'Mafia II'

"Mafia II" delivers a visually compelling slice of vintage organized crime, but the gameplay is lacking

Empire Bay greets you at the main menu with a lovely cityscape, complete with a faux-Empire State Building. One of the first sights you see in "Mafia II" is city's majestic skyline. As you play, those structures are always there, in the background. They seem to whisper, "You have stepped into a large world. Welcome and enjoy everything this universe has to offer you."

And you believe the mysterious voices. But there's something strange going on, something off-kilter. The skyscrapers, no matter where you are in the city, are always some distance away, always across a river or adjacent to the highway you happen to be on. It almost seems as though they aren't buildings at all, but more like a mirage off in the distance, taunting you.

This was my experience playing "Mafia II": a game that really isn't. Oh, sure, it has all the trappings of an OWTPAG (for those that aren't cool enough to remember: Open World Third Person Action Game), all the little bells and whistles like money and safe houses to sleep in and guns to load up on. Having played open world games since they were created, a part of me kept thinking, "OK, they're still just establishing the characters and the plot. After this next mission, they have to let me save my game and screw around in this neat little 1940s New York."

"Mafia II" made me feel like I was inconveniencing the game by playing it.

Let me explain. Once I got through the intro movie detailing my entire life up until my 20s, I was thrown into World War II-ravaged Italy. I must credit developer 2K Czech for the best use of the WW2 setting I've seen in a game: as a tutorial. I was taught how to take cover, aim, etc. Wonderful, so far so good. I finally got back home to Empire Bay to begin my life of crime. My first night home, I'm forced to stay at my mom and sister's apartment. "This is great," I thought, "they are making me sleep in my 'little boy' bed so that when I finally choose to buy my mansion at the end of the game, it will feel all the sweeter!" Of course, immediately after that, my best friend Joe let me crash on his couch. Ok cool, they were still just stringing me along.

I ran a few missions for the lower-tier mafia thugs that Joe knew. I started to notice that everything important was happening in cutscenes. In fact, the only real input I seemed to have was in driving from one cutscene to the next. Sometimes there was a chaotic gun battle thrown in for good measure, but everything seem so staged. Nothing was exciting or spur of the moment. Not that I could really react all that well if something unexpected did happen. The controls, both vehicular and on foot, were sluggish and unresponsive. The geometry of the world, while authentically designed and very pretty, was always restricting movement, another sign that the game almost groaned in lethargy from the effort of having me play it.

There is literally no manual save function in "Mafia II." The only way your progress ever, ever, gets saved is by completing the next story mission. On more than one occasion (it took me a few times to learn), I grabbed my favorite car out of the garage, drove it to an auto mechanic across the city, upgraded its engine, painted it fire engine red, changed the rims to a shiny chrome, and even customized the license plate. I then carefully (so as not to scratch the new paint job) drove it back to my garage, again across the city, and parked it. I was proud of that gem sitting in storage. Stealing some shabbier car, I drove to my next mission where, after 10 more minutes of movie followed by another 10 minutes of walking through action-less environments, I was killed when a gun battle finally started. The crushing problem was, I had not yet hit one of the infrequently designated checkpoint saves. Not only did I have to start the mission over, but everything I had done since the end of the last mission was gone. No fancy car, no nice paint job and no chrome rims!

The problem is that "Mafia II" is not a game, not in the common understanding of the word. It's a movie that, like a cautious father, lets you sit in the driver's seat of his beloved sports car and make "vroom, vroom" sounds and turn the wheel, but you don't ever actually get to drive.

One area where 2K Czech earns high marks is ambiance. They absolutely nailed a perfect microcosm of 1940-1950' New York (or at least, how I imagine it). The clothes, the cars, the buildings, the grit and grime, the music -- everything, except the gameplay of course, begs you to toss your fedora on the hat rack, put your feet up, and settled into this world. But just like the mirage skyscrapers, the atmosphere only serves to taunt you while you wish for a deeper experience.

By the way, do not, under any circumstances, buy the "made man" edition for $10 extra. Two cars and two outfits in a "game" like this are not worth your money.

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The Saboteur

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Video Games: 'Mafia II'

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