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SummaryRetro style meets modern lack of substance
The GoodThe first Mafia will always remain one of my favorite games. It had unique quirky charm that made me ignore its flaws and enjoy it immensely, without trying to compare it to GTA games, which had been the obvious inspiration.
In terms of story and presentation, the sequel succeeds - at least partly - in capturing the spirit of the first game. The cinematic direction of the numerous cutscenes is very good. Character graphics and animation are beyond anything I've seen in a video game; even Mass Effect doesn't reach this level. The voice acting is uniformly solid and convincing. I couldn't shake that New York Italian accent from my speech after a session of this game. You can feel the vice, the coldness, the cruelty; but nothing is overdone, there are no cartoony exaggerations: everything is gritty, merciless, and realistic.
The story of Mafia II is not bad. I've read criticisms, heard people saying that Vito and Joe are shallow and unpleasant, and the story is just about betraying and killing everyone. Well, that's true. But it's a story about mafia, no? Organized crime. Gangsters. So yes, Vito and Joe do very bad things, and so do everyone else you encounter in the game. But that was just the point: to show how false ambitions, perverted sense of respect and extreme cynicism turn an ordinary guy into a merciless killing machine. Yes, Vito's soul becomes hollow, but it can never become completely so. This fact is not taken lightly in the game. And in the end, it becomes clear that Vito's spirit and his vices can never be reconciled.
The atmosphere of the 1940-ies and 1950-ies is very well-realized - the clothes, the propaganda, the jazz music, the rampant racism and misogyny. Of course, it concentrates on the dark side of United States of those years. And it does it very well, in a somewhat brutal, but poignant fashion. Though the city's beauty is largely ephemeral, it does feel nice to drive through a cozy neighborhood on a sunny day or shoot assorted mafiosi in a stylish apartment decorated by retro posters.
The BadMafia II is unsatisfying in all of its basic gameplay categories: as an open-world "sandbox" experience, as a shooter, and as a driving game.
As a free-roaming game, Mafia II lets you do just that: roam (and even that not quite freely). Otherwise, its city offers nothing interesting. There are no optional missions. No decisions to make during missions. No possibility to choose the order of the story missions. You can't go online or buy property or drive a taxi or have a girlfriend or anything that was so fun in Grand Theft Auto games. Everything else is a beautiful, yet superficial decoration. The ultra-linear structure of the missions and the hollow nature of the city make the experience pale in comparison to the GTA behemoths.
It was certainly "forgivable" eight years ago, when the first Mafia came out; but now, people expect more, and rightfully so. Mafia II is a typical modern game: classy presentation superimposed on simplified, reduced gameplay. It gives you the scenery but forgets to give you fulfilling activities to go with it.
The world is also full of artificial borders. In such type of games, a big part of the fun is to be able to drive anywhere. In Mafia II, you can drive pretty much only on the roads. Sure, you can wreak havoc in a park or something, but not much more. You can't access water at all. For some reasons mountain roads are adorned by annoying fences that you can't drive through. So instead of performing a spectacular car jump from a mountain top, you'll have to drive down the same road you used to go up. Same applies to on-foot navigation. Why can't my character jump? Why can't he swim? Why doesn't he fall of a cliff, why are there magical borders preventing him from doing that?
Mission design in Mafia II is exceedingly weak. There are no imaginative setpieces, no variety, and for the most part almost no challenge at all. The first part of the game is particularly bad: it is built like an inflated "tutorial" where you perform menial, tediously executed tasks to advance higher in the ranks of organized crime. It may be realistic, but it's boring both in concept and execution. I imagine it would have been possible to create a fun minigame based on passing around cigarette boxes, but the game doesn't even want to do that: you just have to press a button whenever you want to and voila - task accomplished.
It doesn't get much better than that. Many missions literally consist of calmly driving somewhere, sitting through a lengthy cutscene, and driving back. Even though you can drive cars, there are almost no missions at all focused on driving. In fact, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that driving in the game is mostly a cosmetic element. There are no tense chases, no exciting shoot-outs, no racing, no time limits, no fun action-loaded setpieces and next to no diversity in missions generally. The only type of mission that involves solid gameplay are the third-person shooter sequences, which are much less numerous than expected.
However, those shooter fragments absolutely cannot hold a candle to the first Mafia. That game had hardcore, challenging shooting gameplay in generously designed levels you could tackle in different ways. There was basic freedom of decision and pacing that is essential to 3D shooters. Not so in the sequel, where you are glued to predictable, formulaic episodes taking place in tiny, sterile locations. Cover-taking is so over-emphasized that you'll be shredded to pieces if you try fighting in the open, but will dispatch any foe with enough patience if you just play the sitting duck. The levels are thus severely limited by the abundance of artificially placed furniture and debris just screaming "take cover behind me!". You don't need to use your imagination - just do exactly what the game wants you to do and you'll be fine.