By John Walker on August 28th, 2010 at 5:11 pm.
Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond our control, we were not able to get Mafia II review code before the game was released. So I’ve not slept much in the last 24 hours to complete the game, in order that I can tell you my thoughts. It’s a game I’ve been hoping to play for eight years, and have followed extremely closely during development. The reviews so far have been confusingly mixed, even the Eurogamer Network giving both a 4 and a 10. Below I’m finally able to tell you Wot I Think.
One of the criticisms that’s been frequently levelled at Mafia II is the city. They are incorrect. The city is extraordinary. It’s a remarkable achievement, both in scale and detail. It in no way fails at being an open world. It was never intended to be an open world. Instead it was always intended to be a vivid backdrop to a narrative. It’s the narrative that fails, and it fails terribly.
Vito Scaletta, the son of Sicilian immigrants, is serving in World War 2. Caught stealing cars, he was drafted into the army fighting in Italy in 1943, which is where we first pick up his story. Essentially a tutorial level, a rather damp invasion of a building neither begins nor ends, and then Vito declares in narration, “A few years later the Nazis put a bullet in me.” Since the war ended in 1945, this seems a little confusing, especially as when Vito returns to America on leave, the war’s still going.
Vito’s father has died, leaving his mother and sister in $2000 of debt, with loan sharks circling. A reunion with his former crime buddy Joe Barbaro results in Joe making a call that sees Vito on permanent leave, and the two of them partnering up to pick up work from the Mob. And off we go.
For a drive. A very, very long drive. Mafia II is a collection of menial tasks strung together by driving, with the occasional respite of a shoot-out. And these menial tasks don’t only make up the beginning of the game, but last throughout. Midway through the game, when you’re scrubbing a third urinal, it dawns on you that you’re scrubbing urinals in a game. Slowly, tiresomely, watching your player character with his face in the porcelain, scrubbing. Sure, he’s in prison and it’s an act of humiliation, but it’s still the game you’re playing. It’s just anther chore in a long line of demeaning chores.
Early on you’re given a task to carry some crates onto the back of a lorry. Vito is horrified by this manual labour, and loudly complains about how boring it is. The game promptly tells you that you can leave when you like. Which makes it a strange choice to seemingly model more tasks on this. In the second half, when you’re on the back of a truck picking out the correct coloured cigarette boxes for a line of customers, the only narrative complaining comes from you. (I do wonder if this was intended as a meta-comment on the crate-shifting scene in Mafia I, but it’s one that woefully backfires if it is.)
You’re essentially a courier/chauffeur for the Family, and despite apparently rising in the ranks, your tasks never become any more significant. Even by the end of the game you’re still struggling to do the most tedious of jobs, which inevitably involve driving a very long way, then driving back.
Vito’s only in prison because of another tedious task, in which you’re forced to drive to every gas station in the city in fifteen minutes, selling stamps. That’s his big exciting crime: selling ration stamps. That’s the scale in which Mafia II’s story exists.
Before I really pull apart why Mafia II’s story fails quite so badly, it’s important to celebrate its shoot-outs. They work extremely well, and all too infrequently.
A smart and superb cover system lets you take satisfactory headshots as the many enemies swarm you. Your AI buddies rarely mess up, and I never lost a mission due to one of them dying. (A vast improvement upon the original game.) These inevitably take place in peculiarly long, thin buildings, but so did Mass Effect 2’s, and everyone sensibly got over that. Sadly enemy AI is nowhere near what was promised, and they still do that ridiculous thing of popping their heads back up exactly where they were before they hid. But these sequences are often a lot of fun, with many weapons, and potential for improvised fun. The crazy thing is, there’s only very few of them throughout, despite being the game’s strength.
Madly, far more common are the ghastly hand-to-hand fight scenes. They’re utterly awful, but seemingly no one was aware of this during development, forcing these Street Fighter For Dummies scenes on you over and over and over. Dodge, punch, dodge, punch, hard punch, punch. Again and again and again. The dodge is extremely dodgy, however, meaning it often just doesn’t happen, and the whole affair is a dull trial.
