I can’t remember the last time I was so conflicted over whether or not I liked a game. I would tell you that Mafia II has a lot to offer if you can get past certain…problems, but the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t have a lot to offer. Having beaten it, I’m not even sure that I just played a video game at all. Read on and maybe I can figure out just what the deal is with this game.
Just to get this stuff out of the way, Mafia II looks fantastic. The city of Empire Bay is colorful and vibrant and the attention to detail adds that extra push to make it lifelike. For the most part, this is due to the game’s outstanding art design. Mafia II takes place during both the ‘40s and the ‘50s, and both eras look surprisingly different and have their own personalities. The changing architecture, cars on the road, costumes—it’s all very authentic and makes the location just feel really good. This is a time period that is somewhat underrepresented in games and it’s nice to see it done so well.
In the same vein, character models (especially faces) look terrific. There are some seriously realistic facial expressions at work during the cutscenes and a huge part of it is the eyes. Eye movement on the characters is extremely realistic and makes them convey whatever they are thinking that much better. The voice acting to match the models is top notch as well. It never feels like a parody of the mafia and the dialog is well written and believable.
Speaking of Mafia II being a period piece, the music is just terrific. It, too, changes between the ‘40s and the ‘50s and adds that much more to the atmosphere of the game. The songs are authentic and from the correct period, and when combined with the authentic cars (though given fictional names), just driving down the road provides an experience you don’t often get in games.
Here’s the problem. Atmosphere, art design, and story are all great, but this is still supposed to be a video game. In order to be a good game, it needs to have strong core gameplay mechanics. I’m still trying to figure out what the gameplay mechanics of Mafia II were. Come to think of it, having beaten the game, I’m not exactly sure I even did anything. The entire time I was playing through it I just felt like everything interesting and exciting was happening in cutscenes and I was merely running between them. The game has a serious case of “find the cutscene” syndrome. At least 70% of the actual gameplay is spent just driving, following a red line on your map, from one story cutscene to another. Sure, you get into shootouts sometimes (which are actually fun), but they are rare compared to the staggering amount of time you spend driving from cutscene to cutscene.
But back to the point that you feel like you haven’t really done anything: everything impactful and important in the game happens in cutscenes and oftentimes it’s stuff that would be fun to actually play out. At one point in the game, after you officially “join” the mafia, there’s a montage of the two main characters doing mafia things like beating up shop owners and spending money on expensive crap. Why aren’t they letting us participate in these moments? These are things people like to do in games! Even stranger, in the following cutscene the characters act like only about a day has passed. There’s no way that montage only covered a few hours of the characters’ lives. I’m still baffled about this.
Remember in the Uncharted series where all the story exposition takes place in cutscenes and any time there’s any action of any kind you get to actually play it? This is the correct way to manage a story-heavy game because, otherwise, is it even a video game? Because all the important action took place in cutscenes, I don’t even really feel like I played or did anything. I know I’m repeating myself but I’m just trying to convey how strangely this game is put together. At this point it shouldn’t have even been a video game; it should have just been a mafia movie. Sadly, it can’t even do that because then it would be a rip-off of better mafia films rather than a game that pays tribute to them.
The game masks itself as an open-world type of thing, but this is one of those terrible times when it doesn’t need to be open world. When you’re just driving along from cutscene to cutscene in a game split up by chapters, it’s simply the standard level layout with an open city built around it. This could have been done just like that, with levels, and I’m sure they could have maintained the outstanding ‘40s and ‘50s feel that the game creates. There’s even less to do in this open world than in GTA4: no side missions, no alternate activities, nothing.
I get that they were trying to tell us an interesting and engaging mafia story. They succeeded at that. The problem is that that’s all they do. I feel like this is a good base for a game, but another couple of months in development to add side stuff so the player gets to do more would help out a lot. Though that still wouldn’t solve the problem of taking the control of the game’s coolest moments away from the player.
If you love mafia movies and crime dramas, you will find something redeeming in Mafia II. The story and characters are terrific. If you like the era, then you will find it a very interesting period piece as well. But even then, only rent this game. I usually don’t like to flat-out tell people not to buy a game but really: rent this game and beat the story over a weekend. You’ll never want to pick it up again after that. Better yet, find all the cutscenes on YouTube or elsewhere. All you’ll miss out on are a couple of hours of mindless driving.