Actually, it is for Nothing

Mafia II Screenshot

HIGH Eddie and Joe singing along drunkenly to "Return to me" in the car.

LOW The preceding half-hour, during which they vomit constantly.

WTF I failed one mission because the guy I was tailing ran into a taxi of his own accord.

Another crime story features another immigrant. Will he ascend the ranks of a criminal organization on the backs of a hundred bullet-riddled bodies? Will he carry out a series of missions for his bosses, each of which goes FUBAR? Will he rise to riches at the cost of friends and family, and ultimately come to regret his decisions in life? Mafia II answers those questions in precisely the way you expect. Now, you lucky fellow, you can skip playing the game.

Mafia II follows the criminal career of glass-jawed immigrant Vito Scaletta, who comes to the city of Empire Bay as a child and grows up to become its greatest mass murderer. In the space of about nine months as a free man, he kills his way through four major criminal organizations, plus a few assorted street gangs and couple dozen cops. He also finds time to sample conversations and events that loosely paraphrase whatever great crime or prison movie can be shoehorned into his plot. Mafia II is strictly rewarmed leftovers, repeating themes and plot points you've encountered a dozen times already in films that had better presentation and much better writing.

This isn't to say that the presentation is poor. The city of Empire Bay is beautifully crafted, the cut-scenes are rendered with great care and attention to detail, and the voice actors almost universally deliver fine performances. But Mafia II, though it's a strong effort, cannot rival film in visual or emotional fidelity. The limited expressiveness of the character models makes them unable to support Mafia II's slow fizzle of a story, or to imbue the game's more subtle sequences with the necessary emotional punch.

The problem is most acute when it comes to Vito himself. Games have featured blood-spattered sociopaths before and will again, but this man seems curiously passive about his killing sprees. He plugs gangsters with the furious intensity of a man sorting the mail, yet late in the game he agonizes, without apparent irony, over whether or not to sell drugs. That kind of incoherence can be supported, but the writing and the visuals never rise to the occasion. 

Mafia II Screenshot

It is telling that the scenes of the game that resonated most with me all took place during conversations in the car or on the phone, when I could not see the person speaking. I often felt that Mafia II would have been better as a radio drama.

Characters end up talking in the car a lot because the gameplay focuses so greatly on driving that I occasionally forgot Vito had a gun. Generally, the driving isn't really integrated into the mission; it's just insisted on by a structure that tries to compensate for the game's lack of true open-world character by sending you on a tour of the city in every chapter. Mafia II goes to laughable lengths to get you to  drive, whether it makes sense for the story or not.

We're taking Joe's car? You're driving. Marty's the getaway driver? You're driving. Henry shows up at your house and wants to take you for a drink in his car? You're driving, a very long way, in a finicky vehicle, through a city with very little regular grid structure, alongside AI drivers who can't seem to negotiate a turn at a green light.

Fortunately you can pass right by most of it, as the cops seem not to notice minor infractions like running red lights, driving on the wrong side of the road, or chasing a speeding limousine while your best friend leans out your window peppering it with bullets from his Tommy gun. Heaven help you, though, if you speed where the cops can see you, or accidentally bump into the back of yet another car that interprets a green light as a signal to stop dead in its tracks, because they will try to take you out.

Getting out of your vehicle does little to improve the situation. Mafia II too frequently relies on a clunky boxing mode with a control scheme too simple to allow for strategic play, but with fights so unforgiving that I longed for it. I had particular trouble getting the camera to where I could see what was going on in these fights for more than ten seconds, and the game constantly fought my efforts to maneuver the camera in tight quarters.

Although I didn't enjoy a minute of them, I found the presence of the fistfights interesting, as I did the game's occasional depiction of gangster drudgery—including an extended sequence in which you must choose the right cigarettes from the boxes in the back of your truck. Although it's difficult to accept subtlety from a game that asks you to look at some breasts every fifteen minutes, one can almost sense a desire to create a realist mob drama in this effort to flesh out criminal activities other than gunplay.

Mafia II Screenshot

When the guns come out, of course, the bodies pile up into mountains and that sensation vanishes. In its gunfights Mafia II shows off a solid, if unremarkable, cover-shooting system with regenerating health to compensate for Vito's papier-mâché body and the enemy's dead-eye aim. Levels are designed with copious, naturalistic cover, although often I found it difficult to tell just by looking whether or not a given object would leave me vulnerable. Some cover proved to be surprisingly destructible or porous, and in other cases Vito would lose health seemingly just because bullets were hitting something near him. The AI also showed an occasional tendency to charge, a tactic that proved successful because I couldn't get the camera or reticule to keep up with them.

