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The Italian Mafia gimmick is rarely shown the spotlight in video games, Godfather 1 and 2 being the most prominent and well-known video games involving mafia-type figures. Even then, the reason we know those games is because they’re based off the hit movies. Mafia 1 was released in 2002 and at the time was truly something special. Since then, that long eight year gap has given birth to many hit open-world games and somewhere along Mafia II’s development cycle, they forgot that years were advancing and games were getting progressively better and more inventive.
Mafia II starts you off as Vito Scaletta, a rough, tough, no nonsense kind of Italian. The opening level reminded me oddly of Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. You’re running through a busted up building as a soldier in World War II, firing upon whoever you see fit to fire upon. It didn’t look nearly as good as Brothers in Arms but it handled similarly.
Throughout the opening level you run into your first problem, Mafia II is ugly. It can rarely pick up speed and look decent, but that relies on a variety of different things happening. Frame-rate looking fine, no ugly textures, make sure your partner isn’t glitching through a wall, etc. Very rarely does it all come together. The character designs are mainly passable, occasionally good. There are quite a few people, including the many hookers you’ll run into throughout the game, that have a plastic, fake look to them. Vito and your friend, Joe, on the other hand look really good and their facial expressions really shine throughout.
The look of Mafia is by far not the most disappointing thing you’ll find hidden within this package. Mafia II presents possibly the worst, most pathetic excuse for checkpoints I’ve ever seen in a game. I had to literally retry around an hour’s worth of gameplay multiple times because of the poor checkpoints. Checkpointing is such a simple thing to do in this day and age that even thinking a game of this magnitude could be released in this state is depressing to say the least. Let’s all hope we can use Mafia as an example of how not to checkpoint.
What makes the atrocious checkpoints even worse? The inconsistency of never knowing how many bullets it takes to kill you. Throughout Mafia’s wide variety of weapons, you’ll find a Thompson, four pistols, Molotov Cocktails, grenades, and a shotgun. None of these weapons feel particularly fun to use. They all have a slight wobbliness to the aiming and you’re never sure of the certain amount of shots to take a man down. No matter how close or far away the enemy is, it could take one shotgun blast, two shotgun blasts, or maybe three, all dependant on if the game feels like screwing you over at that current time. Pro tip: It usually feels like screwing you over. Once the enemies actually use weapons on you, all hell breaks loose and the game forgets what to do. Again, it could take 5 Thompson shots, 20, or an entire clip to kill you, you never know. I died around forty times in the final three hours of Mafia II. The combination of poor health design and bad checkpoints brings forth a unique experience not found in any other game on the market. And thank God for that.
While it may try to fool you, Mafia II is an open-world game. It has a beautiful environment to run around in, but there’s nothing to do in it. There are no side-missions, and the stores strewn throughout it are all so generic and cookie-cutter, there’s no incentive to going into them. Take for example the clothing stores, there are around five in the city. All of them look the same and have the same exact cashier. This is lazy game design at its worst. And on top of that, the clothing stores sell a total of four different clothes. But oh my, I must add that they all have varying colors. The only useful places are the repair shops and the main gun shop.
Getting around the city isn’t necessarily tough. Unlike many other instances throughout Mafia, it takes a different approach to driving. Instead of the standard formula of you can drive ever how fast and reckless you want, just don’t let the cops get involved, it instead enforces a speed limit and the cops will occasionally pull you over for hitting a car and dodging the scene. This is an interesting concept and it works fairly well but in the late game, you have so much money (and nothing to spend it on) that getting pulled over just means giving the cop two hundred dollars so you both can be on your way. Apart from that, I was surprised at how little this feature annoyed me. The act of driving is shockingly competent. Another instance where you may expect the game to go tits up, driving remains fine throughout the game and never becomes too much of a nuisance. Especially when you have the combat to deal with.
It’s not so much the combat that is poorly done as it is the actual level design in the game. You seem to frequently be getting placed in the absolute worst of positions, whether it means your head is popping out from behind cover or that you have no cover at all, it happens all too often. I had one boss fight that I had to kill by randomly spraying Thompson bullets at him, not really sure of where he was because of how dark it was. On top of that, he was tossing Molotov Cocktails at me all while I had cover where my head pops out five inches from the top of it all around me, tempting me to hop into it but once I would, dead within five seconds. It boiled down to me strafing left to right, firing my gun like madman.
The brightest spot in this Mafia II sky is the engrossing and impressive story and characters. There’s not a one of the characters I didn’t grow a slight fondness for over the course of the game and seeing as this is a Mafia game, people are going to die. This only added to the tension and thought of “I don’t really want to like this guy too much because he may die” then he recites a funny joke, does something respectable, and I start to like him way too much. The occasionally hilarious dialogue and strong voice performances combine together to make a compelling and very good story that you’ll enjoy all the way up to the final scene, which may be the most powerful “fade to credits” I’ve seen in a while.
Mafia II, while still featuring an incredible story, disappointed me constantly. I wanted to love the game. The characters were fantastic and occasionally some interesting ideas would pop up, it ultimately just needed the gameplay to top off the package and that’s something that 2K Czech sadly did not deliver on.