Leave the gun, take the cannoli

I’ve always been wary of what I like to call “GTA clones,” but I have to say that labeling Mafia II under such a category is really an insult. An insult to the GTA series, I mean. An actual GTA clone would be a game that lasts longer than eight hours, has a game world bigger than GTA III, and actually has gameplay elements past running and shooting. You know, like Saints Row or True Crime. Mafia II, on the other hand, plays more like a straight shooter from 2000 with a cover system. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I haven’t played the first Mafia game, or maybe it’s because I didn’t have high expectations for the game considering it came for free with my recent video card purchase, but that’s beside the point that what ever niche Mafia II was trying to find, it fell flat on its face trying to burrow itself there. So let’s delve into why it does so, shall we?

Back from the Old Country

Mafia II starts out with telling the story of Vito Corleone Scarletta, a Sicilian immigrant who came over from the “Old Country” in the 20s. Vito grows up in an Italian neighborhood with his friend Joe, and, stereotypically, they quickly turn to a life of crime to turn a dime. Vito gets pinched on a store robbery and to make up for it, he’s drafted into WWII. After getting shipped home to recover from his war wounds, his friend Joe, now apparently a big shot of sorts, has Vito discharged from the Army so he doesn’t have to return back to the front lines. Vito quickly decides that living with his mother isn’t his thing, and after getting tired of carrying some boxes down by the docks, he decides that it’s back to the life of crime for him.

Before things get too hot for him, however, he gets caught once more and instead serves hard time. There, in prison, he meets up with another mafioso who keeps him protected. Eventually the friendship extends to have Vito’s sentence reduced by four years, and before you know it, our upstart hoodlum is out by 1951. He quickly descends back into a life of crime, earning he and his friend Joe a place in a mob family where they become Made Men. What follows is a series of events that show off how Vito is living the good life as a button pusher for the mob. Of course, things turn for the worst when an old friend of theirs, Henry, is out of a job after Vito and Joe kill his boss. Vito vouches for him to be brought into the family, but quickly regrets the decision after Henry’s first mission is to bump off Vito’s old friend from prison that helped him get out and get Made in the first place.

This is where the story actually starts to go downhill. Since the game is lacking a choice system, Vito blindly decides to race to his old friend’s house to try and get him out before he’s assassinated. Instead the old guy doesn’t want to leave, and Henry finds the two together. After some pleading and a change of heart, Henry decides to not kill Vito’s old friend, and instead reports back that as much has actually happened while his old friend skips town. The day after Henry apparently gets greedy with being broke, and instead brings in Joe and Vito to get into the drug trade with the Chinese, despite the family’s policy to stay out of drugs. The deal goes south after Eddie, a cappo for the family, finds out about it and wants his cut, which doubles the problem as the trio were going to use a cut of the profits to pay back a loan shark. Before that happens, however, the Chinese have Henry killed. In a fit of rage, Joe and Vito claim revenge and invade their base of operations in China Town, eventually taking out the boss, but not before he claims that he killed Henry because Henry was turning States evidence.

Luckily the family has no idea that Joe and Vito were in on the deal, so Henry’s debt to Eddie is wiped clean. However, since Henry’s cut has disappeared, Vito and Joe have to desperately try to raise the money to repay the loan shark. On the road to that event, you are eventually led back to the docks where your old man used to work, where the “union boss” is actually part of the family and wants you to muscle some of the dockworkers on strike. In this event, a dockworker recognizes Vito as the son of a man that the union boss killed one night. Again, here’s the next part that falls flat on its face, because if anyone has seen Goodfellas, you know how stupid it is to kill a Made Man without getting the okay from the boss. Vito apparently doesn’t give two shits either way, and goes on a rampage again to kill everyone in overalls. This is after knowing through the entire game that Vito never held a high opinion about his father either way and was already on a destructive path that had him caring less and less about his blood family.

Either way, they scrape together enough money to pay back the loan shark, who also apparently recognizes Vito, since his father borrowed money from him. One of the first altercations your character has is with the loan shark’s muscle hassling his family to pay back the money borrowed with interest. I was actually expecting at this point for Vito to go bat-shit insane again and level the building block because someone else wronged his father, but apparently he lets this one slide. Instead he goes looking for his friend, Joe, who can’t be found anywhere. Instead he finds out that Joe has been taken by one of the other families because they suspected him and Vito to be the two guys that were with Henry on the coke deal. The problem is that this opposing family is being blamed for starting a war with the Chinese, and, obviously, to stave off a war, they were meaning to kill them both to settle the debt. Vito and Joe conveniently escape, but not after killing about fifty guys.

