Mafia II Review Rewind
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On 10/06/2011 at 05:00 PM by Esteban Cuevas
A more deliberately paced game with a strong narrative, Mafia II defies expectations.
For those who enjoy The Godfather films and more thought put into their adventure games.
Though pegged as another Mafioso-inspired sandbox game, Mafia II doesn’t have that much in common with its open world contemporaries. Rather than being inspired by Scarface and Goodfellas like GTA or Saints Row, Mafia II is more deliberately paced and more akin to The Sopranos or The Godfather, in which story and the lifestyle itself are front and center. There are no side quests or odd jobs to complete. Although there’s a big city, this is not an open world game. It's a linear action game with a strong narrative.
The story follows Vito Scaletta during 1945 and 1951 as he climbs his way up the ladder to become a made man alongside his friend Joe Barbaro. The narrative is told through cut-scenes that use the in-game engine to give a sense of unity between the plot and the action. This is where Mafia II excels. The story tells a tale that you may have heard before but it's told in a slightly different way and has a different outcome. Most Mafia stories involve a henchman in the family working his way up in an attempt to eventually become the Don himself. Vito doesn’t have those same aspirations. Without giving anything away, Mafia II isn’t a story of greed and high aspirations -- it’s a story of someone just wanting to get by and live comfortably. While Vito does the dirty work, others aspire for more.
In Mafia II you will be driving a lot. A lot. A LOT! Unfortunately, half of the game's missions involve driving from point A to point B. There is no fast travel option and though the driving mechanics are solid, they are not enough to distract you from the mundane task of driving across one of the bridges for the umpteenth time just to get back to Joe’s place again. Driving recklessly isn’t advised as the cops will come after you if you start speeding or if you hit and run. Stealing cars will also get the fuzz on your tail if they see you. However, the other side of that card is that it’s extremely easy to lose the heat. Speeding oddly enough will lose them and going towards them works well since the cops apparently can’t turn their cars around.
Although you are given this big city to drive around, there is next to nothing to do in it. Now this is not to say that the town is dead or empty; NPCs walk around living their lives and businesses thrive as you are not their only customer. However, all you can do in Empire Bay is shop for clothes, food, guns, and car upgrades. You can also take cars to two locations in order to put them into compressors and earn some extra money (the only way to do so aside from the story missions) but there’s no real reason to spend it. Food fully restores your health, but it also regenerates automatically, to a degree. The gun shop isn’t needed because you will never lack guns or bullets. Clothes make you look good and help you if you are wanted by the cops. Car upgrades allow you to make cosmetic changes to your vehicle, which again means nothing but you also can change the plates to rid yourself of a wanted car label and you can upgrade your car’s engine to improve performance. This is the one thing in the game you’ll want money to do. There are wanted posters and Playboy magazines to collect, but there isn’t much incentive to collect these other than to reach 100% completion.
Many missions will involve a simple task like stealing a car or planting a bomb, but things will either go wrong or there’ll be a hitch in the plan. So then you will slide into the nearest object or structure to protect yourself and engage in a shootout. Aiming is deliberate and precise. The cover system is rather fluid, as one button will pull you in and out of cover. You can also duck and move around corners. However, in the heat of battle, sometimes having to push the cover button to leave your position (as opposed to Gears of War in which you just move away) can feel a bit limiting as you’re essentially stuck on a track running beside your cover. You’ll have an array of weapons at your disposal, ranging from Tommy Guns, Magnums, and the surprisingly visceral shotguns. I personally love the handguns because there’s nothing better than hiding behind cover while some wise guy empties his drum of Tommy Gun ammo and as soon as he’s done, popping out of cover and taking him down in one shot to the head with a lowly pistol.
The third-person shooting is great but the game doesn’t do a good job letting you know what you can and can’t do. I replayed the first mission I had in Empire Bay over and over because I didn’t know that enemies can kill you in two to three shots. I didn’t know enemies can shoot you while you’re in the car. The learning curve is a little steep but you will adapt quickly and gun play is very satisfying.
There are sequences where you will fight hand-to-hand with one opponent. You can punch, counter, and finish your opponent with a kick in the face, by slamming them into the wall, or with a powerful punch combo. These sequences are alright but they leave no lasting impression and they just left me with a ‘meh’ feeling. There are also stealth missions, which are surprisingly well done. Choking guards out from behind and dragging bodies so they aren’t seen is great fun and harkens back to other stealth titles. While not fully developed like in those titles, the stealth mechanics are easy to learn, use, and apply. The game also doesn’t punish you gravely for being seen. The shooting mechanics are solid enough to help you get out of a situation where you are spotted and the guards are alerted to your position. Most importantly, the stealth missions are just fun.
Mafia II is a beautiful game. The character models and animations are impressively immersive. All the characters look like real-life people and emote as such. Cars show damage as you drive into poles; fences, cars, and the locales in general all look spectacular. The only flaw I could really point out is the lip synching. While the timing is correct, the mouths sometimes move in ways that don’t look like the words being said. It’s a small flaw but a noticeable one. The game runs smoothly and no pop-in textures or long loading times were seen, although I did encounter one strange bug during a cut-scene where Vito’s tie curled up inside him and stuck out of his back. It was rather funny and was fixed after the cut-scene.
If there’s one adjective to describe Mafia II, it's cinematic. The soundtrack helps cement the game’s motion picture vibe and subtle tone. There are three radio stations with licensed music, news, and commercials that play Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and other tunes from 1951, although the small amount of songs and radio stations does limit the variety. Sound design is splendid as well, with a satisfying emphasis given to gun shots and dead assailants. Voice acting is delivered with emotional weight and gives subtlety to each character. The performances are sublime and you will be enraptured in the experience.
I played the PC version of the game as played through the OnLive service. My experience was a pleasant one. The game ran best when I played it with my Xbox 360 wired controller on my TV with 720p resolution. Gameplay was smooth and fluid, although for some reason the last three missions were jittery and laggy during the driving sequences. I would recommend the OnLive version to those who don’t have the means to run the PC version on their rig or for those who don’t own a PS3 or Xbox 360. Also, I got the game during a promotion they had where they sold the game for $5. This is not a bad version of the game and seems comparable to the other versions.
Mafia II is a title that is deceiving at first glance. Because of the Mafioso backdrop, free roaming city and fetch quest-like objectives, many will mistake this title for another criminal-based sandbox game. However, that would be a short-sighted assumption as Mafia II is more of a story-driven adventure game with third-person shooter elements. Characterized as such, this is a great title with mostly solid game mechanics and a plot with substance that gives its fetch quests a framework. More importantly, despite its issues, Mafia II is fun and I think the highest compliment one can give a game is to come out of the experience it gave you and say you had a great time.