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Mafia II (PlayStation 3) artwork

Mafia II (PlayStation 3) review

"[Mafia II] doesn't pave new ground and it probably won't be remembered as one of the greatest mafia stories ever told across any medium, but it is the best mafia story that our industry has ever told and I think that's something to celebrate."

One of my biggest regrets from 2010 was not writing a review for Mafia II. Though somewhat derivative of crime stories told before it, Mafia II's narrative engages the player from the start and uses the brilliant backdrop of Empire Bay to establish a compelling game world. Vito Scalleta's storied rise and fall in the world of organized crime is presented to us in extremely polished cutscenes rivaling any entry in the genre. But perhaps most important, Mafia II engages players through excellent mission structure that keeps players constantly guessing what the mission will bring next. Missions are tied well with the storyline, adding extra weight to your in-game action.

Mafia II's wider complaint, that Empire Bay doesn't offer much to do, is warranted. Empire Bay almost becomes the backdrop to the play, merely setting the scene instead of becoming something of significance. As a set piece it is well-executed. But there could have been more to it other than a handful of shops and safe houses, and when put beside some of the genre's rivals, it does look sparse. I don't think that this complaint is as bad as people make it out to be. The game is not Grand Theft Auto for sure, but I never got the feeling that the developers thought it was. There is no need for the superfluous side content found in other games because none of it is featured in the game's narrative. You don't need to bring Little Jacob out bowling to get him to like you, so there is no need to create a bowling alley. Because of this, Mafia II is better at keeping players on track with the storyline than genre competitors.

Vito is an effective hero for the tale, acting out a young immigrant's attempt to rise from the gutter, only to lose all of his ill-gotten gains and then some. It doesn't pave new ground and it probably won't be remembered as one of the greatest mafia stories ever told across any medium, but it is the best mafia story that our industry has ever told and I think that's something to celebrate. Vito's story moves along at a steady speed with very few dull spots. Plot lines span multiple missions; characters leave and return in new form. Mafia II is best at telling a story, but the gameplay leaves something to be desired. Employing familiar pop-and-shoot mechanics, foes rarely dictate the terms of any engagement, not really moving around the battlefield or pressing the character aggressively. Vito is also a bit of a bullet sponge, which feels out of context in the game world.

Where Mafia II's gameplay disappoints me most is that it is clearly defined as one half of the overall Mafia II experience: the action. All of the subtle aspects of the game are left to the cutscenes, leaving only the driving and the shooting for the player. This isn't to say that Mafia II's missions aren't enjoyable. A mission where Vito and his buddy Joe sell cigarettes out of the back of a truck and then have to deal with a rival gang stands out to me as one of my favorites from the many worlds that I dabbled in last year. It was excellent in establishing the relationship between Vito and Joe, but there aren't any missions that can actively engage players in the game's dramatic moments. Nearly every memorable scene that has stuck with me after playing the game for nearly 20 hours is a cutscene.

Mafia II ends very dramatically, leaving players with an ending that will inevitably be the first thing discussed with any player they encounter. It leaves players yearning for another story to dive into, and Mafia II's DLC was intended to fill that gap. Mafia II: Director's Cut includes three bits of DLC, which includes the day-one DLC for PS3 owners, the Betrayal of Jimmy. Also included are Jimmy's Vendetta and Joe's Adventures, the latter of which is perhaps the most compelling as it fills in a missing gap in the core Mafia II experience. But none of them are particularly engaging due to their presentation. To cut costs, the grand presentation that propelled Mafia II from just being a rather plain, cover-based shooter to an engaging crime drama is dropped.

This regrettably keeps Mafia II's gameplay in the forefront. Some concessions were made to try to make these segments more engaging, but they seem misguided and actually damage some of the authenticity the experience tries to create. In Betrayal of Jimmy, for instance, a scoring system was put into place that awards players bonus points for pulling off fast executions a la The Club. A similar system is in place for driving, giving you points for driving fast and drifting around corners. While interesting perhaps in another game, it doesn't work as well for Mafia II. The health and checkpoints systems aren't generous enough to support the kind of gung-ho, risky shootouts that the scoring system encourages. And as for driving around recklessly - with the police actively pursuing you when you do stupid things and the generally poor handling on most of the cars that you get into, it's a lot more trouble than it's worth.

All in all, it's fair to say that Mafia II: Director's Cut doesn't add compelling content to the experience. The core Mafia II experience is extremely engaging and as good as any game in the genre in terms of presentation and story. Unfortunately, Mafia II's gameplay is the weakest part of that package and that's what's on full display in the game's DLC. If you've already picked up Mafia II and were looking to play the DLC, you'll probably find it disappointing and can probably skip it. But if you're a newcomer to Mafia II, this is the best package to go for simply because it offers more content, even if the content can't hold up to the core experience.


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Community review by asherdeus (April 30, 2011)

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Masters posted May 04, 2011:

Nice work, Matt. I was pretty interested in the DLC, so I'm happy for your coverage.

Your second paragraph is spot-on, and the point about the cut scenes carrying the drama is an interesting and salient one.

One catch I did make was your use of the word "gutters" when "gutter" would be more appropriate. Beyond nitpicking, I realize.
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asherdeus posted May 15, 2011:

Thanks for the feedback, Marc. I was pretty pleased with how the review turned out, and I appreciate you taking the time to read it. Your suggestion is noted and acted upon!

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