a vehicle, though just about everyone else in the game seems to be able to. What they do is bring two people along, and the second guy leans out and shoots. So if you are being chased by someone and they are shooting at you, you have to park your car, get out and eventually return fire. And if you are chasing someone, you’re only choice is to try and run them off the road, because you can’t take any shots at them. Also, this is the 1950’s, but motorcycles are conspicuously absent from the game even though they were extremely popular back then.
There are also some minor problems with a lot of the guns as well. They don’t fire as fast as you can pull the trigger, which is maddening. This may seem minor, but try blowing off six shots with a revolver and you’ll feel the same way when it takes ten or twelve clicks of the controller trigger to make that happen. I’ve shot a lot of guns in real life, and none have imposed a time penalty on me between shots. If you get good with any gun, you can empty that clip or cylinder in a hurry. Most other games realize this and allow it.
If gunplay is flawed, melee is far worse. Melee seems to have been an afterthought for Mafia II and it shows. All you have to do to fight is hold down the block button. While doing this, nobody will be able to hit you. You will dodge every single punch. Then all you have to do is throw a light counter after your opponent swings. Do this a couple times and you will knock them down, and can finish them off with a series of blows. I never used the "hard punch" and won every fight I was ever in. It’s just that easy. You can win fist fights while eating your lunch at the same time with your other hand.
There are also a ton of game errors to deal with, even some that prevent you from moving forward in a mission. The worst was when I had to rescue my friend Joe in a later chapter. I had to enter a restaurant called The Mona Lisa to get to him. The door flashed indicating it was a mission point, only when I clicked to open the door, nothing happened. I couldn’t get into the place by any means, even shooting out the apparently bulletproof windows. A search of various forums on the Web showed a lot of people were having the same problem. The only solution is to reload the entire chapter and hope it does not happen again. And since this is more than halfway through that chapter, it’s a lot of grinding to get back there, and it might not work once you do.
Another bad error is the way the game handles cover. Sometimes it seems to let bullets slip right though your rock solid cover. I’ve noticed that this happens a lot with shotguns. And it’s not just that a pellet got through. I’ve put a wall of stone between me and a bad guy and had them gun me down with one blast from a shotgun that magically went completely through my cover. I could understand if I was using a wooden board or something, but shotgun blasts don’t go through concrete.
Other errors happen when you try to actually use the world like a sandbox. For example, I needed some cash so I decided to rob some stores. The cops showed up and I gunned them all down. Thinking it would be cool, I stole an empty cop car and rode around the city with the siren on. The car was wanted, but all the other cop cars disappeared from the entire city. A beat cop walking by might take a shot at me, but no other police cars ever came. So I decided to go on a crime spree and rob all the stores in the game. No cop cars ever showed up as long as I had my stolen one parked outside. In fact, the other police cars never came back until I started driving another vehicle several hours later.
Other somewhat less annoying bugs include things like not being able to get out of a fist fight once it starts. I got into a traffic accident and the guy I hit pulled me out of my car and started to brawl. While I was fighting with him some cops came and drew their guns, saying there was brawling in the streets. I wanted to run or draw my gun, but was "locked into" the fist fight. So I watched the cops casually stroll across the street while I was locked in combat with the angry motorist, unable to abort or react. Then they arrested me.
But the biggest problem I have with the game is actually the plot and not a game error per se. This has got to be the most depressing, non-heroic mafia game ever produced. The last mafia game I played was Electronic Art’s The Godfather, which was awesome. In that one, you start as a small time crook and work your way up the criminal ladder. Eventually you can become a soldier, then a capo, and even a don. It’s awesome. In Mafia II you start out as a nobody and end up the same way, never even really rising in the ranks one bit. You wonder why you’re grinding through the game and its many flaws when there are almost no rewards to give out. Perhaps 2K Czech wanted to make a public service announcement to keep kids out of the 1950’s era mafia or something. But I wanted a game that was fun to play. I can see a rise to power and then a great fall theme, but for that, there has to be a rise.
And the gut punch at the end of the game is that there is only one ending that you have to experience, and it’s a horrible one. It does not matter if you played a good guy or a bad one, if you’ve robbed stores or bought your merchandise, if you drove crazy or obeyed the traffic laws. Nothing matters. You are forced to sit there and watch a horrible and depressing ending to a game that never really offered you any thrills to begin with. Supposedly there were multiple endings at one point but the developer pulled them out because they "were not good enough." I even sat through the impossibly long credits (that shows everything from the vice president of Nvidia to the names of all the babies that were born while the game was being made) in the vain hope that there would be a snippet or something showing that your character didn’t turn out to be a rat who turns his back on his best friend, but nothing happens. I removed a full gem from the Fun score based solely on this horrible ending that my character didn’t deserve and that I guarantee players won’t like.
There is no multiplayer, with the combat flaws it wouldn’t be any fun anyway, so with only one linear ending there is zero replay value. The PS3 version comes with an extra set of missions that adds arcade style gameplay to the mix. These are okay if you like that style of gaming, but it still has all the combat flaws of the main game.
I’d say that the game needed more time in development, but it had eight years so I don’t know what more time could have done. It’s flawed at the storyboard level and the technical implementation phase, so it would need a lot of work. I think I was looking forward to this one more than almost any other tile this year, so my disappointment is palpable. The game is a lot like the vehicles within it. It looks great and sounds amazing, but drives like a boat in heavy seas. It’s an offer that you can probably refuse.