The shootouts also showcase Mafia II's irritating collectibles, the anachronistic Playboy magazines, which end the surprisingly brief reign of Alan Wake's coffee thermoses as the worst collectible ever placed in a game. What exactly is the concept here? Is Vito going to rub one out while Joe and Henry exchange gunfire with the Tongs? It feels a little more sensible when you find one outside of battle, laying around somebody's apartment or office, but frankly, the Playboy pics come across as nothing more than a craven and desperate ploy to sell the game on the basis of T&A.

In defense of its presence, the collectible pornography perfectly suits the game's misogynistic male characters, who treat women as disposable playthings. If a woman shows up in the game, it is to serve as a sex object or a proximal cause for Vito to punch someone in the face (or both). The men in this game don't appear to have serious relationships, or even serious conversations, with women. Hilariously, although it's willing to shove breasts in your face in the middle of a shootout, Mafia II is so terrified of the male form that it depicts men wearing boxer shorts during a shower scene and an attempted homosexual rape. The game's sexual mores seem to have been precisely engineered to appeal to teenage douchebags who have no idea how to interact with an actual female human being and an unholy terror of accidentally seeing a penis.

There is a trace of a worthwhile game here, one that emphasized the drudgery and tedium of organized crime, which would have played out in beautiful irony against Vito's fantasies of an exciting life, money, and power. That game might not have been any fun either, but unlike Mafia II it would have at least been original and intriguing. Instead, those elements have been interspersed with maniacally escapist shootouts and pornography, and shoehorned into a story stitched together from the corpses of a dozen better gangster and prison movies. Mafia II is every bit as soulless and dull as its bland sociopathic protagonist. Rating: 3.5 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 12 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time).

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, intense violence, nudity, sexual content, strong language, and use of drugs and alcohol. A man is hacked to death with butcher knives. Men drink too much and, aided by the stench of a decaying body on a summer's day, they vomit. A man infiltrates a slaughterhouse through a sewer and is showered in excrement. A woman fellates a man and shortly after he calls her a "f—king c*m dumpster." Even by the standards of video games, Mafia II's content is especially cruel, vile, and misogynistic. Do not buy this game for your children, or even any adults you happen to like.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Subtitles are available and there are no essential audio cues. However, the music on the radio is an essential component of the era aesthetic and the game will be less impressive without it.

Sparky Clarkson

Sparky Clarkson

Sparky Clarkson grew up in the hot lands of Alabama, where he was regularly mooned by a cast iron statue. He played his first games on a Texas Instruments 99/4A computer, although he was not an early adopter. He eventually left Alpiner behind, cultivating a love of games that grew along with the processing power of the home computer. Eventually, however, the PC upgrade cycle exhausted him, and by the time he received his doctorate from the University of North Carolina he had retreated almost entirely to console gaming.

Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.
Sparky Clarkson

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12 Comments on "Mafia II Review"

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goremageddon
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goremageddon
5 years 2 months ago
I gotta admit, I was pretty surprised by this incredibly harsh review. To each his own, but I really loved both the first game as well as this one. I thought that the open world was a nice touch, as long as you take it the way I believe the developer designed it as–an added sense of immersion. I think the main missions were varied, if not in mechanics, by situations, and that every shootout felt different and unique. I actually loved the serious story as well. Where the first one was a bit more of a romantic, mob film… Read more »
late
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late
5 years 9 months ago
It seems that the reviewer was really unhappy while he was playing the game. This is a game not a movie y the hell are u comparing it to a movie……the game has been degraded to such an extent that anyone reading this review will most likely not pick this game up…….Ive played the game and ive enjoyed it…..its true tht for a lot of missions u need to drive around and do some tasks wich are not interesting but these activities suck u into the story. I must say this is a very polished game as I have not… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
5 years 10 months ago
This has to be one of the most disappointing games I have ever played. At times I didn’t even feel like I was actually playing anything. It’s almost insulting how superficial it is. The whole presentation is excellent. Graphics are dated in some areas, but very pretty on the whole. The city feels like a proper city the way it’s layed out. The voice acting and sound are good. The cars are pretty decent, too. Basically, if it’s gonna show up in a promotional trailer, it looks good. The rest just isn’t there, or if it really, absolutely has to… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
6 years 10 days ago
I was expecting this game because I loved Mafia (first game), I found it’s story very compelling and real (accordingly to mafia movies and books), it had a lot of innovations in the combat system (much better than GTA3) and I love old cars! Although it’s storyline was linear and not truly an openworld game, it was very detailed and it had some classy details. Also the limited firepower you could take with you improved the sense of immersion. Then it came Mafia2, a beautiful city, a lot of beautiful, fantastic old cars, but the story is just wrong. It’s… Read more »
Googoo24
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Googoo24
6 years 12 days ago

