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Mafia II (Xbox 360) artwork

Mafia II (Xbox 360) review

"Could have been saved if someone, just once, said "Nyaah, see?" and chomped a cigar."

Mafia II is to sandbox games what staple guns are to cosmetic surgery: there’s a link there if you search hard enough, but it’s tenuous at best. Empire City, the ten square mile playground for 2K’s new gangster game, is completely open for exploration very early on. The big problem with this is there’s nowhere really to go.

That’s because Mafia II is the very focused story of Vito Scaletta and his ascension through the ranks of the underworld. His is a structured tale, pre-written and pre-produced, meaning that rather than wandering around a digital representation of diet New York, you’re instead asked to explore very carefully selected corners of it repeatedly. No matter what you do, or how you do it, nothing will change in Vito’s life.

Thus, the illusion of freedom usually offered by those pesky sandbox games is assassinated via a Tommy gun to the face right from the start, letting you know exactly what you’re in for. Vito’s life comprises of “drive here, do this, try not to get shot”, glammed up by the ability to steal issues of playboy and stare at the tits of women who’ll be well in their eighties by now. Initial missions are more like Christopher Lloyd in Taxi rather than Al Pachino in Scarface as you ferry between waypoints, avoid incompetent police officers and say “fuck” seven times every sentence. I guess that makes it gritty, because the small pile of bodies you (eventually) leave oozing all over your virtual world just doesn’t say gangster enough.

After the tutorial gives you a taste of combat (and the game’s only practical use of a hand grenade in a pre-scripted event) you take leave of the army and find out that Vito’s life is actually pretty shitty. His deadbeat father drank his remaining family into debt, his mother looks old and ill enough to be a reanimated corpse and he’s only a scabbed over bullet-hole heal away from being shipped back to the front lines. Things start looking up when he meets up with his old crime buddy, Joe, who promptly uses shady underworld connections to de-enlist Vito then goes about showing him that the life of a 1950’s gangster heavy is inexplicably dull and consists mainly of driving around while your passenger screams at you to slow down.

The opening stages go to great lengths to introduce young Vito to various criminal figures. Giuseppe the retired lockcracker who runs a crooked shop where you can buy any manner of illegal items, and Mike, the angry junkyard owner who’ll buy a stolen car off you and let you shoot at scrap metal. They’re both unique, individual characters who seem like good contacts to have for a mob-clinger looking to climb up the Mafioso ladder. You then never see them again until they become plot connivances near the end of the game.

Mafia II’s lackluster opening does start to climb towards a peak and Vito eventually stops running errands, like driving to all corners of the map selling stolen gas stamps, and takes on more substantial missions like whacking a mob boss, or whacking someone who annoyed a mob boss. Or, to shake things up, whacking a mob underboss. With a greasy ‘20’s villain mustache. Like every game since Epic descended from above with Gears of War, Mafia II’s gunplay revolves heavily around a cover system, one that helps hide the clumsy, inaccurate controls that work while you’re waiting for someone to poke their head out of cover so you can blow it off, but relies on panic fire and prayers if they get any closer.

As such, elongated battles revolve around a heavy doctrine of trial and error. Hiding behind that locker means the goon with a rifle atop the staircase has a bead and shoots you clean in the head. One checkpoint reload later, hunker down somewhere else, and blow out his kneecaps for wearing such a ridiculous hat. