An amazing asset
Empire Bay is full of life, scenery, and style. The city is illuminated with a quaint sense of postwar hopefulness. It was not uncommon to find myself simply walking the streets, driving around, and breathing in the fantastic atmosphere that 2K Czech created.
Taking in some of the visuals and well-crafted scenery is impressive on its own, and it acts as a perfect setting for the game. From Mafia II’s elaborate period-specific soundtrack, right down to its carefully-crafted visual style, the era of the 1940’s and 1950’s is captured as well as any game has captured any era. This alone is an impressive feat.
As the city evolves and changes through the years, so too does its charm, which succeeds at keeping things looking fresh. Though Mafia II’s bag-boyish mission design is often fatiguing, experiencing Empire Bay’s design is worthwhile. Despite complaints involving lack of customization, openness, and meaningful side-missions, Empire Bay is one of the more atmospheric and lively areas built in recent memory.
I’ve played this game before
With such an amazing asset such as Empire Bay, it is can be frustrating how little there is to experience within the city. Aside from looking around for Playboy mags or wanted posters, there’s a notable absence of anything meaningful outside of the plot missions. The open-world design of Mafia II initially creates the illusion that you are indeed playing an open-world game.
Guided by the nature of its subject matter, Mafia II had an opportunity to offer a player-guided experience, rich with interactivity and choice; the decision to limit the experience to a linear narrative with linear gameplay objectives is somewhat questionable. Even the degree of fluidity between fiction and gameplay can be brought into question. Certain cutscenes scream that they want to be played, but unfortunately you’re stuck watching as Vito and his boys have the all fun, without your input.
Further scrambling the game/narrative balance, many playable sequences are spoon-fed and forced. A very large portion of Mafia II is some sort of unexciting brand of driving, which would perhaps be exciting if you’ve never driven a car (but me, I drive around all the time). When reasonably compelling gameplay finally dances to the forefront, Mafia II sneakily converts into some sort of Driving Miss Daisy minigame; expect hours of Sunday driving.
Mafia II is absolutely littered with mundane tasks for the player to complete that offer little to no value. As much value as Mafia II’s setting adds, just as much is detracted by its often-faulty mission design which mostly consists of driving back and forth and following around NPCs. At one point in the story, two entire chapters pass without a single drop of thrilling gameplay. Somehow, a decision was made to make a playable sequence of Vito driving around his drunk buddies, but some of his more risqué ‘business’ ventures are reduced into forty-five second cutscenes.
Still, there’s some well-paced action during shootouts that succeed in heightening intensity. The cover system works well enough, and never seems to pin Vito where he doesn’t want to be. It’s not that Mafia II’s combat is unplayable, it’s just average. Even though most gamers have seen this style of third-person shooting a thousand times, it’s still a cheap, mindless, thrill.
Enemies whose movements are scripted into the missions behave quite naturally, but often the pursuing police officers take on Pac-Man ghost-like characteristics. From time to time, Vito can escape pursuit by just running circles around buildings. Most of the time, however, the police are quite pursuant , even if occasionally some of the more daring escapes felt purely happenstance.
Hand to hand combat insults the intelligence of anyone who’s played a game with more than two buttons. With his inability to mix and match punch combos, Vito’s brawls are quickly reduced to button-mashing exposes that offer absolutely nothing engaging, aside from the occasional cathartic kick to the teeth. If you don’t feel like getting hit, hold the ‘dodge’ button, make a sandwich, and hand the controller to your dog – you’ll be just fine.
I’ve seen this movie before
Perhaps the player’s impact on the story was limited in order to brand Mafia II as a gripping, dramatic, semi-interactive experience; this much is apparent. Just as Vito is strung along by his mafia-archetype brethren, the player can expect to be lassoed by the tiny string of Italian-American pop fate, constantly told what to do, where to go, and which guy’s head to smash.
Throughout the Mafia II experience, the openness of the environment is a constant reminder of what could have been, and what potential was not reached. The gameplay feels shoehorned into the narrative at times, and usually fails at even giving Vito multiple angles at tackling his pre-defined objectives.
Linearity in game fiction is seldom a bad thing, yet in such a setting that seems ripe for openness and player choice, the limitation to such a style of play is not a concession that digests well. Because of this, Mafia II seems to constantly struggle with its own identity as a game. It seems to settle on the fact that forcing the player to drive from waypoint to waypoint in endless succession is a good enough way to kill twelve hours or so.
In its attempt to be both cinematic and interactive, Mafia II runs in the middle of the pack, somewhere between Uncharted and Kane & Lynch. Mafia II features some outstanding pieces of gameplay, setting, and narrative, but the parts fail to come together as a whole.