Friday, September 3, 2010

Review: Mafia II

Platform: Xbox 360 (also on PS3/PC)

Developer: 2K Czech

Publisher: 2K Games

# of Players: 1

ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

Official Site

Score: B

The original Mafia was an ambitiously cool, well-made PC game that made for a less than perfect (but still enjoyable) console translation. Seven years and a new console cycle later, 2K Czech's Mafia II is a heck of a lot more visually impressive, even more ambitious and offers up a far more interesting cast of wiseguys playing out their lives of crime to assorted results. The sequel is sharp as a new suit, but there are a few loose threads hanging that make it a bit less than a perfect fit. Those going into it expecting yet another cut & paste Grand Theft Auto experience will be in for a surprise. The pure story driven focus here means your enjoyment of the game relies on sticking to the script rather than going too far off the beaten path.

In fact, the best way to get the most out of Mafia II relies very heavily on whether or not you crave a solid storyline to go with your gunplay and fisticuffs. Therefore, I won't spoil anything in this review, as the game holds a few tasty surprises. Thanks to a more linear, chapter-based structure that continually elbows (and sometimes strong-arms) you forward toward the next set of tasks, it's clear that 2K Czech wants you to play the game as they've constructed it. Players more used to hanging around a map and getting into all sorts of trouble will no doubt be surprised a few times when they're booted them into the next area and a new set of missions. Me, I'm a story guy, so I loved being taken along for the ride (and I didn't have to ride in the trunk, either).

In the game, you play as Vito Scaletta, a WWII veteran who returns back to his hometown of Empire Bay after the war and ends up back in his old life of crime. Vito ended up volunteering for service after a bit of a run-in with the police and even though he's seen as a hero to some upon his return, his old lifestyle is too tempting to resist. There's a fantastic bit of war action in 1943 Sicily that shows off the combat system (and 2kC's talents) while letting players see Vito isn't the simplistic square-jawed hero found in most war games. 2K's familiar style of games featuring mature and even likable bad guys is on point here. Vito and the boys may do plenty of not so nice things, but you'll find yourself totally engrossed throughout much of the 10 to 15 hours it takes to complete the game.

As noted above, what the game does best much of the time is tell a great, engaging crime story. You're going to be propelled into situations where violence is the only outcome, but the game leaves it up to you much of the time in how you deal with who's trying to kill you. The cover-based combat system is great and makes sense in terms of what's good to hide behind and what's not. Brick walls stop bullets better than plaster and a wooden crate is about as safe as the glass bottles it was holding before it (and Vito) got shot up. Firefights are generally tense affairs thanks to some great AI, location-based damage and some fairly gruesome death animations. The fist fighting action isn't going to wow fans of Tekken one whit, but it's very nicely done and relies on knowing when to block rather than just running in and knocking everyone out with a single punch. Of course, you can overuse that block button if you like, but that's your call.

Amusingly enough, you do get the chance to explore a few areas in the game for a few non-story related tasks. Collecting copies of Playboy (which unlocks centerfolds) and Wanted posters is a cool diversion from the main game for a while, but don't expect to be too stumped in finding most of the hidden stuff. 2KC really wants you to enjoy the city they've created from a few angles other than up close and personal. Empire Bay looks completely amazing and is packed with life and period detail that outstrips other games in the genre. As Mafia II is set during the 40's and 50's, you'll see a complete palette change from the time Vito returns from the war (a beautiful wintry setting in a nostalgic tone) to the more upbeat Technicolor 50's where everything pops off the screen.

The writing is great and you can tell that the dev team has been cooking the game up for a while like a Sunday gravy with meatballs. he game script goes from high drama to intentional laughs and even touches briefly on a character in the original game, although you'd have to have played the first Mafia to get the reference. All the voice actors are solid and if I'm not mistaken, the VO in most of the cut scenes really sounds as if the actors all were in the same room. This adds a more realistic feel to conversations and makes the plot all the more intriguing even when things don't quite gel near the finale. As for that soundtrack... it's perfectly pure aural pure bliss. I could go on forever about how well every tune fits the era its in or just how much of a joy it is to hear a game not packed to the gills with rap, alt and emo burning a hole in my eardrums.

For those griping about "stereotypes", get over it (and yourselves) - it's a video game, folks. As with any slice of entertainment, most of those who partake of it aren't necessarily going to see ALL real-life Italians as potential hoods. Imagine if those who played too many WWII shooters thought everyone born of German blood was some sort of Nazi or Nazi sympathizer... Yeesh. In the real world, smart folks can easily separate fact from fiction and games such as Mafia II are indeed fiction. Of course, that fiction is partly based on the unfortunate reality that yes, a very small segment of one ethnic group that happens to have been involved in criminal behavior holds a huge fascination that's lasted decades in films, books and now games. The same holds true for Grand Theft Auto's depiction of gangs and gang culture across different ethnic groups or any other game where crime is a focal point of the plot and/or gameplay.

OK, the social commentary is officially over - now back to the review.

While you won't get an endless supply of NPC requests because most people on the streets have places to go and things to do, a few can be helped out if you stick around and listen. You can stick up a shop or steal cars, but you'll find that the police and in some cases, other gangsters aren't too keen on you making a mark on their turf. You'll either be shot at or have to do a bit of fancy driving to make a clean getaway. Car handling is great here, realistic and quite different depending on the vehicle you're in. Don't expect to be power sliding around corners or stopping on a dime in a heavy sedan here - you'll need to anticipate curves and take them as nicely as possible or risk smashing up your ride (as well as yourself).

There are a few performance issues, such as vertical screen tearing in some areas and the occasional cut scene that doesn't quite run smoothly, but these are minor hiccups in the grand scheme of things. The bigger issue for some will be that Empire Bay seems too closed off when compared to other open-world titles on the market. 2KC has announced two DLC packs that extend the game's life somewhat and I'm hoping to see some sort of expansion that unlocks even more of what the city has to offer. What's here certainly lays the groundwork for a Mafia III, perhaps set in the 60's to 80's (which were really rough times for the mob in real life). Of course, I'm hoping it won't take 2KC seven years to finish THAT game, but I guess we'll have to see what happens, right?

Review based on a copy of the game provided by publisher.

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