There's a fine line between scope and scale; vision and execution; quantity and quality; and, greed and satisfaction. From a critical game design standpoint, all of the above is very relative to Mafia II and this review; it's interesting then that that fine line also fully works when talking about the fictional world of the game's mobsters and their exploits as told within.
So there has been some concern and question over exactly what
kind of game Mafia II actually is. Is it an open-world sandbox game in the vein of GTA? Or is it similar to a plethora of other mob games of recent years that employ you to climb the crime ranks, take over areas of the city and eventually run it as the number one Don? Is it a third-person cover shooter? Or is it a driving game?
The truth is, it's a tiny little bit of all of the above, but first and foremost, this is a character-driven crime drama. Story is paramount in Mafia II, and it drives every other element of the game, from the ambiance of the city functioning in the background as its own living, breathing character (right down to simple things, such as radio DJs or pro-American war propaganda), to your own growth as an individual amongst a myriad group of misbegotten, misguided juveniles dressed up as grownups playing mobster - Mafia II lives and breathes through its living and breathing personalities, and it couldn't possibly work any other way.
So what this means for videogame players out there is you're not getting the full experience of any of the aforementioned gameplay styles or directives you might think, or expect. What you're getting are compelling missions that drive the story, and its players, forward through the decade-long narrative growth period. You'll do a host of missions built around revenge, intimidation, greed, pride and loyalty, among much, much more, and if you've ever seen any kind of gritty crime drama in the realm of film or television, or even read about it in novel form, there's going to be nothing new here.
That isn't to say Mafia II is a derivative affair. It goes above and beyond to make its own narrative path in the midst of any and all crime-related media that has come before it, and it's 2K Czech's respect to the source material that helps the game stand-out in that regard.
Where a game like Grand Theft Auto IV is more about the all-encompassing elements of its sandbox design, Mafia II utilises missions, environments and gameplay as page-turners; interactive reasons to keep the story's forward momentum constantly doing just that: moving forward. But with the added value of telling a story first, the game's pacing is set at just the right speed, with dips and pikes added at just the right moments - 2K Czech are in charge here, you're just along for the ride.
we were going to talk about gameplay though, Mafia II's strongest in that department is definitely the driving. This is helped because
the city is an open one with fully reactive AI around you to keep gameplay mildly emergent, and therefore less predictable than anything else you end up engaging in. Each and every car has been painstakingly crafted to reflect those of the era, and given there was a fundamental design shift in the automobile industry between the 40s and 50s, Mafia II also serves up an ever-changing manifest of hulking monstrosities for you to litter the roads of Empire Bay with.
Physics and handling are all handled
with aplomb, though if you're going to play on the PC (which I did), and have a game pad handy, I'd recommend giving up the single-increment input of your keyboard for the full analogue control a game pad offers. These cars are heavy and often unpredictable, and while there's an option to turn on an assisted driving mechanic (that keeps you under the speed limit to avoid being pursued by police or causing too many accidents), it's just not as fun.
Obviously other elements that come into play are shooting (replete with a rather tidy cover system), hand-to-hand combat, stealth and a handful of mini-games relative to actions being performed (like lock-picking), and while all of these are handled with great care in the design department, they're not making any new ground.
Shooting, for example, is a very familiar affair that is almost always served up in corridors (with most outside exceptions being in car combat). Cover works quite well, and you can sidle along anything you're taking refuge behind (making it easy to find a good spot to duck out and kill the bad-guys). There's a proper headshot system that means you can drop enemies with one hit, and if you're close (and using the aforementioned game pad), there's a slight auto lock-on that doesn't feel
wrong to use (ie you're hand isn't being held, it's more logical than that). Your friendly AI is pretty good too, they don't die (or at least never did for me), and they react dynamically to the fire-fight events at-hand. Enemy AI will also dynamically react to your gunplay, but if you need to restart a checkpoint, they basically come out in the same order, and from the same place as before.
There's very little in the way of culmination too. Most missions feature a little taste of the small gameplay variances on offer - you might drive to a location, sneak in through the back, stealthily take out a few guards, pick a lock and then leave in a fire-fight for the ages, but they always seem too short and sweet. The best missions are the ones that focus solely on the mechanic they're built around, and a lot of missions are truly memorable, while many others aren't.
But that's one of the fine-lines Mafia II balances itself on - this long-ass narrative needs interactive points to keep players engaged, otherwise they're just watching a Kojima production, and while the cut-scenes and characters are *almost
* engaging enough to warrant this, it's definitely not a selling point. The problem then is a lot of stuff between cut-scenes feels arbitrary. Filler
. A more emergent experience could have helped keep the narrative and linearity in check; a triforce of design that ultimately swept gamers off their feet, but we might have to wait for the inevitable sequel for that.
You can interact with the game-world in your own way too. And often Vito is almost forced to take a breather at the end of missions by being told to go home. This gives you a chance to start from your house and move to the next mission in your own time, but really, there isn't enough outside of narrative-specific missions worth doing. You can rob places, buy new clothes, steal cars (and have them compacted for cash), but you rarely need to spend money, and being caught doing any of the above means you're annoyingly wanted by the police (and recognised throughout the city until you change up your appearance or car), so there's no real compulsion to go off and do
your own thing.
Which brings the experience down to its narrative, which isn't a bad thing in this case, because the game's dialogue, voice-acting and story are all very cohesively put together. It's not often in this generation of games you can point someone to a title because of its story over visuals or gameplay, but Mafia II is a rare breed, and works because of this. You'll get close to a solid 10 hours out of it, depending on how you play, and by the end it is very satisfying (though there are some characters I wish the game could have explored more). There's the added bonus of going back in just to collect all the hidden Playboy magazines (doing so gives you a high-res look at some bare bewbage), and thankfully there's the announced DLC on its way too.
Mafia II is a very enjoyable experience for different reasons than most games, which should be a warning to those of you who don't really dig story in games, or lengthy narrative, or act as an invitation for gamers craving something more to bite their teeth into. It does a great job of recreating its source material in interactive form, and is not afraid to deliver it with the kind of mature punch it needs - polished, well executed and thoroughly respectful of its overall direction.
For more on Mafia II, be sure to check out our game page
which features links to interviews, screens and video.