The destructible scenery, however, is a accolade-worthy achievement, and the game’s physics are mightily impressive. You can set things on fire, shoot through wood (sometimes), and most importantly, blow things up very satisfyingly. The engine, while physically similar to those in many open world games, is stunning.
There are three Families in Empire Bay, the Vinci, Falcone and Clemente gangs. Vito begins working for Clemente, but through the machinations of the plot, meanders between them in a way that has you completely unable to remember who works for who. But none carries any emotional significance.
When Mafia: Lost Heaven came out everyone unfairly compared it to GTA III, in a way uncannily similar to how Mafia II is being unfairly compared to GTA IV. Neither game intends to be a living city in which you can ignore the plot and go raise havoc. It’s not the purpose of a Mafia game, which are intended to be story-driven missions, the city a backdrop in which they take place. To measure Mafia II against GTA IV is to measure Half-Life against STALKER. Neither has the same intentions, and neither should have to hit the same targets. Mafia II is more meaningfully measured against Mafia I, and it’s here that it reveals how woefully empty it is.
The city is far more involved than the first game, as it happens. For all the errant complaints you may have read, there’s lots of activity, and plenty of opportunities for accidentally getting involved in a gang war. None is particularly compelling, and the ridiculous omnipresence of the police spoils any potential fun, but it is in there. And there’s food, clothes and gun shops to visit, mechanics to improve cars, gas stations to refill your tank…
But, here’s the thing: they’re all pointless. You can buy food to heal yourself, but you auto-heal and there’s always free food in your apartment. You can buy guns, but the game gives you more than you’ll ever be able to fire for nothing. You can upgrade your cars, but there’s no need to at all. And gas? I drove one car a great deal, and it never got low on petrol, and if it had I’d just steal another one. The only establishments that serves a purpose are the clothes stores, which will let you disguise your appearance and shake police who may have a description of you. By, er, buying exactly the same clothes you were wearing before.
So forget all that. It’s a beautiful background, and it serves that purpose wonderfully. Where Mafia II should be damned is for its banal story.
Mafia I told the tale of a man, Tommy Angelo, reluctantly drawn into the Mafia, who found it becoming his whole life until eventually his buried morals conflicted with his hubris, and he ratted to the feds. It’s a fantastic arc, a decade of a decent man’s life descending into callous murder and emotionless crime. A fallen Angel in a Lost Heaven. It was a smart game – yes, one that robbed ludicrously from everyone’s favourite mobster movies – but still smart. And crucially, it was an emotional tale.
Mafia II is devoid of emotion. It’s hinted at near the start with Vito’s relationship with his mother and sister, but you quickly realise that despite the same author writing both games, there’s no longer the sophistication to manage a family dynamic. Vito is a sociopath, and not by cunning writing, but because he’s a hollow mannequin. His willingness to embrace the Mafia, and whichever grotesque tasks they demand of him, are met without conscience or consideration. Sure, why not fleece some innocent dockworkers? Who cares who you murder? When Vito finally does hesitate to do one illegal act toward the end, it’s of so little consequence when compared with the horrors he’s previously robotically performed, that you realise he was only ever a plastic pin stuck in an aimless plot.
The acting is fantastic throughout. Some of the best to have appeared in a game. The lines they’re delivering, however, are blabber. There’s a couple of jokes that work, but in two hours of cutscenes that’s really not enough. The rest is groups of people saying, “Fuck Marty, let’s kill fucking Tony.” (or whomever). It’s such a collection of cliché that you could use it as a museum. When someone asks, “Hey, how’d you get in here?” the demoralising reply comes, “We followed the fucking yellow brick road.” Imagine that dialogue endlessly repeated.
Being the types of gangsters they are, in the era they’re in, there’s a great deal of sexism and racism, as you might expect. But it really does seem to revel in the opportunity. Chinese people are called “Chinks” so many times that you begin to wonder if someone writing really has an issue. And women (or should I say “broads”), unlike in the first game, only serve one purpose here: fucking. Almost every NPC female character has the exact same pair of voluptuous breasts. None has an important role to play in the story, other than to be helpless or shagged. And on the receiving end of some delightful dialogue like, “Fuck you, you fucking cum-dumpster.”
