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Ballsy. That's the only way to describe Mafia II's storyline. It follows Vito Scaletta over the course of eight years, from his tour in World War II to his days as an enforcer for Empire Bay's crime families. Regardless of whether you agree with the resulting product, you have to admire 2K Czech's ambition. They set out to tell a Mafia epic, in the vein of Goodfellas or Casino.
Condensing eight years into a ten hour playable campaign takes some careful decisions. The developers needed to pick the most important events during Vito's life in this time period. In some instances, they made the right choices. In the first chapter, Vito is on a combat mission in Italy and in the second, he's returning home to Empire Bay on leave. These are vital parts of this character's life. They effectively introduce the characters and the gameplay mechanics at the same time.
Some of the middle chapters, though, feel less important. The "Buzzsaw" mission featured in the demo is a prime example. Vito and two associates are tasked with an assassination mission. It's a lengthy gunfight, which is fine. More than anything, Mafia II is a third-person, cover-based shooter and it's a convincing one at that. Vito can slide behind cover or crawl around its corners. The loud, powerful weapons can rip most cover to shreds over time, too. The ragdoll physics makes enemies crumple realistically on death. In sum, it's fun to shoot enemies or just the shit they're hiding behind. Actually, maybe my favorite part of the game was in a later chapter when Vito and friends shoot up an empty diner.
Still, the mission itself doesn't do much to advance the storyline. It could've been removed from the game without affecting anything. This is tragic because, as I said, 2K Czech is trying to give us eight years of story in ten hours. Time is scarce and when it's squandered on a mission with little significance (even if it's fun), the plot suffers. There are many subplots that don't amount to anything. Significant characters disappear for hours on end. Important plot twists are raced through in painfully short scenes. It feels like a lot of cutting and stitching was done to the original script to make it fit the game's size and structure.
The story problems could've been tolerated had Mafia II offered up 10 hours of solid shooter fun. However, only half that time is spent with gunfighting. The other main gameplay activity is driving. The driving side of the game feels much less polished. The cars accelerate slowly and slide around the road like sleds. Maybe that's how cars handled back in the 1940's and 50's but perhaps realism could've been set aside in favor of making the driving less frustrating. The devs overcompensated when making the hotrods and sports cars, as they manuever turns effortlessly and can hit top speed in seconds.
Driving at top speed is not recommended, though, because the cops will give chase if you're driving above the speed limit or you hit another car. Police chases function similarly to Grand Theft Auto, with their pursuit intensifying as you commit more crimes. To shake them, you need to break line of sight until a blue meter next to your minimap ticks down. It's not an easy task, considering how poorly the cars make turns and how little trouble the cops have manuevering the roads. You end up having to simply hope that the police cars will hit another car or snag on a corner. If the police saw you on foot during the chase, they'll send out your description over the radio and likewise with your license plate number if you were driving. In either case, you'll be chased by the police as soon as they spot you even after you shook your initial pursuers. You need to head over to a clothing store to get new threads or a garage to get new license plates for your car. A simple speeding offense can therefore become a lengthy detour from the campaign.
Forcing players to drive carefully and at a reasonable speed wouldn't be so annoying if there was less driving required. However, the campaign is padded out with a long string of simple "drive from point A to point B" tasks. At the start of a chapter, you'll be required to drive over to the briefing - or pick up your friend Joe at his apartment and then go to the meeting. Then you'll have to drive to every part of the mission manually. Hopefully the whole mission takes place in one location but more often, there's a bunch of little stops first. After you've completed the mission, you have to drive Joe back to his apartment or head back to your own place. The chapter typically ends once you slump into your bed. As the scene cuts to black, I'm left with the same two thoughts: 1) Why can't any of Vito's lazy ass friends drive?; 2) Why, in a game that fast-forwards years at a time with montages, can't we skip a driving sequence or two?
The developers included a manual trigger for the chapter end so that you could, if so inclined, explore the city. There's no reason to do so, though. The city does look great by fake New York substitute standards and you have a huge amount of licensed music tracks to listen to while driving. However, there are no satisfying side activities to be had. There are 50 vintage Playboy pictorials hidden throughout the game world and while they may prove enticing to people who like boobs, I suspect most people will wait until someone's compiled these pictures on the Internet. Or they could look at other boobs on the Internet.
There are also two optional ways to make money: robbing stores and selling cars. Selling cars is simply a matter of driving to the port or junkyard and then hopping out. Robbery involves running in, grabbing the money from the cash register with a click of a button, and then gunning down whatever customers happen to be carrying guns (there's a lot of those). Neither is introducing some new element to the game and there's little incentive to engage in either. You earn money, yes, but you really don't need the cash. You can upgrade your cars at the mechanic but often the game provides you with a different car for your story missions (for example, Joe will suggest that you take his car, which he of course does not drive himself). You can also buy guns and ammunition but in truth you get plenty of that during gunfights. Heading off to the mechanic or gunshop also requires more driving, which you've probably had your fill of already. Through the course of the campaign, your money will be wiped periodically too so there's even less incentive to build up a stash.
I'm a bit surprised they didn't put some sort of underground fighting circuit into the game. In the campaign Vito periodically gets in fistfights. He can make heavy swings with one button, light with another, and dodge with a third. You can also launch counter attacks immediately after dodging a punch. After beating up your opponent enough, you finish him off with a slow-mo attack. The fun is sucked out of the affair when you realize that you can just hold down the dodge button and no enemy will ever touch you again. However, the brawling system is sufficiently well-developed that I would've expected the devs to throw in some repeatable side mission
What really kills player's desire to do any sort of side activity, though, is the game's save system. There are checkpoint saves at key parts of the missions but no way to manually save your progress. This works fine when you're in an actual mission. However, let's say you just dropped off Joe at the end of a mission and you're about to head home. You stop to rob a couple stores but get shot and killed by the cops. You would respawn at Joe's place without the money you just earned from the robberies. This is a buzzkill when you're just trying to scrape together more money for guns. However, it's cause for throwing your controller at a later part of the game, when you're asked to collect money for a crime lord.
Mafia II feels like a game that needed more time in the oven. It does a lot of great things only halfway. There's a beautiful open world but nothing to do in it. It features a sprawling, epic story but it's told awkwardly. It's hard to feel anything but disappointment for this game because it's clear that it, if not for all the cuts and compromises, it could've been great.
Platform(s): Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
Developer: 2K Czech
Publisher: 2K Games