Mafia II is a sad example of how an undeniable masterpiece can be turned into a total disaster.
- Presentation values from graphics, art, voice work, story, music and sound are all beautiful and engaging
- The set-pieces are fun and engaging for a time
- Decent controls
- Butchers almost all of the gameplay that made the original such a great game
- The amount of detail to the city is wasted
- Game is relatively short
- Nothing to do in free-roaming other than shoot people and instigate cops
- Enemy AI is just as bound, restricted and linear as the rest of the game
The Bottom Line
The debate of "Are games art?" is steadily growing higher and higher and to properly reflect my feelings on Mafia II, I must reflect my stance on this frothing debate. To me, "Video games" are not art; a video game is just a game, a set of rules are given and you must use them and try to beat other players be they real or computer. However games have spawned off something new and very different, which are definitely able to reach an artistic standpoint.
However their relations to video games still exist in the fact that you interact with them and play them. Great examples of this new evolution are Silent Hill 2
and Grand Theft Auto IV.
Both "games" are not games in the traditional sense, and are truthfully more of an interactive experience; however they still have gameplay to tie them down and retain the aspect of "Interactivity," in Silent Hill 2 it was the immersion that made you feel as though you were being haunted, oppressed, and chased by your own nightmares taking real form and in Grand Theft Auto IV it was the way you interacted with the world and the fantastic characters, making you feel as though you have stepped into another persons shoes and reality in a genuine locale.
However they MUST keep this bridge between the artistic elements and the former aspects of being a "Video game," and this is where Mafia II fails. Mafia II, from the presentation standpoint, is a fantastic piece of art. The story and characters are brilliant, providing arguably one of the best Mafioso stories in years regardless of medium. The visuals are fantastic with extremely detailed and beautiful graphics and they capture the style of the two eras the game takes place in perfectly, combined with the great music both original and licensed Mafia II is a wonderful piece of art. But it fails to retain the interactivity required for this interactive medium.
The sad thing is this could have easily filled in that bridge. Anyone who played the original PC version of the original Mafia
and not it's butchered PS2/XBOX port will know why. The driving mechanics were complex and while the controls took time to get accustomed to, it was a fantastic shooter with many nuances and while the city and free roaming were not the focus of the title, it had many hours, plenty of variety, and enough gameplay opportunities in its story to stay fresh throughout. I do not want to sound like a PC biased nerd but we can't ignore the fact that the PC is a more advanced system in delivering a more nuanced experience. Yet we live in a world where consoles are becoming more and more advanced and much more common and practical than the PC, and I have no qualm with this when it comes to the fact that there are thousands of fantastic console based titles; but some PC experiences need to remain on the PC intact. Almost nothing that made Mafia a nuanced title is here, and this is simply to allow the game to fit on the PS3 and Xbox 360 and not just the PC.
The result is a title that is a masterpiece and yet an utter disaster. Don't get me wrong, the set-pieces are memorable and tie in with the story perfectly; but there's no reason to replay them. This is something that shouldn't be an interactive experience, this is something we should see in theatres. It follows the perfect linearity of a film, but forces you to doddle about for lengthy, uninteresting periods between each "scene." There are 15 chapters in the game, and they each represent a "scene" that could've been made into a fantastic film. The only gameplay that connects them is get in your car, drive all the way to the other end of the town, get out, and start the film. Then you go through a set piece and control your character for that scene, then you drive back all the way to your house, "Sleep" and start the next scene then move on.
The city in the game is a waste of beautiful detail, while I wish it wasn't clearly an ape on New York which has becoming a far too common locale, the world *looks* as alive and complex as the Liberty City of GTA IV. It helps that the games period is represented perfectly. It actually takes place during two time periods, the first half is set in the 1940s during the height of World War II and later on the beginning of the 50s. Both periods are portrayed fantastically with cars, clothing, music and culture being mirrored perfectly. It's joyous at first to drive in a period piece car listening to Jazz and war propaganda and the like. However you will soon grow weary of drying because as mentioned earlier, the only point of driving is to connect the dots and get the scene moving.
To be fair this problem reared in the original game, but it was very clear that it isn't meant to be a free-roamer. This game wants desperately to be a free-roamer and tells the player to unleash themselves, but the ONLY thing to do in the city is occasionally cause havoc and car chases. There are no character interactions, mini-games, or expansive sights and events to mess around with. Even the first game at least had a Taxi driving thing to fill in the gap, but it also had more to it.
You can tell the developers tried to remember what made the original game great. As I said, the set-pieces are astounding on your first run but there is still limited interactivity and unless you want to get that achievement for picking up all the PlayBoy magazines hidden in each chapter (Sorry for being a smartarse, but Playboy didn't exist in the 40s. Or the 50s. Though I would be lying if it wasn't nice to see photos from when PlayBoy had far greater taste.) you will simply walk through each scene in the exact notes the developers want you to. There is no way to circumvent the absolutely linear path, even the decision of taking cover and shooting or being more gung-ho is decided as you will find that many segments are impossible unless you take cover in a specific spot or go full-auto in another. The driving mechanics also want to echo the original game, but are just as stripped and bare as the rest.
In the original game you had to obey traffic laws and the fact that you required to actually use gears, levers, etc. added to the first games immersion and it made the chases and driving more intense and interesting as well as more realistic than your standard GTA style chase. In Mafia II, they want you to obey traffic laws and you will often have to turn on a speed limiter but no gears or levers and even then, limiting your speed is more of a way of making sure you always have control over your car and don't go speeding too fast, lose control, and accidentally bump into something you didn't want to hit like in GTA IV. The police rarely care, but this becomes a problem because you will forget that traffic rules are still in the game. There might be a moment where you are zooming at 125 miles per hour and a cop will just pass by, but if you try it later the cops will start chasing you.
The overall problem is that the gameplay simply isn't complete. There are other mechanics, such as the bribing system and whatnot but they all feel out of place when you realize how linear the game truly is. Everything feels like a wasted opportunity to go to a greater title, this could've been a wonderful follow up to Mafia and could've even combined the strengths of the original Mafia and the variety and immersion of GTA IV but with a more realistic model. That was what the original game was like, it was very similar to GTA III in some ways and had a similar feel, but it was a more realistic and more dramatic alternative that delivered and improved on that games best moments. Why Mafia II couldn't have followed that model is beyond me, and it ultimately disappoints me.
This game is worth a rental to play through once, as the directing, acting, and story are poignant and wonderfully told and the set pieces are fun to control when you look past how limited said control is. But the sad fact is, it simply doesn't have the gameplay to truly match an interactive experience. The AI is just as bound and scripted and will always act the same way, with the exception of car cop chases. If it had been a film it could've been better, and all the missed opportunities combined with the fact that it cuts a superb predecessor down to a barely recognizable size makes Mafia II a shameful sequel.