Mafia II
Posted at 22:29 on 12th September 2010 - permalink

Before we can get down to discussing the long-awaited second installment in 2K Czech’s rich-simulation crime saga, we must first clear up a piece of mindless vandalism. I am referring of course to Eurogamer’s catastrophically mishandled review, penned by freelancer John “Who?” Teti.

The review shows the downside of Eurogamer’s freelance review policy. Their reviewers have the liberty of interpreting both their remit and the site’s scoring system as they see fit (making attempts to statistically analyse their scores pointless). Giving complete free rein to a reviewer can yield stunning results when the writer has extensive experience and is willing to take the task seriously. Sometimes the results can be polarising, but at least it’s possible to glean a coherent picture of why the reviewer came to their conclusions. In the hands of a dismal amateur, hell-bent on shaping their shallow critique around faulty preconceptions about the developer and publisher, it’s a loaded gun.

Teti has decided (against the evidence of playing the game or its predecessor) that 2K Czech are cynical, barely-literate jerks, and that the game’s refusal to cater to his remedial tastes must be their fault rather than his. To service this fiction he magnifies the game’s flaws and invents a host of new ones. He spends most of his time petulantly whining that the game isn’t fun if you try to play it like GTA. He describes the quality of the writing as “[having] a systemic disdain for the English language”, when Bill Harris (a writer who Teti could learn a great deal from, from tying his shoelaces upward) holds the view “The first 13 chapters were, bar none, the finest writing I’ve ever seen in a game”. Gosh, who to believe?

I could go through Teti’s bullshit hatchet job line by line, but it would just be tedious (and anyway forumite Monkichi – again, a calm, measured, non-histrionic voice with infinitely more credibility than Teti can ever hope to achieve – has already saved me the trouble). It’s puzzling that the editor who commissioned the piece (shot through as it is with factual errors and cheap, baseless attacks) didn’t question it.

Anyway, that’s far more attention than Teti’s ineptitude warrants, so on to the game.

Mafia II, simply put, is very good but not great. Its best ideas and sequences tend to be pleasantly satisfying rather than genre-redefining. The production feels lavish, but the scope of the game feels more like an ‘expandalone’ campaign for the first game (albeit one which happens to have been delayed and technically refined over several years) rather than a completely new and artistically ‘pure’ work. This approach does have some benefits – most of the things that worked in Mafia have been retained, and the transition to multiplatform (along with eight years of interface developments to learn from) has removed most of the rough edges.

The game tells a linear story (with some extremely minor branches) in fifteen chapters (each of which may contain two or three long missions). The player’s activities are split between driving, on-foot gun combat, and extended semi-interactive story sequences (which are apparently perfectly fine to have in a game if you’re Yu Suzuki or David Cage, but not if you market your game as being anything other than Serious Art).

As with the first game, driving is generally not an exercise in high-octane mayhem. It’s often prudent to obey traffic laws rather than attract police attention. Driving sequences in the game are designed to allow the player to soak up the atmosphere (the incidental detail in Empire Bay matches or exceeds anything seen in the open world genre) while listening to character conversations and the exhaustive period soundtrack.

I can appreciate that some players will find these parts of the game dull, but 2K have made some allowances for them – it’s generally easy to find a fast car (and store some in your garage for later use), and evading the police is fairly easy with a little experience of the system. Something to bear in mind (which might be counter-intuitive to GTA players) is avoiding aggravating your wanted level once the police have been alerted, as the higher wanted levels are considerably more dangerous (something which the game makes use of in a couple of the later missions). Of course, having to drive carefully for most of the game makes it all the more thrilling when you are finally required to cut loose (if that’s not too much of an apologist’s argument).

Combat has been improved by an introduction of a reliable and slick cover system. This is probably largely intended as a concession for joypad users, and (at ‘normal’ difficulty) is perhaps too effective, turning most battles into pop-up shooting galleries. The enemy AI is hardly spectacular either. (Have you noticed how few reviews have mentioned AI over the last couple of years? Is that because it’s been solved, or virtually all action games are now designed to minimise reliance on good AI?) The degree of caution that cover and regenerating health allow result in there being few combat levels as tense as the rooftop battles and assassinations in the first game.

