Apr 8, 2011

Mafia II Review

I have very fond memories of the first Mafia game. I remember playing the demo extremely extensively and I had a great time when I actually got to play the full game. Despite some flaws, it was a lot of fun, and it had a long, engaging story. It really felt like a true crime epic. Understandably, I was pretty happy when Mafia II was announced.

I was hoping that they'd take the first game and just really iron it out. I wanted the same thing – an epic, sprawling gangster story in a well-developed world – but without the things that made the first game frustrating at times.

The game ended up getting pretty mixed reviews, which sent up a bit of a red flag, but there was no way I could pass up trying it out once I had the rig to run it and Steam knocked the price down to $20 in a sale.

So, do I think it lives up to its legacy? Read on to find out.

Epic Yarn or Mundane String (of Events)?

It's clear that the story, setting, and characters were the main focus in Mafia II. With games like Heavy Rain out there, I'd be hesitant to describe it as an interactive movie, but suffice to say you'll probably spend more time listening to exposition than shooting people. Whether or not that's your bag will, of course, vary. But this isn't GTA, and it's not trying to be. Don't expect constant action.

The first thing that really drew me into the game was how much energy the developers spent building up the protagonist's backstory, and his reasons for getting involved in crime in the first place. It very quickly lets the player know what kind of game they're playing – the story-based kind. But aside from that, it really aides immersion to have a good understanding of where your the character you're controlling comes from, and many of the side characters are also well developed. Importantly, they're all interesting, consistent and in my case, at least, invoked the feelings they seemed to be supposed to invoked – I found that the characters you're supposed to like were likeable, and the one's you weren't supposed to like really did come off as scumbags.

The story itself is interesting, well paced, and follows a good arc – at least, what of it there is. I was deeply unsatisfied by the conclusion of the game, so much so that if I had written a review straight after finishing it I probably would've torn the game part, which it really doesn't deserve. Mafia II lacks the epic scale of the original. It took me about 12 hours to play through it, which is really too short for a single-player only game. What's worse is that it ends very abruptly, almost mid-sentence, and it really felt like there was more to the story. It seemed like such a waste. They had a good team of script-writers and voice actors, a detailed open world (and no, there's no Free Roam mode), beautiful graphics, a really cool story... and it's over in a flash. Most development houses would kill to have this much talent going into a game, and it's really wasted on such a short game with an unsatisfying conclusion.

I just can't believe it's over...
As I mentioned above, the setting of Empire Bay is well fleshed out. It's not the biggest open world we've seen in gaming by a long shot, but it's full of those little details that can really bring a game to life. Strong references to classic crime films are also a welcome addition to the game and make it feel familiar without being particularly disturbing to the player's immersion in the story.

The Sights and Sounds of Empire Bay

Rain-soaked cityscapes, in MY crime fiction? It's more likely than you think.
In short, the game looks great. Crisp, detailed textures, superb lighting and effects, and well designed graphics for characters, chars, weapons, and the locations themselves. The only thing I'd really detract from this game in the visual department is inconsistent animation quality. Usually it's fine, but some of the animations are pretty stilted, and unfortunately you'll be seeing them a lot. The facial animation also leaves something to be desired in a game that's so strongly focused on giving a movie-like experience.

As well as great graphics, the sound design in the game is pretty impressive. I think the first game actually sounded a little better – I seem to remember it being pretty fantastic – but it's been a long time since I played the first game, so I could be wrong there. Either way, the sound in this game is well above average. Cars, weapons, and ambient noise are all very solid, if not quite mind-blowing.

Additionally, the voice acting in the game is extremely well-delivered, which is important for a game with so much dialogue. The music also compliments the action very well – the radio tracks are well selected and help draw you into the late forties/early fifties setting. The orchestral score also features some very good tracks and compliments the action of the game very well.

Oh Look, It's a Cover Shooter

Thank God for chest-high walls.
As the heading says, the core gameplay of Mafia II is a very standard cover-shooting setup. It works reasonably well, but there's nothing particularly amazing about it. I did like the fact that both you and enemies die very quickly, adding to the game's gritty tone, but you still end up fighting pretty ridiculous numbers of enemies at some points which can put a strain on the suspension of disbelief. The shooting works well enough, though, especially considering it isn't the main focus of the game.

There are also some fist fights in the game which are fairly enjoyable, but they're all very easy and the fighting system is extremely simplistic. Still, it works well as another type of action in the game aside from shooting and was an important element to include because of a few plot points relating to people getting beaten up.

There are a few stealth sections in this game, as there were in the first game, and they still leave a little to be desired. They're very linear with only one valid path, and the AI isn't really up to snuff for stealth gameplay, where smart-but-not-too-smart opposition is of utmost importance. They aren't painfully bad, but could've been better.

The driving is quite solid. It's a nice mix of realistic and arcadey, and it can be a lot of fun speeding around in one of the game's faster vehicles. You'll spend a lot of time driving in the game, so it's good that the driving is... good. Although most of the time you'll simply be driving from point A to point B to get to different stages of a mission, there are a few car chases and other reasons to dive fast and well, and they're pretty fun sections.

There is a little bit too much of that “drive from A to B” stuff I mentioned though. There's normally some dialogue going on as you do it, but it would've been better to find more interesting ways to deliver this exposition instead of as a conversation going on while you play what feels like filler. It can help with immersion, driving around the wonderfully detailed city, listening to the radio, but it still feels like there's just too much time spent playing with nothing really going on.

This all feels strangely familiar...
 It's especially hurtful that this is such a big aspect of the gameplay, as there really isn't that much gameplay anyway. In many open world games you spend long amounts of time just going from one place to another, but normally the game is very long and there's tons more action to be broken up by those segments. But Mafia II is quite a short game, and a lot of time is spent on cutscenes already.

Overall, the gameplay is solid, but it takes very few risks, and there should really be more of it.

So, Does Crime Pay?

I liked Mafia II overall, in that I enjoyed most of the 12 hours I spent with it. The narrative focus won't appeal to everyone, but I love games like Metal Gear Solid, Heavy Rain, and classic adventure games, so it really wasn't anywhere near being too much for me. There should be more gameplay though, there really isn't enough, and the game is too short for a single-player only experience.

At least it has firey explosions.
And the way the game ends is very bad. So much so that it almost ruined the entire game for me. If I had written this review right after I finished the game, I would've nailed it to the wall because I was so dissatisfied with the way the game ended, even though what there was of it was enjoyable.

So, final verdict, is Mafia II worthy of your attention? Well, yes. It's a good game with a good story. It's just not as outstanding as it could've been, and it's a shame to see so much potential go to waste. I'd only recommend buying it at a budget price though. There's much too little content on offer here to justify paying full entry.

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