Look throughout the critical community and tell me, what do you see in our writing? Structurally speaking, it's not uncommon to recognize an almost ubiquitous use of comparative reference. Taking such an approach creates context to an argument where the gaming masses can conceptualize an element without necessarily having experienced it firsthand in that exact iteration.
Shoehorning a game into a specific classification or genre to compare it with similar products, however, yields the possibility of polar interpretations and assessment. Take for example 2K Czech's newest release, Mafia II. In an environment modeled after a mid-twentieth century Manhattan, you're free to cruise around its streets in an open world-style approach. Yet, this freedom cleverly hides a most linear story, albeit with a few false forks here and there. Taken as a free roaming adventure Mafia II falls flat on its face in comparison to its more accomplished competition; as a linear action-adventure title with some breadth for exploration, on the other hand, 2K Czech has created a compelling immigrant story in need of much less touch-up.
While Mafia II doesn't play as an uniquely crafted experience without its fair share of shortcomings, it's hard not to become engrossed in Vito Scaletta's induction into American organized crime of the Forties and Fifties. Any fan of “Goodfellas” or “The Godfather” series will recognize the tropes of Vito becoming a “made man”; but where 2K Czech accomplishes their storytelling goal is in more than just their cutscenes, it's their dedication to their characters. Vito isn't a mobster just for the sake of gunning down other families or police, he has purpose in his bootlegging and violence.
As a son in an exploited Sicilian immigrant family, Vito doesn't relish his life of crime; it's a means to an end, and whomever gets in his way usually doesn't live to see his success or failure. Some twists and revelations as he climbs the ranks feel a bit hammed and contrived along the way, but as a single-disk, near-10-hour affair, you get a believable cast of characters and a complete, well-rounded adventure. It's honestly refreshing to feel a connection between your character's actions and the game's exposition, and to not engage in 'mindless' violence or action.
Unfortunately this is a case where storytelling greatly overshadows gameplay. A variance in mission structure breaks up some of the more monotonous sections of gunplay against dull, uninventive AI; but no matter how many digital miles you put between objectives in a game, going in guns blazing against scripted, still-standing enemies will always feel repetitive and boring. There are a couple of odd jobs to perform for extra cash (both involve stealing cars), but doing so isn't required until the game's finale. Even then, these side tasks aren't anything more than Achievements for the taking—you might as well stick to knocking off clothing stores.
More than once you're required to take a sneaky disposition, which can result in somewhat different outcomes, but these instances are neither challenging nor tense. Furthermore, nuanced openings to accepting jobs would have been welcomed. The life of a mafioso may be tiring work with late hours, but must Vito always wake to a ringing phone after the screen fades to black? Yet, it's hard to dismiss the collection mini-game this time around. A contract with Playboy certainly makes this game warrant of its "M" rating, and some may take argument to that fact, but no doubt 2K Czech has given reason to search out hidden packages with centerfolds as your reward.
The relative disappointment in gameplay bleeds over into the visual assessment of Mafia II. While fabrics seem to have some physical property and weak cover points degrade from weapons' fire, 2K Czech continues the tradition of pistols and machine guns clipping through corners and shooting where your crosshairs are pointed instead of where your gun is in relation to solid objects. Empire Bay itself and the cars milling the streets are conceived well, each with an era motif and the latter with damage modeling, but textures throughout the game (characters included) are stark and without much of just that—texture.
Screen tearing and errand framerates also distract from what was qualified earlier as an action-adventurer with open world elements, but in addition to connecting with characters through their actors, sound direction here is spot-on. The Prague FILMharmonic Orchestra's original score alone merits a collector edition's purchase, and along with the dramatic soundtrack, Mafia II includes period licensed music to enjoy as you make your way driving between checkpoints.
After listening to a news update regarding your last job, why not listen to a little Elvis or Chuck Berry. Bing Crosby might be overplayed by today's standards, but what about in the Christmas of '45? The soundtrack feels authentic and is enjoyable overall, and only complements the dynamics of every sound effect from rattling Thompson submachine guns to six-shooters.
True enough, 2K Czech makes you drive around Empire Bay in Mafia II, all the while allowing you the opportunity to steal cars from unknowning NPCs; but whether you're playing the game with a critical or consumer eye, there's no doubt Vito's ascension in the Mafia's ranks could be further from Niko's new life in Liberty City. The game's a bit muddled in terms of strengths and weaknesses, but if you're in the mood for a playable story where your characters aren't overblown stereotypes and you can invest in your protagonist, it's easy to sink a few hours into the follow-up to one of 2002's greatest hits.
Reading this? Good. Have a few jobs for you. Get in touch with us over Twitter @Gamers_Hell. And make sure you're not followed...