The remarkable thing about Mafia II is not that it's bad, but that it masks its awfulness so well. The game opens with striking visuals: the backdrop of Empire Bay (Mafia's stand-in for New York City) is packed with World War II-era details, and the characters are authentic-looking, with a veneer of humanity. The nicely curated oldies soundtrack promises to immerse us in the culture and spirit of the period. Mafia II has the production values that players interpret as signs of quality. What comes next is cognitive dissonance.
Playing this Potemkin village of a game is an eerie experience. Mafia II puts up such a convincing facade that it's hard to believe Empire Bay is, in fact, practically empty. Even after four hours of play, I told myself, "Once I get past these boring tutorial stages, the actual game is going to be great." As I slogged through a mission to canvass Empire Bay's local gas stations and sell off extra fuel stamps, the truth dawned on me: This was the actual game. Mafia II was having me play stamp salesman, and it wasn't even kidding.
2K Czech's developers have dressed up their latest title to masquerade as a vast, Rockstar-style open world, and a pretty masquerade it is, too. But the reality is that Mafia II strings the player through a couple of dozen mandatory missions, all of them straight out of the Grand Theft Auto reject pile, and the potential for exploration is nil.
You can sometimes ignore your current objective and drive around, but why would you? There's nowhere to go. The map's points of interest are almost useless, like clothing stores that feature a handful of drab outfits. Likewise, there's nothing behind the pretty face of protagonist Vito Scaletta, a charmless zero who does whatever he is told to do no matter who asks, obliging all corners of the Empire Bay organised-crime machine with his robotic smile. Rough up some innocent dockworkers? OK. Switch families? You got it. Deal drugs? No problem. He does have occasional moments of rebellion, but because of the character's general vapidity, they ring false.
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Vito's buddy Joe is supposed to be the dumb one, and indeed, like most of the characters in Mafia II, he is a detestable cretin. At least Joe has some sense of self-agency, though. He's the one that hatches the plans and lays the groundwork for Vito's career; our hero simply follows Joe's lead.
Given that he's such an unimpressive recruit, it figures that the mob enlists Vito to do their most mundane errands. Whenever a capo needs someone to drive from point A to point B, Scaletta's their man. You hit the asphalt for meeting after meeting, with the occasional fight tossed in whenever the developers felt the need to make something actually happen (a relatively rare impulse).
Vito mostly finds himself behind the wheel of lumbering saloons, whose slowness exacerbates the game's boredom. You can soup up the cars at a body shop to give them more pep, except the police will try to pull you over if you drive at speeds over 55 or so, always ready to stamp out any marginal excitement that might occur. They are, in fact, a bit less aggressive than in the original Mafia. That's small consolation, though, when your mission is derailed yet again by the obligation to drive in circles and shake the idiot cops.
The joys of the open road are punctuated with battles, typically fought with fists or guns. The hand-to-hand combat could be described as Double Dragon For Idiots. In essence, there is one move - dodge, then counterpunch - and it will carry you through every fistfight. The rhythm is so simple that you can practically fight blind, which is lucky, as the camera has a fetish for the pugilists' upper backs.
During shootouts, the player ducks in and out of cover to gun down waves of armed assailants. It's pretty standard fare, executed with Mafia II's trademark clumsiness. While the settings vary, the stultifying, unimaginative use of space is consistent. You're almost always slogging down a corridor, picking off jack-in-the-box thugs who pop into view every couple of seconds.
That might be for the best, because when the game does diverge from that template, the results are even worse. The interiors are too nondescript, which means that in anything but a hallway, it's easy to get lost amid the sameness. In practice, getting lost for even a moment tends to result in an instant-death headshot.
Other design missteps abound. The movement controls are restrictive - Vito's sprint is more of a jog - but they are at least adequate. The same can't be said for the mini-map radar, whose unpredictable scale makes it useful only for determining if there are enemies in your general vicinity. And often, it even fails at that, showing phantom bogies that are actually far removed from your locale (down in the basement, for instance).
