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Mafia II
Graphics: 7
Gameplay: 7.7
Sound: 8.2
Control: 7.3
Replay Value: 7.4
Rating: 7.4

Being a big fan of the Grand Theft Auto series, I figured I’d quite naturally enjoy the original Mafia. However, I didn’t play it on PC (clearly the superior version at the time) and I found it to be lacking in a variety of areas; areas in which GTA typically excels. But I had a heard a great deal about the sequel’s improvements and entered my play time of Mafia II with much anticipation. Now, as you read this review, you should remember a crucial fact- despite my complaints, I had fun, and if you are willing and able to accept that story supersedes gameplay and technical accomplishment in terms of quality, you’ll want to play it. I don’t wish to imply that the mechanics are poor; they’re just standard third-person shooting elements, and the visual presentation isn’t anything special. It’s just that the story and atmosphere reign supreme and the entire production doesn’t quite have the chops to support added immersion.

Much has been made about the lacking visuals on the console versions, and perhaps specifically the PlayStation 3 version. Bear in mind that I did not have access to the Xbox 360 version of the game, but we all know the PC version is once again the best graphical iteration of Mafia II. That being said, bitter complaints aren’t necessarily warranted. The animations and movements can often appear stiff, the syncing of lips with voices is mediocre, and we’re missing those intricate, impressive details we often associate with top-quality titles. In some ways, it really does appear to be stark and very last-gen in nature but if you examine the city as a whole, you will find little in the way of crucial flaws. In truth, it’s a capable presentation. The dark, gritty underbelly of Empire Bay is appropriately depicted and we feel right at home in our mobster digs; this fitting environment isn’t exactly sparkling, but it fits.

The sound is better thanks to great voice acting and an effective soundtrack. The actual gameplay effects aren’t anything to write home about, and there are a few balance issues in regards to weapon fire, music, and voices. This sort of contributes to the overall technical lacking and – perhaps unsurprisingly – kind of enhances the graphical drawbacks. But those voiceovers really are cut straight out of a “GoodFellas” or “Godfather” picture in terms of believability, and the music is in the same boat. I’m fairly certain 2K used actual tracks from the time period on display, which certainly enhances the authentic feel of the whole wise guy atmosphere. Wandering into a bar or brothel really feels just about right and everything from the crack of a skull to the loud carousing of your comrades sounds accurate. It’s just that once again, as soon as you get involved in the gameplay, you might get that “meh” sensation…

You play as Vito Scaletta (I almost want to change my name now; it’s so freakin’ cool), who has returned from World War II to find his family facing some money troubles. His mother doesn’t have much in the first place and with that debt hovering over their heads, stress is high and Vito decides he’s just sick of the whole slum thing. The best option? Organized crime, of course. It’s time to run amok in Empire Bay and grab hordes of ill-gotten gains, all the time taking out anyone who gets in your way and indulging in most every vice life has to offer in a big, lively city. But wait, here’s where we come to a little eccentricity that might surprise you- most may be expecting a very similar environment to GTA or other sandbox games, but you have to realize that Mafia II is very mission-based. The city is open for exploration; you can purchase weapons, change your threads, and even get your license plate changed if the heat is too high.

Still, it’s all based around what you’re doing. I drove around for a good 45 minutes before I realized that nothing was going to really happen until I decided to start the next mission. In other words, I wasn’t going to find any random odd jobs; I wouldn’t stumble across new or alternate objectives. Unfortunately, this trait makes the game feel a little empty. As you play the missions, you realize you really appreciate that big, thriving metropolis but when left to your own devices, you’re gonna get bored pretty quickly. Still, I’m not going to be harp on this as harshly as other critics, and that’s because I happen to like a focus on story, even if it’s technically oriented within a sandbox world. Besides, I don’t recall doing anything of great importance when wandering about on my own in GTA, either. It was fun, but only because I could perform all sorts of random, silly nonsense. And there’s nothing really to stop you from performing similar antics in Mafia II; it’s just not as dynamic or “impactful,” I guess.

The control feels a little wonky at times and I’m not the biggest fan of the responsiveness of the cover mechanic but other than that, you likely won’t have much trouble controlling Vito. Most of your encounters with bad guys will entail the standard gunfight approach in third-person shooters: take cover, look for openings, and if the situation presents itself, rush forward and finish the deal in a brutal up-close-and-personal fashion. Basically, you’ll know what to expect. The game does shake things up by providing the player with a few different missions that involve some degree of stealth, but most of the time, it’s all about being careful during massive firefights. This underworld crime adventure isn’t exactly forgiving so you always have to stick to cover, and taking risks is usually an ill-advised strategy. However, I have to say that this is the second straight game I’ve played where I can take damage even in cover…except in contrast to Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, I think this might be an actual flaw in Mafia II. Hard to say.

Everything really is quite standard. Even the hand-to-hand stuff sort of feels a little “vanilla,” if you ask me, and just because taking a bullet looks and feels quasi-authentic, the gameplay is usually a rinse-and-repeat process. That all being said, I do like the game. The reason is simply because the story is great and the environment is very cool; the developers did a good job of making me feel as if I were a true-blue wise guy. I enjoyed the drama; the cinematography is excellent thanks to a lot of dynamic camera angles during cut-scenes. While the gameplay doesn’t necessarily include much in the way of innovation, other designers can take a cue from 2K concerning the art of storytelling scenes in video games. I mean, even though the words don’t sync up with the lips too well, the dialogue is well-written and emotional, and you’ll want to take on the next mission just to see what happens next.

To me, the importance of a good story is paramount to the experience when analyzing a game like this. Yeah, the graphics aren’t the best you’ll see and it’s unfortunate the console versions have to take a back seat to the PC version (again), but the atmosphere works. And while I still question that frustrating taking-damage-when-in-cover thing, and while I still say the cover mechanic isn’t quite right, the gameplay doesn’t necessarily suffer from poor controls. You can progress without much in the way of irritation provided you have the requisite patience, the story is deep and nicely produced, the voices and music are a big help, and really, you do feel like a mobster. The flaws just sort of bog down the entire production, and you also might get seriously ticked off when the almost clairvoyant authorities get in your way for the umpteenth time. If they could just clean this up the whole way ‘round for Mafia III, it’ll become the first must-play game in the series.

8/24/2010   Ben Dutka