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Mafia II


A $60 interactive movie.
The Grand Theft Auto series is arguably the undisputed champion of sandbox game play, with itís mix of huge open worlds, compelling stories, memorable characters, and plethora of side quests. Like all formulas that work, there have been a string of imitators. A notable sub-genre of the GTA style game play are GTA clones set in the heyday of the Mafia in America. The most notable entries thus far were the two Godfather games and Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven. The latter I never had the opportunity to play, due to my devotion to my Mac and the shoddy nature of the PS2 and X-Box ports. I have had the fortune (or the misfortune in the case of the sequel) to play the Godfather games and while they made a noble attempt at marrying open-world game play to a vintage epic crime story, both games came up feeling shallow and rushed. Now, a sequel in name, Mafia II hits consoles and gives itís best shot to be Don of the Genre.



Let me open up and say in the story department, Mafia II borrows heavily from classic gangster films, but manages to weave one of the most compelling stories, upstaging the main story of GTA IV in many aspects and completely leaving the weak attempts to weave players into the storylines of the Godfather films as attempted by those two games. The game opens in the midst of World War II in Sicily as you control Vito Scaletta, a young man on the path to crime who was given the option of jail or war. The intro level serves as a nice tutorial to the firefight mechanics that will come in handy later. I greatly appreciated a practical way of learning to use your guns, given once back on US soil, Vito doesnít enter the world of organized crime with his guns blazing.

Once you return home from the war, Vito is a changed man, in awe of a local Italian Don who got Mussoliniís troops to surrender to the Americans just by asking. You meet up with your boyhood friend, Joe Barbaro, a loud, garish man, who loves life a little too much. From here, your path through the ranks of the Mafia is set in stone, but Mafia II paces itself expertly to avoid the stumbles the Godfather games made: giving you too much power, too soon. This is a double-edged sword, because while Mafia II is a narritively engaging game, once your first big shootout goes down, approximately 25% of the way through the game, you realize, most of the game play consists of running errands or driving.

You will drive a lot in Mafia II and the developers smartly made sure to keep the story driving ahead through character conversation, but asking players to drop $60 on a game that feels more like an interactive movie, than an action game is criminal. Fortunately, just as you might start to see through Mafia IIís cracks, the game shifts pace with a couple of welcomed curveballs, but when the action picks up hot-and-heavy in the final act of the game, youíll be reminded once again at how shallow the game play is and how little attention was paid in comparison to the production department.



The biggest illusion in Mafia II is the notion that Empire City is a free-roaming world. Yes, between early missions you can tool around as you want, but if youíre like me, youíll probably push forward with the story, expecting to free roam once the game is complete. No such luck, when the game ends, itís done. If you intend to explore the world and do the few (in reality, only two) side-missions, you better do it early on into game play. Even if you wait until the latter chapters of the game (there are 14 in all, but some chapters take five-times as long to complete as others), certain actions will no longer be available and by then, youíll realize thereís not much worth exploring.

Despite the rich storyline that centers on morality and the corruption of our protagonist, Empire City is a pencil thin city. It looks pretty and captures the spirit of the 1940s and 1950s, but like the original GTA III, you can only enter a minute number of buildings and every shop you can enter looks the same. There are only 36 varieties of vehicles, many of which are only minor differences and only a handful are worth driving. Instead the city is merely an underdeveloped character in the story of Vito and Joe, only essential in pulling viewers, err, I mean players into the period setting.

It terms of raw game play, Mafia II is average, to above average at best. You have a small melee combat system that gets the job done, and the driving controls are effective, but could still use some polish to give vehicle control a more realistic feel. When you are on foot in a mission, and its time to do some wet work, Mafia II just canít compete with the modern third-person shooter. Vito controls very awkwardly and a tad too imprecise for the three or four big shootouts (yes, you really only get four big gunfights) that needs you to move quickly. The aiming system is your standard hold, the L-Trigger to slightly zoom, but this only matters if youíre using a rifle. Submachine guns and pistols feel like they are only accurate in a general sense of the term. Thereís a cover system for defense, but be careful as Vito isnít always precise in choosing cover and itís often too late to leave it and correct your mistake before you wind up dead.



