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SummaryMovie-game done right
The GoodThe first Mafia will always remain one of my favorite games. It had unique charm and charisma that made me ignore its flaws and enjoy it immensely, without trying to compare it to GTA games, which were the obvious inspiration.
The first Mafia offered an excellent narrative, slick presentation, and hardcore shooter mechanics. If those were your reasons for liking it, I think you'll like Mafia II as well, because it's very similar.
Is Mafia II better than its predecessor? Tough question. I think the first game was still more memorable, more of a classic. But that doesn't mean the second one isn't good. It has the same concept, and in terms of narrative, it certainly surpasses its predecessor.
Story and presentation are indeed the first things that come to mind when you think of Mafia II. The first Mafia also had a great story, but its wasn't necessarily the most cinematic experience ever. Mafia II, on the other hand, is absolutely movie-like. The cut-scenes are simply extraordinary, and it is clear the developers intended to merge action gameplay with a very focused and detailed narrative. Unlike many other games that have tried the dubious "merging game and movie together" route ( Metal Gear Solid etc.), Mafia II succeeds fully. The cut-scenes are a huge part of the experience, but so are driving and shooting sequences. You never feel that Mafia II is too much of a movie and not enough of a game (well, it's perhaps not enough of a sandbox game, but that's another issue). Mafia II works wonderfully both as a gripping movie and as an adrenaline-raising action game.
I've read some bad things about the story and the dialogues in Mafia II. Now, I'm not saying we should compare them to Godfather or something, but for a video game, the story and the dialogues are fantastic. The cinematic direction is excellent. Character graphics and animation are beyond anything I've seen in a video game; even Mass Effect doesn't reach this level. The characters are absolutely life-like; every word, every gesture, every expression is meticulously thought-out, and the results are stunning. "It's almost like real life" is a cliche phrase that has been applied to too many video games; but that's what I was thinking when playing Mafia II.
One thing that really requires a special award is the voice acting. Mafia II has some of the best voice acting ever to be heard in a video game. 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, no cartoon-like elements whatsoever, everything is gritty, merciless, and realistic. Mafia II totally feels like a mafia movie.
The story of Mafia II is great. I've heard 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. Bad people. So yes, Vito and Joe are bad people, and so are everyone else you encounter in the game. But that was the point. To show how false ambitions, perverse 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 human side and his vices can never be reconciled. Just like the first Mafia, the game takes a moral ground; it judges Vito and the other characters, which results in a deep, impressive tale of a man who has taken the path of destruction and realized too late that it was wrong. Like in its predecessor, there is an underlying sadness in Mafia II. You know for sure that something bad will happen to Vito and Joe. The narrative masterfully reminds us of the dangers of the path its heroes have chosen, but it never descends into flat and contrived moralizing. To write a story that is moral without being preachy and didactic is a great achievement. For that, I take my hat off and bow to Mafia II.
While Mafia II won't enter history as one of the greatest simulations of an open-ended world, its city Empire Bay is still gorgeous. It's a pleasure to drive or run through it. The atmosphere of the 40-ies and 50-ies is impeccable. 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 very poignant fashion. The satiric narrative of GTA IV might have exceeded the grotesque clownade of its own predecessors, but holds no candles to Mafia II.
So, great story, great presentation, great atmosphere. But what about the gameplay? Well, that's a tricky question. Should Mafia II be judged primarily as an open-word, sandbox game, or simply as an action game? If the former is true, you should go straight to the Bad section. But let's not ignore the fact that Mafia II works exceptionally well as an action game. The driving feels great, and trying out different cars is very fun. But since the driving options are generally limited and restricted, and since no important mission is truly driving-based (there are hardly any racing sequences in the game, which I thought was a pity), the shooting sequences become the true "meat" of the gameplay.
And those shooting mechanics are surprisingly good! To me, Mafia II was truly the best third-person shooter I played. It combined the challenge and the realism of the first game with the fashionable cover system that is used almost in every game now. At first I thought it would be a shallow experience; indeed, the first half or so of the game has painfully few and short shooting sequences. But in the second part, the action certainly picks up, and I discovered, to my enjoyment, that even on Easy difficulty those pesky enemies posed a serious challenge. Indeed, the shooter parts of Mafia II are nothing to laugh about. They are quite hardcore and realistic, and I was (finally) impressed by enemy AI. The bastards sit in covers and know when to shoot, strafe, and generally adapt to the situation. The last few shooting sequences (especially the final one) were really great. I only wish there were more of them, and that they were less linear. Sure, there is tactical depth and choices everywhere (do I run in gun-blazing or do I carefully move from cover to cover? If so, which cover is better? And which enemies should I take first? etc.), the shooting experience is always tense and exciting; but the levels tend to be too small.
There is also hand-to-hand combat in Mafia II, but honestly, it's nothing to write home about. I'm not saying it's bad, but it's not particularly great, either. It looks like melee combat would play a larger role in the game, judging by the early missions; but later, the game nearly abandons it and steers towards the traditional Mafia-type hardcore third-person shooter gameplay. I think some people were too quick to judge Mafia II basing their opinion on the early missions; Mafia II is clearly one of those games that improves from chapter to chapter, from mission to mission, and its later half is undeniably much better than the first one, in every way possible.
The BadThe big problem with Mafia II is that it is not satisfying as an open-world, sandbox game.
The city is beautiful. The driving is fun. But the ultra-linear structure of the missions and the hollow nature of the city make the experience pale in comparison to the GTA behemoths, such as San Andreas or the more recent GTA IV.
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 of what was so fun in GTA games. Mafia II is fun. But not in that GTA-esque "exploring the city is as fun, if not more, than the main missions" way. Mafia II, for all it's worth, is about story and shooting sequences. Everything else is a beautiful, yet superficial decoration.
It was certainly "forgivable" eight years ago, when the first Mafia came out; but now, people expect more, and rightfully so. Mafia II is in many ways a typical modern game. It's a bit like Mass Effect, actually. Classy presentation and overall great fun, but small, simple, linear, and somehow... I don't know... reduced. You could argue that the intention was not to create a GTA-like open-ended, massive world, but focus on the narrative and presentation; to that I say: I want to have both. It's possible. Sure, the narrative of Mafia II is better than in GTA IV. But GTA IV was better in that way than its predecessors. It is natural that people fell disappointed by Mafia II after having witnessed how GTA IV made a quality leap in story-telling without sacrificed sandbox features.
My personal gripe: 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? He can crouch and leap over objects; why not jump? Why can't he swim? Why doesn't he fall of a cliff, why are there magical borders preventing him from doing that?
Small stuff, you'd say. Maybe. But for me, all this was part of the whole: Mafia II fails to create an open, interactive world that could compete with either GTA games or even its own predecessor.
The Bottom LineAs an open-ended sandbox-type game, Mafia II is less than adequate. It brings nothing new to the genre and mercilessly cuts off almost everything that makes it appealing in the first place.
But as a story-driven action game, Mafia II is fantastic! Let's not forget that before bashing it for being a sub-par GTA clone. Like the first Mafia, it's a gripping, cinematic experience with great presentation and superb action set-pieces. While it has little historical significance and stays away from innovations, Mafia II is still a very memorable and charismatic game. I've completed it, sat through the credits, uninstalled it, and immediately started missing it. Just don't expect a GTA-like experience, and I'm sure you'll find a lot to love in Mafia II.