I realize that the first Mafia wasn’t an open-world game, but the sequel tried to sell itself as one; bringing comparisons (oddly enough) to games such as GTA IV. Mafia II is mostly open throughout the entire experience, the first game didn’t open up until you completed the story arc. It makes no sense. Like Sparky said, they should have just simply focused on the action.

Sparky Clarkson
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Sparky Clarkson
6 years 12 days ago
My problem isn’t with the shootouts per se; after all, games like The Saboteur and Red Dead Redemption have similar bodycounts and I wasn’t particularly bothered by them. The problem for me was that there wasn’t a coherent aesthetic here. On the one hand you have these realist tasks like the cigarettes and the driving, and on the other hand you have these ludicrous shootouts. Then there’s the world that’s very clearly meant to be immersive, and the Playboys, which can’t do anything other than break that immersion. If the game had been about the shootouts, with more arcade-like driving… Read more »
Edward
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Edward
6 years 12 days ago
I’m surprised by the critical reception Mafia II has received. Usually I’m pretty harsh on games but I personally found Mafia very engaging; yes, the story has its problems, but there seems to be a trend among critical gaming circles today that overlooks the fact that these products being reviewed are GAMES. If you’re going to criticize the fact that bodies pile up, thus rendering the story less believable, or the fact that you have to do a lot of driving, you might as well forgo gaming altogether. The developers do their best to immerse you in the Mafiosi world.… Read more »
Sparky Clarkson
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Sparky Clarkson
6 years 12 days ago
Mafia II has a strange construction, as crackajack pointed out. It’s really quite a linear game, but the setting is a large open world. I don’t think this decision was particularly wise. There’s not a lot to do in the city, and even if there was, the linear nature of the game makes you feel like you’re not supposed to be doing the few side activities there are. Also, I can’t help but feel that the enormous amount of driving is a result of trying to squeeze enough gameplay out of the (mostly wasted) city to justify the expense of… Read more »
crackajack
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crackajack
6 years 13 days ago

Maybe my memory of the first one is completely false, but Mafia never was an open world game. It was a linear game placed in an open world. Actually similar to Mario 64. Afaik after you finished the game you were able to do 30 missions in an open world manner. (that is missing in the sequel until DLC…) While the actual game ran, there was hardly anything to do beside the next single “quest”, i.e. main story mission.

If someone expects GTA-style he will not find it in Mafia 1 and i guess also not in Mafia 2.

Googoo24
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Googoo24
6 years 13 days ago
Well, everyone has varying tastes, so it’s difficult to condemn other reviewers for enjoying the game. Some people will love this game. However, most reviewers have found Mafia II to be average, as opposed to great or flat out terrible. Despite the score, Sparky seems to find the game bland, rather than terrible. Mafia II, unlike the excellent RDR (for instance), seems to be confused about what defines an open-world experience. RDR features unique missions, a plethora of things to do between said missions, and rewards the player for exploring the environment. Mafia II: Chauffeur’s Quest, is open-world lite. Seriously,… Read more »
jlb1987
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jlb1987
6 years 13 days ago

I completely agree with Ashley’s first paragraph, but not so much the second. The problem I have with most sandbox games is that they give you this huge area to play in, but most, if not all, of the time, missions are completely linear. No way to implement your own strategy or way of playing, it’s always “go from a to b, b to c, kill something, back to a again”.

That’s what I get the impression Mafia 2 is like.

Ashley K.
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6 years 14 days ago

Gotta say, this is the most honest review I’ve read for Mafia II. Most reviewers seem to have worn a pair of rose-colored glasses when playing, taken in by the gorgeous graphics and ignoring the rest. I was intrigued by the concept and I enjoyed the first Mafia even if it was a bit rough around the edges, but I haven’t even bothered with the second.

Maybe I’m just sandboxed out with games like RDR and The Saboteur lately, or maybe sandbox games are focusing too much on the sand and not enough on the story told inside the box.

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