And of course there’s the collectable Playboy pictures. Colour photographs (impressive for the time!) of nudey ladies, scattered around the city as a bonus item. It’s up to you whether you find this offensive, but it unquestionably sets the tone for women’s roles in this game.
However, the game does seem to have sourced a great deal of its content from the toilet. Quite literally. The story spends more time on topics of shit and vomit than anything else. One sequence in particular, involving disposing of a dead body, has drunken characters barfing everywhere, in what’s presumably supposed to be crazy frat-movie antics. Another has Vito covered in human shit for an entire mission, to the scatological hilarity/disgust of everyone involved. I lost count of how many times it was implied that Vito was raped in the prison showers, but it sure must be a funny idea!
“Two hours of cutscenes” is a dangerous boast. This can be a great thing when delivered well. And one that stood true. I timed how long I spent playing the game, and how long I spent playing the game. Of the 11 hours and 8 minutes it took me to reach the end, 8 hours and 46 minutes of them were spent being in control. This would, perhaps, have been fine if that two and a half hours of watching had occurred in sizeable chunks. But they’re scattered throughout, a minute here, a minute there, meaning you’re never able to relax into playing. Incessant interruptions steal the game away from you each time you settle into a scene.
The one time the game never wrestles the controls from you is when you’re literally at the driving wheel. The driving, while fine in most respects, is a dull affair interrupted by idiotic police. Go over 40, tap another car, nudge a pedestrian, and they come chasing after you. But evasion is ridiculously simple. The easiest trick is to brake to a halt, wait for the cops to get out of their car, then drive off. You’ll lose them in five seconds. And their responses are daft. A car t-boned me at a junction (as SO many do – the NPC driving AI is seemingly unaware of your presence at all times), and the police began a chase of me for my “hit and run”. Yet seconds later I rammed into another car at full speed, slamming it into a police car, and they did nothing at all. And they seem to ignore it when you drag an elderly man from his car in the middle of a street, but go crazy with fury when you pick a lock in their sight.
Checkpointing, despite plenty of warning from previewers (including me) is ghastly. It can only be an act of deliberate spite by the developers, seemingly in contempt of anyone who might die in their game. Get shot in the back of the head, or have an idiot NPC driver crash you into a tree, and you’ll have to not only repeat huge chunks of action, but also skip through cutscenes, get dressed, answer telephones, run down stairs, find cars… It’s inexplicable.
The ending is mystifying. Just… well, I couldn’t really think of a worse way for it to fizzle out. It’s like they just had to stop – maybe the phone rang. Huge set-ups from earlier in the game go completely unmentioned, and the meandering story, that really only gets going in the final third of the game, is of so little consequence that its expiration has no impact. Oh, some credits. I guess it’s done then.
It’s so maddening! This is an extraordinary game in many ways! An incredible city as wonderful decoration, with a really solid engine that’s been lovingly crafted and executed. Superb gun fighting, amazing acting, and occasionally even some decent direction. The radio stations are overly clichéd, but the news reports entertainingly report your actions, differently on all three stations. The animations are remarkable, the damage modelling on the cars like nothing I’ve seen before.
But then it’s let down by a nothing story, and the most peculiarly terrible ideas for missions. Why have such hateful checkpointing? What does it serve? Why make me pick out boxes of cigarettes (four times!) when I’m supposed to be playing a Mafia simulator? Why did they think those fisticuff fights were worth including once, let alone at least a dozen times? And why cast the player as a vacuous, uninteresting shop window dummy of crime?
What made Mafia: Lost Heaven special was Angelo, and his relationship with the world, the story, and the action. It was an enormously flawed game, with awful driving, overly-convoluted missions, and that race. But its heart was extraordinary. Mafia II has no heart at all. It’s an emotionally dead, frequently boring game, mostly spent slowly driving. The engine behind it desperately needs to be used for the excellent plot and thrilling action it deserved.