Speaking of death, there were two missions in the game where I died a notable number of times. Every other fight where I bit the dust, it was due to my hasty approach to matters. When I took a slow approach, things were a walk in the park; granted, I was having fun in the moment, but now looking back, itís just another area where the game doesnít aspire to greatness. Those two times where I died, it was solely attributed to shoddy level design attached to outdated controls. A shootout in a dark warehouse in particular made my blood boil, and the culprit of my rageÖthe ham-fisted cover system and loose aiming.

Unfortunately, Mafia IIís undercooked game play really hurt the game in the long run. Thereís no real replay value, unless your idea of fun is tracking down the two categories of collectibles, Playboys and Wanted posters. This might keep Achievement hounds busy for a few extra hours, but everything else is easily obtainable in one play through. Mafia II kept me engaged at a steady rate for around ten-and-a-half hours. It was an incredibly fun ride, without a shadow of a doubt, but, Iím done with the game and will never touch it again. Thereís no incentive to replay chapters and the lack of a post-story free roam mode feels like a real slap in the face. Additionally, the game is a single player only experience.

2K Games seems to have anticipated this problem and DLC packs are already on the way, offering new characters and adventures for the player to engage in, but like 99% of the DLC on the market, this comes with a cost. If there were a few free DLC packs on the horizon, it would soften the blow of a $60, ten-hour, one play through game. Alas, Mafia IIís tremendous story takes a hit and thatís a shame. My early feeling toward the game was that it was this yearís Arkham Asylum, a strong narrative with engrossing game play, but very quickly, this feeling was dashed. Mafia II falls somewhere in the middle ground of GTA game play and Godfather game play, a solely ho-hum experience that crafts the illusion of interaction. Still, itís a step in the right direction and hopefully, things will be fixed for a Mafia III.

Graphics

  • The overall graphical style of the game captures the look of a 1940s and later, 1950s New York style city quite well. Variation in building design in limited however, and as the game progresses, things can get boring. The frame rate is nice and steady with no memorable slowdown; a bit of minor screen tearing occurs from time-to-time.

  • The character models range from quite good, to a bit dated. This is quite evident in cut scenes, which suffer from some minor graphical hiccups. Thereís a lot of aliasing and a few issues with shadow effects that end up looking like window screens on faces and objects.

Audio

  • The soundtrack to this game is ABSOLUTELY AMAZING. A great mix of 40s and 50s, ranging from Dean Martin to Little Richard. Any music buff though, will recognize a lot of the music is anachronistic by a few years, but quite frankly this never detracted from the tone and feeling it instilled in me as I was playing.

  • Voice acting is top-notch, with no one going over-the-top (unless the scene calls for it). Only a few supporting parts felt stilted, the major characters often felt cinema quality at times. Combined with the sharp script, the story department really hit a home run.

  • Sound effects are appropriately varied; cars have a good range of engine sounds and the weapons sound like their real life counterparts. Nothing is overblown for dramatic effect; at times, things are often realistically underwhelming.

Conclusion

A great story that manages to make old ground seem fresh, coupled with out-of-this world sound design, is sadly attached to a middle-of-the-road, limited third-person gaming experience. I was hooked by Vito's saga from start to finish, growing to love some characters and hate others. Fo my time I was rewarded with a satisfying, grounded ending. The same couldn't be said for the time I actually played the game. Mafia II sets itself up for an unexpected grand slam, but is instead held back by the developers' inability to advance game play forward and ends up being walked to first. I just canít in good faith recommend this game as $60 purchase. Maybe when the price drops, to around the $25-$30 range itís worth picking up for fans of the narrative genre, but as it stands now, this is a great, three-day rental.

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