You’ve gotta love the mafia. Sure they were a bunch of criminals who killed, bribed, and stole with a passion that was almost unbelievable, but at least they had style. A combination of fancy clothing, a fantastic primary weapon (everyone recognizes the infamous Tommy gun), and a sense of professionalism that today’s criminal organizations sadly lack. It is because of this style that these mobsters are still romanticized to this day, with a bevy of amazing movies and literary works in their honor. 2k looked to capitalize on their popularity in the games Mafia and subsequently Mafia II, allowing the player to take the role of an up and comer within the mob, seeing both the ritz and the darker realities of this infamous profession hand in hand. Unfortunately it would seem that Mafia II has taken this good mixed with bad approach to how it’s integrated the game play as well, with a mix of fantastic and groan worthy elements to confuse the matter. So the question is: is Mafia II a good game that deserves your attention despite a few rough spots, or does it deserve to sleep with the fishes?
Let’s start out with my favorite part of any game, and arguably the most important part of any title apart from the actual game play mechanics: the story. And just as you’d expect from a game based around a group with such a fascinating history, it’s a lot of fun. You traverse the bottom rungs of the mafia, running the gamut from forced enlistment and prison to fighting your way up through the ranks. It’s an interesting take on the criminal world, as it doesn’t go out of its way to glamourize the events that take place. It’s a rather realistic take on the world, with all of your actions having consequences, and not all of them are positive. In fact, it would seem as most of them screw you over! Sure, some aspects of the plot are rather predictable (let’s go take some money from a loan shark, what could possibly go wrong?), but overall the plot twists and turns in directions that the player might not expect, with the game ending on, for me at least, a rather sour note. But all in all the story was a major plus for me, and even though I’m not a big mafia buff or a fan of the genre I still found myself caught up in it until the very end.
Honestly though, I think my favorite part of this game was the characters, the good and bad alike. You take on the role of Vito Scaletta, a straight forward kind of guy who joins the families because he doesn’t want to work himself to death for nothing like his father did. He’s a likeable character, putting the good of his friends before himself or the families, though this also serves to separate him from the more ruthless members of the mafia. He is joined by his buddy Joe, my personal favorite character, a wisecracking career criminal. He’s a bit of a bully, ruthless to those that stand in his way, but he’s also a jokester that looks after his friends, willing to give up on his own goals in order to help Vito. They make a truly enjoyable duo to watch in action, two old friends mocking each other even as they have each other’s backs through thick and thin. Add in an awesome support cast on both sides and you have all of the elements you need to craft a top notch story.
Unfortunately I have to say that 2k dropped the ball at the end of said story, as while the characters are enjoyable and the narrative compelling enough to drive you through the bulk of it, the game’s ending feels abrupt. Spoiler warning: skip this paragraph if you plan on picking this game up. The whole thing ends on a bit of an anticlimax, with you having just killed one of the three family bosses in order to save your own skin. The problem is that the way the game leaves things implies that you’ve just inadvertently sentenced Joe to death after he selflessly helped you, with Vito content to just drive off with no goal in mind. There is no sense of achievement, no final rung on the ladder to reach or goal to complete, just a sense of emptiness as the credits role. This feeling is only compounded by the game’s lack of length, as I was able to clear the entire story on my first play through in less than 10 hours, making it feel like the game got cut off arbitrarily. Perhaps 2k just ran out of time or money to finish properly, but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
This taste is only exacerbated by the actual game play, as it suffers from what I call tepid realism. The driving is a great example of this, as the game boasts a wide selection of classic cars all of which handle realistically. This sounds great on paper, but it’s miserable in execution as most of the cars handle like drunken sloths. And considering the sheer amount of driving that the game forces you to do in order to get from one point to another, this quickly becomes a chore to do. Add in some annoyingly strict police who will try to chase you down for running a red light, let alone speeding, and getting anywhere quickly just becomes a pain. I was fortunate enough to have the collector’s edition so I had some special cars with which to spice things up, but even they handled annoyingly at first. This was by far the most annoying part of the game for me, as nothing is more annoying than running from the cops and trying to make a quick turn, only to spin out and get mauled by machine gun fire.
This annoying sense of “realism” also extends to the game’s combat system, as head shots are instant kills and wounds stay with you (at least partially) until you have a chance to recover. Once again this sounds good, but the problem is that this goes both ways, so on the harder difficulties you can be picked off by a seemingly random headshot at any given time. And given the lack of checkpoints in some sections, this can be a real problem when you’re playing on hard mode as you end up having to redo a section due to an unlucky shot as opposed to a lack of skill. Add to this a broken hand-to-hand combat system, where countering is the only viable option for consistent success and where the game seems to randomly decide whether or not a punch lands and you have a formula for great frustration. Seriously, get a gun, find some cover, and never look back.
The only thing the realism really got right in this game lies within the aesthetic elements, as the game feels like it’s taking place in the ‘50s. The cars are one obvious example, but everything from the posters on the walls to the clothes on people’s backs act as a visual reminder of the world in which you are inhabiting. The game is very pretty to look at as well, with some amazing backdrops scattered throughout the city and a great presentation all in all. This is definitely a next gen game from a visual perspective. The audio is also solid, with fantastic voice work for all of the different characters and a banging soundtrack for when you’re driving (and you will be driving!) along the city streets. Add in a top notch orchestral score to add a sense of drama and tension to the game and you have a title with a sense of style to match the genre it’s covering.
This game is a tough nut to crack for me, as on the one hand I really want to recommend it. The story is intriguing, the characters compelling, and the overall experience was rather memorable if a tad bit frustrating. However, the aggravating driving controls coupled with an irritating combat system and an anticlimactic ending really make me question whether or not this title is a worthwhile investment. Sure, I enjoyed it, but if you don’t care for the subject matter at hand then I really can’t recommend it to you. Try it out if you can find it for a few bucks or if you’re really into the whole mobster scene, but otherwise steer clear of this one.
Well, can’t win ‘em all I guess. Hopefully next time we’ll have something a bit more appealing for you guys to take a look at. Until then, feel free to leave a comment below letting me know what you think. This is Bargain Gamer, logging out.