The upshot of this muddle is that it's hard to be sure when a room is clear. Vito's enemies have a tendency to huddle behind cover for an extremely long time - that is, they're campers - so even when everything seems quiet, there might be one instance of recalcitrant artificial intelligence lurking in the corner.
I often find myself glancing at one last red dot on the map and wondering: Is that bastard actually where the radar says he is, or is it safe to proceed? The only way to find out is to emerge from cover and take a look, and if there is someone there, pop, I'm dead, and I'm returned to the last auto-save checkpoint. (There is no manual save option.)
Then it's time for the guessing game that every Mafia II player will learn to hate: "Where's The Checkpoint?" Let's play a round right now.
The scenario: The start of a new "chapter" in the game. I get into a gunfight outside my home. I fend off the attackers. I'm told that I must drive to Joe's place (since every problem in this game can be solved with driving). I arrive, climb the stairs to his apartment, ring the doorbell, and wait. He eventually lets me in. A long chat. Two cut-scenes. We drive somewhere else. (Naturally!) As we near our destination, I get cut off by a truck turning into my lane, my car slams into a telephone pole, and I die.
OK, your turn: Where's the checkpoint?
If you guessed, "all the way back at the beginning of the freaking chapter, before the cut-scenes, driving, gunfight, and everything else," then apparently you have also experienced Mafia II's sadistic autosave stinginess. I feel your pain. I'm thinking of forming a support group.
After all, the only built-in moral support comes from ol' Joe, and his good intentions only go so far. When the bullets start flying, Joe tries to keep things light by rattling off selections from his limited complement of voice lines. It's bad enough that he repeats himself, but he also has a hard time coming up with material that even applies to your current situation. "I'm the best!" he says when you get off a good shot. "I'm going in - cover me!" he barks as he stands still.
Joe explains his subpar diction away with a boast: "When you measure seven inches soft, you don't have to be good with words." If that's true, the 2K Czech writing team must cut an especially impressive profile, so to speak, because their game shows a systemic disdain for the English language.
One of the most flavourful aspects of modern mafia fiction is its economy of speech. In a subculture where paranoia reigns, the most powerful communications take place in code and innuendo. "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse," may be a cliché now, but damn, that line accomplished a lot with very little. The mobsters in Mafia II, however, are coarse brutes who leave nothing to the imagination. They mire the game in endless cut-scenes where they speechify about who they'll whack next.
It's a 14-year-old's vision of the mafia, although that slanders the many 14-year-olds who would see through this game's desperation to appear adult. There's one ham-fisted scene in which a mid-level capo chats with Vito while a stripper fellates him to climax - did everyone in the room at 2K Czech think that was really fresh stuff? What about the attempted-anal-rape mélee brawl, or the extended dialogue about vomit smell mixing with dead-body smell? Did dignity enter into the conversation at all?
Mafia II is fascinating, not in spite of its innumerable mistakes but because of them. It's the ultimate example of a game designed to look nice in television commercials and achieve nothing else. There are so many vestigial features I haven't even mentioned - the nudie-mag collectibles, a superfluous lock-picking mini-game, the irrelevant money system. It's dysfunctional. In my head, I keep turning its twisted corpse over with mordant intrigue. How did this happen?
In a way Mafia II it makes its own contribution to the myth of the American mafia. Mob lore is built up so that we can watch it be destroyed. The Godfather trilogy constructed the myth of the honourable crime family and then devised its beautiful collapse. The Sopranos took the icon of an urbane, self-assured don and peeled it away from every corner.
Mafia II gets the last word by destroying the myth that the mafia is interesting at all. It contends that the mob world is a hell of boredom populated by aggressively stupid automatons. These drones wake up each morning, carry out a series of repetitious tasks, and return home. The message: thug life is nothing more than it appears. And Mafia II is even less.
4 / 10