Instead of mentioning the fact that one of the families has practically declared war on another one from this, both of them go home. Vito is awoken by a phone call from Eddie, saying that Carlo, the head of their family, wants to meet Vito in person. Before Vito can do this, however, he’s picked up on the street by his old friend that skipped town, who is actually part of the opposing family that wanted Vito and Joe dead. In the car with him is the head of the Chinese mafia as well, and the ultimatum that is presented before Vito is that they know full-well that it was Vito and Joe that shot up China Town, and now the only way for Vito to stay alive through this all is to kill his own family head. After mowing down another army of gangsters and doing the deed, Vito and Joe are picked up by the old guy and are put into separate cars. The one with Joe takes a different street and it’s implied that the deal did not include keeping Joe alive. And cue credits.

No, seriously. Cue credits. The game ends after a paltry eight hours of what can only be described as the life of a hitman waking up each morning, killing thirty or so guys, and then going to bed. Every time you think you progress far enough in the story, every time you think you’ve hit a high point, the game leads you back to a low point, robbing all the money you’ve made in the game, as well as the weapons you’ve collected, and then has you get it all back. Three times. I’m not kidding. This is the extent of Mafia II: a bad game that ends abruptly after throwing at you every plot twist that you’ve seen in every popular gangster movie. There’s no ending cinematic that explains what happens, there’s no answered questions about all the characters the game introduces to you and you quickly forget—it’s a cut-and-dry third person shooter that stops before it even starts.

Learning the ropes

As I’ve mentioned before, Mafia II plays it straight as a third person shooter. It is in this respect that it may be confused as a GTA clone, considering there’s a wanted system and you drive around in what is dubiously labeled as a “sandbox world.” Of course the only problem is that the world is the size of a sandbox and the gameplay mechanics are more frustrating than they are fun. Mafia II seems to be suffering from a severe case of injecting too much reality into a video game, trying to give itself a “serious” tone to it over the GTA series and its subsequent GTA clones. Stealing cars is not as easy as simply walking up to a car and magically opening it—instead you need to pick the lock, a mini-game that fondly reminds me of that stupid tumbler system in TES IV: Oblivion. On top of this, it’s the 1950s, which means cars go from 0 to 60 in 60 seconds. It’s a wonder why the word “getaway” is associated with a period in apparently which you couldn’t getaway from a geriatric turtle taking a shit.

This is coupled with the way cars work in the game itself it seems. Apparently all the effort in Mafia II has been centered around car damage, where losing a fender or of some sorts completely change the way the car handles and drives at speeds past “Old Grandma.” Bounce around enough and you can pop a tire under pressure, which renders your car into a nice metallic coffin. Some stray bullet hits the invisible gas tank? I hope you made out a will before you decided to take a Sunday drive. And hey, since it’s 1951 and seatbelts haven’t been invented yet, if you hit anything at 40MPH you die instantly. Oh no folks, this is where I quickly learned that Mafia II is not a GTA clone. Mafia II instead treats the driving aspect in the game as realistic as possible, even having hard-boiled criminals yell at you for running red lights or even having to stop to refill for gas when the tank gets too low (I’m not shitting you).

This goes hand-in-hand with the cops and wanted system. I’ve always been curious about the way the GTA series and its subsequent clones handle reckless driving in police presence. Usually it’s only a matter of public disturbance if you hit a cop car, a pedestrian, or another car. Mafia II, on the other hand, adds speeding as a means for the police to chase you down, earning you a “first star” wanted level. Apparently this is a rather harmless level, as if you pull over, the cop will ask you to get out of your car and then pay a fee. Gee, I’m really sorry, officer. I didn’t mean to knock over that car off the highway and into the river. Oh, a $44 dollar fine is all I’m getting? Okay then. Eventually the wanted system evolves into what can only be described as an utter nightmare. If you shoot a cop you immediately get a “shoot on sight” notice, and shaking the cops means you have to ditch your car and change your clothes, or else they’ll be able to spot you from a mile away. This can be exceedingly frustrating if there is no “pay n’ spray” or a clothes shop close around. Even changing cars does little, as cops are apparently able to know exactly who you are from a general description over their ham radios.

