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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