A good game that could have been so much more
**No spoilers** Rated M for Mature. Released on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 in early 2011.
I saw the trailer for Mafia III recently and realized I had never really given Mafia II a chance. I had played a demo a few years ago but forgot about it for some reason, so I decided to give it a shot! Mafia II is a mixed bag. On one hand the visuals hold up very well and capture the look and feel of the 1940’s and ’50s while also giving the player some fun cars to drive around in that feel fantastic to drive. There is a lot of content, the story is pretty good and the characters are well fleshed out. On the other hand there are a lot of mechanics that feel very dated, the game can get very frustrating and repetitive and the combat leaves much to be desired. I played the base game and the three pieces of DLC, Jimmy’s Vendetta, The Betrayal of Jimmy and Joe’s Adventures. Lets get into it.
You take control of Vito Scaletta, who has come home to Empire Bay after WWII to start hanging out with his old buddy Joe who has been keeping himself busy working himself through the Mafia ranks. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will tell you that the story is the best part about this game. The characters are all very believable, and if you pay attention you will be sometimes awestruck at what the characters are doing to make ends meet, but also you will be laughing out loud because they make some pretty ridiculous decisions sometimes. As far as progression, its your standard “Hey guy you do this for us, you’ll get more trust so we’ll give you more tough stuff to do” sort of deal. Its very similar to GTA and other open world games in that respect. You wake up in your apartment each day, put on some clothes, then drive to the waypoint on your map to get the next mission. This approach is refreshing and does give the whole game a day in the life sort of feel.
Mafia II uses the illusion engine which is in house from 2K. This game not only runs well, but it looks great to boot. The city comes to life, and you do feel like you’re there. The music, clothes and even dialogue are all top notch here to immerse you as much as possible. The only hiccup really is when driving into tunnels, for some reason it would always drop my fps (frames per second) when I would drive through. Besides that everything else was great, there were no bugs and I only got one or two crashes to desktop. Some of the character models aren’t the best, but the facial expressions make up for that. This also is a game from four years ago, so I cut it a little slack here.
Unfortunately, this is by far the weakest part of the package and where I had the most complaints. For every positive here, there is almost always a negative. A great example of this is the driving. It feels great, and it’s really fun to go take a car for a spin to the local garage where you can supercharge it, change the rims and even get a new paint job. Each car not only feels different, but sounds different as well. You hear the roar of the engine as you screech out of a tight turn, and feel the rumble in the controller when you go over different road surfaces that include dirt, snow, ice (in the Joes Adventures DLC) and more. Another aspect of the driving they nailed was the car damage and physics models. Each car feels heavy, and some even feel like your’e driving a big boat. When you take a hard hit, you see the fender hanging on by a thread. It’s very well done.
Now the flipside of this is that you drive everywhere in this game. I mean absolutely everywhere. Fail the mission? You spawn near the mission marker, have to start the mission again, drive to where your’e supposed to go and hopefully you don’t die again. You can see how this would get frustrating really fast. I almost quit the game a couple times because I got so fed up with it, but then I realized usually that the solution was pretty simple I just had to be in the right place at the right time. Sometimes in story missions they are nice enough to have checkpoints in the actual mission, so you don’t spawn too far behind. I really enjoyed that approach to things and I wish they had used it more. The truth is though that you really need to like the driving a whole lot to be able to enjoy this game, I actually had to take a break sometimes because my hand hurt from holding down the right trigger so much!
The other mechanic you’ll spend much time wrestling with is the combat. Sometimes it feels great, you mow down a bunch of guys with different weapons, maybe blow up a few cars with some well placed grenades and get a nice multi-kill. Other times you are wondering why the hell this game doesn’t have a scope for ANY of the weapons. None. All you get is a zoom in that is barely good enough to pick off targets. The A.I. for the enemies is pretty bad sometimes, as you feel like you are playing whack-a-mole. They pop their head in and out of cover waiting for you to reload, so that when you do they can get a cheap shot in. It does really feel unfair sometimes when you have to go up against a ridiculous amount of enemies.
There are a few unfortunate missions where you have to protect someone, and if they get shot once or twice, that’s it, mission restart. It can get very frustrating, but changing the approach or weapon selection does help. There is a great roster of weapons, but once you get that selection, you will be using only a couple of them. The shotgun is the biggest letdown here, as it could’ve been a really fun weapon to use. Instead it just feels inaccurate and a waste of time. One of my biggest complaints was the inability to shoot out of a car. You’re A.I. buddies can do it, but not you. Why? There are multiple missions where this would be very helpful to have, but they didn’t program that ability for the player. A major letdown.
The fistfights can be pretty fun when you get the formula down, but it does get tiresome. It feels very forced in sections, but if you follow the pattern of dodging the first two punches, and then landing a hit you’ll be fine. They never get that hard, and once I learned that method they were a breeze.
So what about the DLC? They are of good size, but don’t have that much substance. They mostly revolve around the same things that you did in the base game, but there is more of a reason to use the open world here. You actually need to go to the gun shops, garage, diners and whatnot. You really didn’t use the open world in the main game, which was a big bummer. That is the biggest strength of the DLC really. Besides that its relatively forgettable and the 3 packs aren’t different enough from each other to really be that great. For some reason Joe’s Adventures felt pretty cobbled together for me. It had a few bugs that were really annoying, and I really didn’t care much about what was going on. Joe also dies easier than Jimmy, so expect to die a lot with Joe’s Adventures. Ultimately, the DLC brought the overall score down for me. It was so frustrating that it isn’t worth it, just play the main game and call it a day.
So all things considered, this is a game where your mileage will vary. It really depends on how much you like the setting and the driving. There aren’t a lot of games with this sort of dedication to the time period, and they really nailed that here. Even with all the frustrations, I still wanted to play because being in the Mafia is just so much fun, and when you get the Tommy Gun it feels great to mow down your foes. The city feels alive and the cars are a blast to drive. If you really aren’t into the setting/driving and the occasionally visceral combat, you can take a pass on this one. Hopefully 2K learns from their mistakes in Mafia III and they can have themselves a great retro gangster game. Until then, enjoy this with a few grains of salt.
Score: 6.5 – If you like retro gangster stuff, you’ll dig it no doubt for the setting and the story. Just stay away from the DLC missions.