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The life of organized crime has always appealed to audiences striving for an iota of power. The idea that even the lowliest dock worker could become the leader of a mob syndicate based solely on who they know is, in many ways, a Cinderella story for the working class. Video games share that same appeal allowing the player to slip into a role of power whether they become a superhero, a super-soldier or anything in between. It would seem that mobsters and games should go together like pinkies and rings, but in the case of Mafia 2, the glamour and appeal fade quickly. As Vito Scaletta, it’s your job to slog through every mob cliché known to man.
The game encounters several bouts of slow-down struggling to render all of the minute details of Empire Bay, but the scenery is an impressive facsimile of a New York-San Francisco hybrid set in the late 40’s early 50’s. From afar, regal skyscrapers dominate the horizon and a closer inspection reveals a coarse humanity filled with crime, poverty and despair lurking in the slums. The tone is hindered, however, when all these factors attempt to flow at once causing screen tearing and awkward animations. The character models look less inspiring with inanimate facial reactions and unnatural body movements, yet superficial damage to buildings and cars look superb. This kind of unbalanced rendering could have been helped with a little more time and energy focused on polish.
It would have been nice to see the quality of the character models live up to the intensity of the voice talent. The actors are effective at creating menacing figures at different levels of the mob hierarchy while adding personality to an otherwise shallow world. The original music score is another great aspect of Mafia 2, but the game usually relies on licensed music that is obnoxiously 50’s. You only get access to three radio stations so the playlists can get grating fast.
Mafia 2 has a distinct feel that separates it from games like the Grand Theft Auto series. For starters, the world is not meant to be explored. Much of Empire Bay is devoid of any side missions or jobs and acts more as a backdrop to a movie rather than an actual functioning city. Every action is planned and orchestrated to prevent you from disrupting the narrative so the potential for a unique experience is lost. The problem is that the story receives the most emphasis; a story that is merely a patchwork of old gangster films and tired stereotypes. Certain moments that should have elicited a heavy emotional response come off as lifelessly stale or unintentionally amusing.
Most of the game is spent driving which is another aspect that distances Mafia 2 from other open world titles. The cars react violently to high speeds causing you to watch your speedometer—any impact made going over fifty miles an hour can be fatal. The police are also very sensitive to speeding and can ruin driving home after completing a long chapter. Luckily, the police can be bribed easily if and when you find yourself in their custody. The attempt at real world physics winds up being more detrimental to the overall enjoyment.
Combat is comprised of fist fighting and gun fighting. Fist fighting is overly simple and implemented too often; the player needs only to hold down the “X” button to automatically dodge and then quickly follow up with a counter punch and then use a finisher combo. The firefights are short and are less frequent, but offer the most fun to be had with Mafia 2. Enemies react realistically to being shot and take an accurate amount of bullets to be dispatched. Finding cover is not a problem and the weapons pack a satisfying kick, although the camera is mounted too close to Vito’s back which makes navigating indoors frustrating while the lack of peripheral vision allows thugs to get the jump on you a little too often.
There is nothing in Mafia 2 that you haven’t seen already in past games and you’ve probably played better iterations of this type of game as well. The uneven commitment to presentation stifles most if not all of the game’s potential as a worthwhile experience. The voice work is strong, but story, gameplay and graphical issues plague the game’s ability to fully engage and engross the player in the mob fantasy. Gamers seeking a real Mafia epic will be bored to tears.