What really takes the cake in Mafia II, however, is the way the combat system works. You’ve got your standard cover system in play, as well as your garden variety of tools of the trade. All the firefights in Mafia II are on a ridiculous scale like GTA, however, which is to say that you are usually finding yourself having to shoot your way through thirty or forty guys at a time on some missions. Apparently, however, on track for the mythical beast that is realism in video games, 2k Games wanted to make sure that your character had the same disadvantages as your player does, which is to say that if you get shot a couple of times, you die. I’ve often found myself restarting missions halfway in because my character peeked around a corner and caught a bullet to the head, instantly killing him. The difficulty modifier is a sham, as the only thing it does is dictates how much health you regenerate in the game, as resorting health is an absolute bitch in a half to do.

When you mix all these bad apples into a pie, you get crud. I quickly learned taking cover behind cars was a bad idea considering they exploded like 100-year-old TNT. I also quickly learned to always show up to a mission in a fast four-seater car, lest I want to be caught dead trying to make a getaway in a car that goes quicker backwards. It is because of the unforgiving difficulty in Mafia II that I found myself playing longer than I should have. In one particular mission, I showed up in a two-seater car, but needed a four-seater to accommodate three passengers. I had to run around and find a four-seater to steal, and right as I go to pick the lock, a cop car passes by and catches me trying to boost it. At this particular point in the game, however, I had just lost all of my funds, so when I try to pay the misdemeanor fee, the game tells me that I have no money and should attempt to flee. Doing so has my two buddies pull out their tommy guns and kill the cop. I figure, hey, at this point, I may as well try and take the car. I do so, but since the star system is “kill on sight,” I immediately get swarmed by a couple of cop cars and take a tommy gun in the face and immediately die.

The second most grueling experience dealt with another getaway attempt, and yet dealing with the same mission. After trying to leave an ambush in an equally as slow four-seater, two cars waiting to ambush you lay in wait and then quickly pop out to begin shooting at your car. However, I was already at half health from the last shoot out, so every single time I began the part of the mission that began the chase, the shots from their tommy guns would kill me. Every. Single. Time. After the ELEVENTH reload retry, my guys finally got off a lucky shot and blew up one of the cars right from the get-go, allowing me to finally make it past the corner with barely any life left…before the piss-poor handling of the car, due to a tire being shot out, spun me right into a pole and killed me. I was ready to quit the game at this point actually, but eventually came back to the game a couple of days later and retried the mission on the easiest difficulty setting (this time I only had to retry the mission four times). This is generally how all experiences go in Mafia II—unsatisfying, frustrating, and down-right ridiculous. My only conclusion to this nonsense is that someone from Ninja Gaiden is on the 2k Games team.

Other lovely features include what can only be described as unfinished additions. You can turn the lights on and off in various apartments for no apparent reason. There’s no save function, which means if you have to stop playing in the middle of a mission, you’ll have to restart from the beginning when you come back to it. The game introduces you numerous characters that you quickly forget about because there’s never a reason to revisit them. For some reason there’s a slew of Playboy pinups from the 50s strewn across the game. Why, I’m not sure—maybe to try and dazzle you with torpedo tits for the lack of real effort in Mafia II. All in all the game attempts to stick its fingers into features that were apparently never fleshed out that well or were completely forgotten about.

It’s business, nothing personal

Have you ever had a splinter stuck up one of your fingernails? The mere thought just sends shiver down your spine, right? This is generally what mentioning Mafia II does to me now. There’s no replay value to the game, as the game world is completely static and involves you taking each day in with no promises of the progress you have made will actually be there the next day. Even if there was, I’m not sure if anyone could stomach playing in a game “world” that’s smaller than a Japanese capsule hotel room. And since the story progresses in a static fashion, there’s actually no side missions to speak of to even offer any depth whatsoever to the ensemble of forgettable characters. What Mafia II lacks in gameplay substances tries to make up for it with its story, but since the story is so predictable, leaves so many loose ends, and ends abruptly, then the only thing going for it quickly falls on its face. This was quite possibly the most unsatisfying gaming experience I’ve had in a long time, and that’s saying something from someone who finds faults in just about every game. Stay away from this unfinished game at all costs.

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About Agamemnon
Started blogging back in 2007 amidst that whole Hellgate: London fiasco on a blog known as flagshipped.com. Eventually moved on to do my own thing in December 2008 at gameriot.com and started Caveat Emptor there. Wrote there for six months, gained some notoriety, and then left. Now I'm back.

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