Date: August 25, 2010
Author(s): Rob Williams
In a sequel that’s taken eight years to see its release, Mafia II looks to give fans of the series copious amounts of what they love. As we’ve discovered, the game features a compelling story, fantastic acting, a vibrant city, and many movie-like moments. If you’re a fan of the Mafia genre, this one shouldn’t be missed.
When a game is released to some great reception, it can almost be assured that at some point in the future, a sequel will be released. But for Mafia II, things were handled a bit differently. Most often, a developer will capitalize on the game’s initial success and release a sequel as soon as possible. That sure isn’t the case for Mafia II, though, which sees its release almost exactly eight years later.
Although the large gap between releases was undoubtedly difficult for fans to deal with, Mafia II does a lot of things right, and though I haven’t had the pleasure of playing the original, I found Mafia II to be refreshing, and one of the best and more interesting games I’ve played in a while.
Like many Mafia-themed games and movies, the story of Mafia II isn’t too original, but there are enough plot-twists and misleading outcomes that still manage to captivate. The lead character is Vito Scaletta, a Sicilian-born World War II veteran that finds himself in the United States, thanks to a move that his family made earlier in his life.
Vito is a man that is never far from trouble, and it’s been that way ever since he met his best friend as a kid, Joe Barbaro. As a result of being caught by police after a robbery, he finds himself back in Italy fighting in the Invasion of Sicily. Due to an injury, he’s sent back home and discovers that his father, who passed away while he was at war, borrowed $2,000 from a loan shark and is required to pay it back. Getting a hold of $2,000 in the 1940’s isn’t a simple feat, so Vito quickly found himself living the life of a gangster, and ultimately working his way into a Mafia family and subsequently working his way up.
For the most part, there has never been a large number of Mafia-themed games to choose from, so for fans of such content, movies have been almost the only real option. But Mafia II manages to kill two birds with one stone, because while it’s a game, it plays like a movie in many parts, and unless you couldn’t care less about the story, the cut-scenes found here are quite welcomed.
The game consists of 15 chapters and covers the time period between 1943 and 1957. To help add to the game’s realism, the cars and music available change over time, and believe it or not, so does the pricing of some things, due to inflation. For example, a $7 set of lockpicks at the start of the game are $10 down the road, so there’s good attention to detail here.
Mafia II is often compared to Grand Theft Auto, and for good reason. The game takes place in one large city, Empire Bay, and load screens are minimal. You could literally run (or drive) from one end of the map to the other without a loading sequence, and likewise, you always have a map of the city available to you at any time, and also the ability to create personal waypoints.
The city design is inspired by both San Francisco and New York, and throughout, you’ll find many neighborhoods, buildings and other things that are reminiscent of the cities at that time. The overall design is one of the game’s best features, as its construction is quite believable. You won’t see a building copy and pasted a thousand times, which helps add to the realism.
The most noticeable difference between the GTA series and Mafia II is that the latter doesn’t feature side-missions. While GTA IV could easily encapsulate a gamer for over 100 hours, Mafia II can be completed in about 10 hours, if exploration is kept to the minimum. If you want to explore, and especially find all of the Playboy magazines and “Wanted” posters hidden around Empire Bay, then you could likely add another 10 hours to the gameplay (these collectibles are not generally stumbled on… they have to be searched for).
Throughout the span of the game, you’ll find yourself walking a fair bit, but driving far more so. There are a total of 36 player-drivable vehicles in the game, ranging from cars to trucks. There are no motorcycles to be found in the game, which I find a bit strange and unfortunate. Of the autos that are available, all feature unique names, but are modeled after real cars from that era.
There is more than one user-accessible garage that will become available to you throughout the game, and in total, you can own 10 different autos at any time. To get these cars, you must steal them, and to make them “legal”, you can bring them to a shop to have the plates changed, while also customizing the color, tuning and rims. Not all of the cars in the game are available from the get go, with the fastest models being found later in the game.
Both at home and in a car, the you can listen to the radio, which similar to GTA once again, will feature music and also some clever banter from the show host. The game features over 100 songs that were released in the 40’s and 50’s, and many are easily recognizable. Some of the notable artists include Muddy Waters, Louis Prima, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Bing Crosby, Bo Diddley and many, many more. If you’re a fan of this era of music, the selection found here is almost epic and does a great job of making you feel like you’re actually experiencing life in the 40’s and 50’s.
The same can be said about the weapons, which covers pistols, machine guns, shotguns, rifles, grenades and Molotov cocktails. Though some of the gun shops have rockets on the shelves, they can never be wielded by the player. Each of the guns you use will have a unique crosshair, and you can either aim from your default stance, or zoom in a bit to help secure the kill.
One ability you’ll use a lot is hiding behind an object and then peeking around. This is imperative to survival, and quite easy to pull off. On the PC, you simply hit Ctrl when you are near a corner or object, and from there, you can either peek around the left or right side – of if it’s a smaller object, such as a barrel, you could also shoot over the top of it.