The reason I think the game falls short of being a bona-fide classic (as the original was) is that it bears too many hallmarks of a troubled development process. Secondary characters and building interiors are introduced without any missions or activities attached. The haywire pacing towards the end of the game and the presence of two discrete montage sequences (showing Vito and Joe getting into more action-packed situations in 30 seconds than the game offers in a typical hour) hint that a lot of content was cut to meet deadlines. The player is jostled through Vito’s story arc a little bit too quickly to form an attachment to the character (ironically, this is the opposite of the criticism that was levelled at the first game).

The story is a bit of a let-down considering the bar set by the first game eight years ago. Again, the intention of the developers is to let the player live the life of a character and gain some deeper understanding of their motivations and the consequences of their actions.

The high concept with Vito’s story (which was hinted at from the earliest trailers) is that he is genuinely a product of ‘the life’. (You see, “Vito”, “life”, get it? Oh, never mind.) Vito is not as smart or emotionally tuned in as Tommy Angelo, yet rises through the ranks quickly. His only interest is in personal material gain, which in his value system justifies bring down suffering on himself and everyone around him. By the time the story’s (maddeningly abrupt) ending is reached, there’s no need for the game to explicitly spell out what the inevitable result of commitment to ‘the life’ will be for Vito, Joe, Leo, and everyone else. The other characters are a bit more variable, some intriguing but under-used (Henry), others rendered unconvincing by erratic behaviour (Frankie). The dialogue and acting (right down to overheard conversations and minor NPCs) are faultless throughout.

(2K Czech have rather lamely taken ‘inspiration’ for several scenes from Goodfellas, something which was vaguely excusable in the first game, but seems gratuitous here. There are, at least, no obvious clones of that film’s primary characters this time around.)

Everything else aside, one aspect of the game that is really disappointing is the amount of racism and sexism. (Something that I note The Borderhouse hasn’t taken 2K to task over yet, even though it’s a blatant transgression in a high-profile game, and as such has potential to do much more actual damage than the self-invented trivialities they usually go batshit over.) The justification trotted out is that these characters would have had unreconstructed attitudes (an argument previously taken to dubious extremes in Origin’s now largely-forgotten Pacific Strike), but this doesn’t excuse the enthusiasm with which the game dwells on corny stereotypes and racial slurs.

The various ethnic groups in Empire Bay (Black, Asian, Irish, Italian and to a limited extent Jewish) are portrayed with the subtlety and sensitivity of Warhammer 40,000 races. The game has also been criticised (by John Walker) for being obsessed with bodily function humour, but it’s hardly excessive (and can probably be chalked up to the developers’ sense of humour not really travelling).

Ultimately, Mafia II is more concerned with delivering an immersive experience than setting a new standard for any of the action and adventure game tropes that it touches on. It’s crammed with detail and strives for aesthetic beauty in a way that Rockstar North seem entirely uninterested in. Complaints that the city doesn’t feel ‘alive’ really seem to be saying that the city isn’t a big chaotic game of Robotron and pointless mini-games.

The most memorable moment for me was one of no great dramatic import towards the end of the game. I’d just bought a new outfit to throw off the cops (as makes sense in video games). It was dark, and had recently been raining, showing the game’s day-night cycle and weather at their prettiest. I stopped outside the store, and looked around. Pedestrians and traffic bustled past. In the distance, headlights merged into a glowing band. Empire Bay’s facsimile of the Empire State Building loomed through a gap in the skyline.

As ridiculous as this will no doubt sound in two or three years, in that small side street at that moment, there was ‘photorealism’ enough that there was nothing in any direction that broke the illusion. This is something I’ve only previously experienced in the comparatively bleak and empty environment of Stalker, another game marred with compromises (and which demands much more effort from the player to work around them).

If you have no time for stopping and looking around, if you skip cut-scenes and hound after ‘achievements’ and aren’t willing to see past minor blemishes to appreciate the big picture, Mafia 2 is probably not for you. (And you sure as hell shouldn’t be reviewing it.) If you are willing to appreciate what the developers are trying to do with this franchise… well, you’re probably still going to feel a bit disappointed by the time the credits roll, but you will at least get something out of it, namely a serviceable action-adventure with occasional flashes of brilliance. 2K Czech have the tools and the talent to recapture the magic of Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, and I hope that one way or another they get a chance.

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