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Mafia II

Crime doesn't play.

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

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