Review: Mafia II a.k.a. The Please Don't Touch Museum.
Mafia II returns gamers to story-driven, open-world gameplay for the first time since this summer's Wild West hit Red Dead Redemption. Developer 2K Czech advances the "end of the West" time period we just exited by 34 years and also advances the quality of the cinematics with a captivating post-WWII narrative. That's where the advancements stop, however. The game, while worth playing through once, doesn't offer anything new to the subgenre and, in some cases, regresses from what we've come to expect from an open-world Grand Theft Auto clone.
Since most of the characters from the first Mafia were killed or went to jail, Mafia II begins with a clean slate and a new story. From the beginning, its protagonist, Vito Scaletta, is already in trouble with the law. A failed robbery as a young adult forces his hand in joining the U.S. army to escape jail time, allowing for a World War II-set first level that can accurately be described as ?Call of Duty-lite.? The only differences are that it takes place from an unfamiliar third-person perspective and makes no attempt to familiarize players with the controls in CoD's slick way. This makes the experience a bit jarring. Thankfully, the single, Sicily-based level feels short and, because the remaining 14 of 15 chapters take place in America, is appealing simply because it's different from the rest of the game.
Chapters two through 15 unfold after Vito is shot overseas and sent back to America for leave. Stealing cars to pay off your family's debt, beating up fellow inmates when you go to jail and sneaking into buildings to pick vault locks Splinter Cell-style are just some of the objectives that advance the story. The script is dramatic, adult and, at times, funny. It's also violent, sexist, racist and homophobic. This goes hand-in-hand with classic mob movies, which tend to expose the darker side of the post-WWII era in the face of the always-cheery portrayal of the late 40s and early 50s.
The script is said to be nearly 700 pages, making it nearly twice as long as its predecessor's 400 pages. Though the game isn't necessarily twice as long, as a lot of dialogue happens in the car on the way to missions. Even so, I always found the backstory to be interesting enough to take the scenic route or sit idly in the car to hear all of the back-and-forth chatter. Visually, there are a lot of stellar presentation qualities to take in as well. Empire Bay, while fictional, is full of tall buildings based off recognizable real-life structures like New York City's Empire State Building and Los Angeles' Griffith Observatory. Likewise, the made-up cars that drive around this sprawling city come from actual vintage models.
Seeing the change from 1945 to 1951 is also impressive when Vito exits the joint. You're just as stunned as he is at the transformation that 2K Czech was able to pull off in this complex city. Vehicles go from the burly-built Model T successors of the 1940s to stylish-looking Ford Thunderbird derivatives of the 1950s. Clothing similarly transitions from the plainness of post-Depression Era garb to the flamboyant, colorful threads of the Rock N' Roll generation. Finally, the three radio stations experience a dramatic shift. Jazz and classic music may have occupied the airwaves in the beginning, but Doo-wop reigns supreme in the second half. Out with the Benny Goodman and in with Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers. Their No. 1 hit ?Why do Fools Fall in Love? wasn't recorded until 1956 and it's supposedly playing in 1951, but songs like this successfully capture the new decade. I just wish that the artists and songs were identified when cycling through the stations so that I wouldn't have to inconveniently get out my SoundHound iPhone app to do the work that 2K Czech should have.
More than the story or gameplay, the story presentation itself is what makes Mafia II convincing enough in the beginning to draw you in and make you want to play it for 12 hours and see it through to the end. For example, somewhere in between being a petty thief and becoming a full-blown gangster, Vito has to dispose of a body decomposing in the truck of a car. The scene turns completely black because the camera has shifted to inside the closed trunk. As Vito opens it and peers inside, his disgusted face is illuminated by the red taillights, foreshadowing the evil deed he has to accomplish. Similarly, the subsequent camera angle is from six-feet under, as he dumps the body and adds dirt. This is yet another staple of American gangster movies that Mafia II mimics better than any other game.
The extremely linear nature of Mafia II actually helps you focus on the story at hand and the lack of side missions guarantees that the plot rolls along without distraction. At the same time, however, it's frustrating to be surrounded by the living, breathing environment that 2K Czech spent so many years creating and not be able to run wayward into the ?open? world. Sure, you can get pulled over for speeding or cause a traffic accident and either pay a fine or duke it out with the cops. But, the next most unscripted thing the game allows is to leave the faucet on in the bathroom as if you were an 8-year-old run amuck.
There are so many missed opportunities in between. For example, there's a lookout point on the shoulder of a main road that overlooks the cityscape that could've been incorporated into a side mission using a new-fangled 1950s picture-taking device. Taking recon photos of a ?family? member meeting with a rival would have fit nicely in the story and taken advantage of the environment that 2K Czech already built. It's there, so, why not? BioShock did it and the benefits of identifying enemies made this optional gameplay element addictive.
Newspaper boys scream headlines like ?Extra! Extra! McArthur slams Truman in leaked letter!? which is relevant to the time, but none of the headlines offer additional objectives or play into what you have been doing. On top of that, eight headlines later, the newspaper boy shouts ?Truman dismisses McArthur!? Wow, newspaper journalism was fast back then! While you can find copies of Playboy and admire the vintage centerfolds, you can't buy or read the newspaper, which is as unfortunate as it is puzzling.
Newspapers are unable to provide extra missions and the next two mediums follow suit. There's a small, antique television set on four wooden legs in the first apartment in the beginning, but no way to turn it on and watch Howdy Doody or Woody Woodpecker (even though the cartoon is referenced in the plot). In all the years 2K Czech spent making this game, no one ever thought to get a license to a TV program or old movie, or at least find something in the public domain. The Darkness, 2K Games' adaptation of the Top Cow comic, did exactly that in 2007. It memorably allowed us to sit down and watch the full-length film ?To Kill a Mockingbird,? an episode of ?Flash Gordon? and shorts of ?Popeye.?
The telephone is no more advanced than the television, as it provides for one of the saddest, most underdeveloped moments I've seen in a video game. Attempting to pick up the phone in front of the foyer mirror when there's no mission involved results in the depressing message: ?You have no number to call.? Having to see your loner self in the mirror after reading this dejected message doesn't help. So, while the landlord of your first place boasts that the apartment ?comes with a telephone at no extra charge,? there's nothing extra to do with it unless it's part of a scripted mission.
Fully-rendered fire escapes adorn the sides of almost every building in the city on the outside. When you're on ?the inside,? the intimidating prison blocks are lined with guards, eying you at every turn when you walk from your cell to the showers. But the complexity of these environments is oddly muted. It's impossible to scale the fire escapes and the guards are there as a cheap way to close off any chance of following a non-linear path. They are perfect examples of how Mafia II is built up in such an impressive way, and then fails to deliver anything meaningful from the years of work that the developer put into the engine.