Shooting Blanks: Mafia II Review

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Mafia II
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: 2K Czech
Systems it’s available on: Xbox 360, PS3
ESRB rating: M for Mature
System reviewed on: PS3

Ambition doesn’t make a good game. Great production values do not make a good game. Not by themselves they don’t. It seems like a continually hard lesson to learn as console cycles roll into one another throughout the decades. Mafia II‘s the latest high-profile game to trip over this fallacy.

The sequel to the 2002 third-person shooter–developed by Illusion Softworks, now 2K Czech–puts players in the shoes of Vito Scaletta. The young Italian immigrant embarks on into a life of crime to try and escape the crushing tenement poverty. Mafia II‘s release has been preceded by a tidal wave of hype and you can see that 2K Czech is clearly trying to seat their game in the continuum of great Mafioso fiction. The opening echoes strongly back to the Godfather II, with sepia-toned scenes of life back in the Old Country. When narrating his memories of tenement life, Vito wonders grandiosely “The American Dream? More like a nightmare.” For good measure, Mafia II throws in a WWII sequence as its tutorial level, too. To, y’know, really drive home the American mythology stuff. And to drive home the Mafia mythology stuff, a Sicilian don stops the skirmish just by talking in that level. This is power, the game intones, and you can have some of it. The preamble gets you hungry for a deep experience, one where you’ll become one with a city, with a way of life.

Nothing in Mafia II lives up to that promise.

Sure, the cutscenes look great and the jazz, pop and blues soundtrack evokes the 40s and ’50s wonderfully. The voice acting’s very well-done and the art direction and character design are similarly sharp. But, you can get all of that from a movie. Hell, you have gotten all of that from a movie. Movies called The Godfather, Goodfellas, Miller’s Crossing and Mean Streets.

One early mission has you doing honest work–slowly, laboriously hauling crates at the docks for terrible wages–to create a contrast with the dangerous glamour of criminal life. The simulated drudgery makes the moral logic of the game more seductive: “Well, if you put it like that, well then, of course I wanna be a gangster.”

But the problem with Mafia II is that the glamour itself is lacking. Mafia II is boring. And stiff. And uninspired. The missions are rote: go here, talk to this guy, get this thing, shoot lots of dude, bring that thing to that place. Its mechanics are cookie-cutter: peek out of cover and shoot, partially regenerating health, eat a hot dog to get all healed up, buy some clothes, lots of guns, lots of cars. And from a technical standpoint, the game seems trapped in a three-years-ago moment. The character animations seem lugubriously slow at times and the driving feels dull and bloodless. Aiming in gun combat feels off, the fistfights numbingly imprecise. For a big city, Empire Bay feels empty and a bit bloodless. If you’ve played a third-person game in the last five years, you’ve played Mafia II.

Storywise, the game’s plot is too reverential of the mobster mythology built by Scorcese, Coppola and others to do anything fresh or energetic. The plot feels cobbled together from a collection of warmed-over Godfather clichés. And even that stuff is poorly executed. The emotional core of the story–Vito’s connection with his mother–gets squandered in a cringeworthy pivotal cutscene and, later, he gets out of jail without so much as a backwards glance at honoring her memory. It all feels too weighty, and that seriousness keeps Mafia from replicating the giddy chaos of GTA or even THQ’s Saints’ Row series. And, yes, I know that Mafia II is not an open-world game. But it teases you with trappings of freedom, while locking you in a hollow construct. Parts of the world are semi-open but the structure is never dynamic.

It’s in trying to be cinematic that Mafia II fails in being a game. The game goes a long way to feel accurate but the accuracy feels kind of didactic.  Like an over-eager schoolkid, it exclaims, “Look, vintage Playboy mags and movie posters! Old-timey news reports about the war! Epithet-filled old-school racism! See, we did our homework!” But, unlike, say, Red Dead Revolver–which leans heavily on the film Western but turns that material into something new-feeling–Mafia II never synthesizes its inspirations into something vital. In any great game, the player is the performer, the gameworld provides his script and you should be able to improvise something that feels great. Mafia II leaves you feeling like it’s one big cutscene where nothing you do matters much.

Official Techland Score: 5.2 out of 10