I mentioned earlier that the game lacks side-missions, and as a result, it’s unavoidably linear. After you return home from the war, you side with Joe, and take his advice for everything, and as the story progresses, you are simply told what to do. Many of the missions require a LOT of driving, which adds to the realism, but does get tedious after a while – especially if you literally have to drive from one side of the map to the other.
Unlike Grand Theft Auto, cops are clearly marked on your mini-map so you can avoid them. If you speed in your car, you risk igniting a chase, and those accomplish nothing, except maybe to bang you and your car up. I don’t mind this mechanic, but I did find that there were an unrealistically high number of cops around. On bridges, you’re usually good to speed, but in the city itself, you’ll find yourself slowing yourself down constantly. For those who are patient, you can enable the speed limiter function in any car to make sure you’re always going the speed limit.
As a whole, Empire Bay isn’t a huge city, and compared to the city found in Grand Theft Auto IV, it’s small. But given that the game can be completed in around 15 hours if you take your time, its small size isn’t a big deal. It does mean that you’ll be revisiting certain areas more than once, but this is at least believable, as if you were really in the Mafia, you’d often be meeting up with the same people.
You can earn money by simply completing your missions, and a couple other methods, but ultimately, it’s almost useless. Purchasable goods include clothing (even this is limited), gas, food and guns. Clothing and food are sometimes important, but the most expensive items are weapons, and generally you’ll be able to pick those up from people you whack, so it’s a rare day when you’ll actually need to head to a gun shop.
The fact that cash is almost useless leads to a major gripe some people will have with this game… it’s too linear, and simple. Simple as in progression, not in difficulty. You don’t need to worry about side jobs (though DLC is sure to include these) and you don’t have to worry about much aside from simply following orders. You don’t need to save up money for anything, and as far as cars go, you’ll probably find yourself always using the same one, so customizing them might seem a bit useless. In truth though, if there were no customization options at all, it’d seem even worse.
If anything at all forces you to get out and explore, it’s the fact that Empire Bay is littered with many classic Playboy magazines and “Wanted” posters. Neither are that easy to find, although on occasion you will pretty much trip over some of them. The “Wanted” posters show a photo of a criminal (likely one of the game’s developers) and their crime, while the Playboy magazines will give you the respective centerfold from that issue, uncensored. Nothing special is unlocked from collecting all the pieces of either, but for completists, like myself, it tacks on a fair bit of gameplay time.
Though Mafia II might be a “simple” game, it’s captivating and features solid gameplay and a great story. It’s not often when acting in a game impresses me, but it did so here. In fact, I was simply blown away, because during some cutscenes, it felt like I was watching a movie, despite the fact that they use the game’s graphics. The voice-acting is top-rate and really portrayed emotions accurately.
Again, the cutscene element might annoy some people as much as it excites others. The fact is, there are a lot of cutscenes here, and if all you’re looking for is constant action, you might find yourself skipping some of them. To get the full story though, you won’t want to, because even when you finish the game for the first time, you’re likely to forget all about minute details that were mentioned earlier on.
The game ends in a rather open-ended way, so it’s clear that 2K Games is going to make use of DLC, or simply lead the story into another sequel. On the map legend, there is an icon for “Jobs”, and ironically, it’s never used in the game. So, it’s likely that the DLC will open up various jobs and then utilize this. The first piece of DLC will be called Jimmy’s Vendetta and become available over the next couple of months – not likely for free.
One aspect I haven’t touched on yet is that the game features heavy use of NVIDIA’s PhysX physics technology, and it has become the first title in particular to utilize APEX, the developer tool that allows easy manipulation of PhysX modules. PhysX isn’t something that stands out to a major degree through the entire game, but rather is seen in focused parts. In total, I found 4 major instances when PhysX was heavily utilized, and after comparing PhysX vs. non-PhysX, I found that having it enabled resulted in added realism, so I’d definitely prefer playing the game with it on than off.
I did run into a couple of PhysX-related issues, though. The first is that at certain points in the game, the PhysX was ramped up so high, that the game would slow to a crawl. After talking to NVIDIA about this, the company stated that anti-aliasing was likely the issue. After disabling it, I didn’t run into the issue again. Still, I am not completely confident that AA was indeed the issue, since the the problem was random even before. The second issue is that I had the game crash on me at inconvenient parts, and after reading around, it seems others are having similar issues, and it looks to be related to PhysX. Nothing’s confirmed, however, so if PhysX is indeed the issue, it won’t take too long before it’s confirmed.
Mafia II, to me, is one of the best games of the year thus far, and is a must-own for fans of the genre. It’s not perfect, but the rich story, fun-to-explore city, superb acting and solid gameplay completely overshadows the game’s issues. Do I recommend picking it up? Absolutely. This is one I can vouch for.
Overall Score: 85%
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