Mafia II is not what most people think it is. For some reason, the game's creators seem hell-bent on convincing you it's an open-world sandbox game, à la (the excellent) Assassin's Creed II or (the even better) Saints Row 2, with boatloads of stuff to do and an entire city to explore.
While there is indeed a city to explore, there's nothing to do other than the story missions, making this game an entirely linear experience. And, you know what, there's nothing wrong with that. Linear games can be incredibly awesome, especially if they're as good as Mafia 2.
Mafia 2 is all about the story, the atmosphere, the lovingly crafted America of the '40s and '50s, the characters you'll meet, the music you'll hear, the cars you'll drive, the advertisements you'll enjoy, the radio broadcasts you'll listen to, detailing the Allied progress in the war. It's a tired old cliché, but this game is not so much about the destination - it's about the journey getting there.
Let me paint you a few pictures.
One of the earlier missions has you stealing gas stamps from a government office. It's war time in America, so gas is rationed, and the stamps are worth their weight in gold. You sneak through the building, avoiding the guards. You can hear them talk to each other, about how one of them has bought a TV.
A TV, the other guard responds, surprised. Why would you buy one of those things? It's just a fad! There's more to it than that, the guard who bought the TV claims. He even has an idea - what if you could actually control the little guy on the screen? Make him walk around, maybe even shoot things? You'll need some sort of box, of course, and something with buttons on it to make the little guy do things. You're nuts, the other guard sighs.
Then there's this guy you talk to somewhere during the game, who is aspiring to become a voice actor. You know, for the radio - because radio is the future!
This game is so packed with atmosphere it's nearly bursting at the seams. Such attention to detail, such beautiful graphics, and such incredible scenery - it's hard not to just start your car and take a long drive through the city, enjoying the music.
Mafia 2's story is a work of art, a lesson in storytelling other game makers should listen to. It doesn't glorify the mobster lifestyle like part one did - it's darker and more depressing, showing the less-than-pleasant side of getting involved with the mafia. You lose contact with your family, you live in a constant state of fear, the politics at the top of the mafia and its families, being a pawn in something greater than yourself - it's all there.
I don't want to say a whole lot more about the story, because I don't want to spoil it for you. I can explain, however, why Vito, the game's protagonist, is so much more lovable than, say, the schizophrenic Niko Bellic from that dreadful GTA4, even though they appear to be alike at first glance.
If anyone still remembers my review of GTA4, you'll recall I found the game rather lacking on just about every front. My biggest complaint, however, was the main character. Niko whined for hours on end about how he regretted the things he did back in the war in Yugoslavia, how he just wanted to do it all over again.
While at the same time killing about 45 people during every single mission.
Niko just didn't make any sense, he wasn't believable, wasn't real, he was clearly "created". He was a schizophrenic hand puppet who shifted between being a hippie whining about the preciousness of life and a murdering psychopath with a total disregard for morality every other minute.
Vito, on the other hand, is different. Unlike Niko, he doesn't whine about his past in the war or the things that he's done, while at the same time murdering ten policemen with a shotgun.
Vito also breaks the rules, he also does things that he has moral issues with. Trafficking drugs is one of those - he despises it, he doesn't want to do it, it's beneath him and the mafia. However, at some point during the game, Vito loses all he has worked for, leaving him penniless - with nothing but the boxers and shirt he was wearing in bed. It is at this point that he has no choice but to resort to jobs that he normally wouldn't do. You'll see the conflict in his eyes.
The writers behind Mafia 2 are simply better at their job than the guys who came up with Niko; Vito makes sense, Niko doesn't. In most of these types of games, the main character feels like a puppet on a string, doing random things that don't make any sense, things that do not logically follow from the story or the character. In Mafia 2, however, Vito's choices are clearly the products of circumstance. They are logical consequences from what's happening to him.
That is what proper storytelling and character building is all about.
We're a whole load of words into this review, and I still haven't said anything about the actual game part of this video game. There's a reason for that; as a game, Mafia 2 has its deficiencies. Action sequences are short and too rare, the stealth sequences are limited in variety and dead-easy, and the fist fighting gameplay, while interesting, is simple and repetitive. Driving around town is fun though, and it better be - you'll spend more time driving around than shooting people in the face.
As for the shooting specifically, it's perfectly adequate, but nothing special. The game doesn't really strike a proper balance between arcade and realism, though. On the one hand, you'll never run out of bullets since enemies drop them like crazy; on the other hand, most guns will kill you with only a few shots. I would've been nice if bullets were a little harder to come by, so that you'd have to be more careful.
In all honesty, Mafia 2 would've been better off with a structure more similar to Alan Wake's. Alan Wake also had the town of Bright Falls to explore, but unlike Mafia 2, only the parts of town that made sense to be accessible during that part of the game were actually accessible. I know open-world is the Chemical X of today's gaming industry, but Alan Wake's structure would have been a much better fit for Mafia 2's strictly linear storyline.
Whether you'll like Mafia 2 or not will mostly depend on one thing: your affinity for the time period. I absolutely love the style and class of the '40s and '50s in America, so I felt right at home. If you're like me, you'll enjoy the attention to detail and the love with which the time period is recreated on your screen.
If you're just looking for a good action game or an open-world game, you can do a lot better than Mafia 2. This is a game that is made or broken by your love for its setting, and if that doesn't float your boat in any particular way, Mafia 2 will only disappoint you by being generic.
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