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Video Game Review: Mafia II

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Video Game Review: Mafia II

Mafia II box art
Mafia II

Release Date: August 24th, 2010
Platform: Microsoft Windows, Playstation 3 (version reviewed), Xbox 360
Developer: 2K Czech, Massive Bear Studios (PS3 Only)
Publisher: 2K Games, 1C
Designers: Daniel Vávra, Pavel Brzák
Genre: Grand Theft Auto Clone

CLR [rating:1]

Mafia II

They say that crime doesn’t pay.
In “Mafia II” it can’t even be bothered to entertain.

As an Italian-American, I’ve always romanticized the Mafia a bit. Here are the legends of my heritage, living lives of unparalleled excess and danger, where sex, violence and Academy Award-winning performances could break out suddenly at any given time. So I’d allowed myself to get kind of excited about Mafia II, the latest release from 2K Games, which takes the tropes of The Cosa Nostra and places it in the exciting Grand Theft Auto mold. But there’s no glamour in Mafia II… No imaginary lifestyle worth living vicariously through. Mafia II may be the most effective deterrent ever devised against turning to a life of organized crime, because if being in the real mafia is anything like this game then it’s a dull, derivative, poorly designed and heavily padded experience. Mafia II is about as bad as games get without actually suffering from incompetence.

You play as Vito Scaletta (Rick Pasqualone), the son of Sicilian immigrants who turns to a life of petty crime with his friend Joe Barbaro (ubiquitous Italian-American character actor Robert Costanzo) in the early 1940’s. Their schemes get Vito arrested, and he opts to serve in World War II rather than serve hard time. He returns home from a rigorous tutorial level/war trained to kill and sets about rising through the ranks of mafia via thieving, murdering and lots and lots of driving slowly around the emptiest sandbox ever devised en route to… Well, thieving and murdering.

Mafia II

Mafia II takes place in Empire Bay, which is different from New York City. Because of the spelling.

The story is secondhand Scorsese, hitting all the familiar tropes even the most casual audience member will recognize: Loyalty will be questioned, stool pigeons will get what’s coming to them and the hero learns a valuable lesson about the life he chose for himself. Like Grand Theft Auto IV, the pacing is glacial for the first few hours as Vito suffers from one tutorial level to another, excuses are made for having to explain to a grown man how to drive, and so on. But unlike Grand Theft Auto IV, the pace never picks up… ever.

The narrative frequently stops in its tracks for story purposes, which would be forgivable if there was anything particularly interesting going on. Stopping the game cold to focus on prison boxing matches for forty minutes because Vito got himself arrested sounds reasonable on paper, but Mafia II was just gaining momentum before this development drained all variety from the gameplay. Thematically it makes sense – the protagonist’s life is interrupted for an extended period by going to jail, so the game is too – but it’s not engaging storytelling from an interactive perspective.

That interactive experience controls pretty well though – Vito is responsive to commands, and cars, weapons and the like react as well as they have to within context (although it’s way too easy to get killed accidentally in a collision) – but the level design is adequate at best. Certain levels force Vito into stealthy gameplay peppered with engaging gunplay, but most are frustratingly problematic. One level forces Vito to deliver stolen ration stamps during World War II before they expire… at midnight. After midnight they will be worthless, giving the level a ticking clock to add tension. Stop and think about that for a moment: This is World War II. You’re getting a product to someone minutes before it expires at midnight. Where are they going to cash these ration stamps in a scant few minutes? The game indicates that your customers can endorse them before midnight, but if that’s all it takes to cash in these ration stamps would it really matter if they were received five minutes late? Or an hour? Can’t you just say you endorsed them on time? It’s not like anybody involved has an aversion to dishonesty.

Mafia II

No matter how you look at it, Mafia II blows.

But that’s more distracting than an actual example of flawed game design. The game also suffers from a frustrating checkpoint system that never seems to save at a reasonable ebb in the action, frequently forcing players to revisit difficult shootouts even if they died after completing them, or worse yet forcing you to drive ridiculous distances over and over again just to get to the shootout in the first place. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to learn that I spent more time in Mafia II just driving to missions than actually playing the game part of the game. As a linear videogame Mafia II would be a frustratingly short experience, so instead the developers decided to turn it into a sandbox game. I’m not sure why they bothered, except maybe to pad the running time with interminable driving sequences. In this box, there’s no sand to be found.

The life of a Mafioso lends itself well to a sandbox environment, no doubt, and the average gamer could probably imagine a dozen plausible and potentially entertaining mini-missions for Vito to partake outside of the storyline: Assassination missions, hijacking trucks, doing favors for people in your neighborhood (even for celebrity cameos), protection rackets, insurance fraud (read: arson), gang wars, gambling rackets, you name it. The developers of Mafia II apparently only thought of one: Stealing cars. That’s really all there is to do outside of the story missions in Mafia II. That’s not a sandbox. That’s barely an ashtray. And the story is far too padded with half-assed sandbox functionality to ever impress on its own.

Mafia II

“Ever since I was a kid I always wanted to be a gangster. A ridiculously boring gangster.”

Eventually I decided to ignore the pathetic “game” part of the game and focus on the environments of the 1940’s and 50’s, which are a goldmine of culture and content. Surely I could enjoy the game as a time machine, I thought. Of course, Mafia II mucked that up as well. Many players might be willing to ignore the glaring anachronisms, but given how many years it takes to develop a game this size you’d think somebody would have checked Wikipedia to find out when The African Queen came out: The poster for the film appears on-screen before the actual movie even began production. Worse yet are the Playboy Magazines, which are littered throughout the interior environments of Mafia II as collectible items, complete with nude centerfolds. It’s a charming idea, or at least it would be if the entire game didn’t take place prior to the first publication of “Playboy Magazine.”

Mafia II is a lifeless experience, filled with generic level design, derivative storytelling and all the flaws of GTA IV but none of the selling points. I’m not even going to dwell on the consistent racial stereotyping, from the Chinese to African Americans and more, which they somehow try to play off as historical accuracy. Well, maybe just for a moment: One level features a prominent Chinese character. Later in the game, an entirely different (albeit very minor) Chinese character appears on screen with the exact same appearance. Forgive the obvious conclusion, but I’m forced to remind the makers of Mafia II that not every Chinese person looks alike. I’m sure that the decision was based on technological convenience more than any kind of actual cultural bias, but it’s these kinds of shortcuts that turned a game with limitless potential into one of the most disappointing entertainment experiences of the year. This is a profoundly negative experience. Or to put it another way: Mafia II puts the “No” back in The Cosa Nostra.

Mafia II Trailer

William Bibbiani is a highly opinionated film, TV and videogame critic living in Los Angeles, California. In addition to his work at the "California Literary Review" William also contributes articles and criticism to "Geekscape" and "Ranker" and has won multiple awards for co-hosting the weekly Geekscape podcast and for his series of Safe-For-Work satirical pornographic film critiques, "Geekscape After Dark." He also writes screenplays and, when coerced with sweet, sweet nothings, occasionally acts in such internet series as "Bus Pirates" and "Heads Up with Nar Williams." A graduate of the UCLA School of Film, Television and Digital Media, William sometimes regrets not pursuing a career in what he refers to as "lawyering" so that he could afford luxuries like food and shoes. William can be found on both the Xbox Live and Playstation Network as GuyGardner2814, and on Twitter as - surprisingly - WilliamBibbiani. Google+



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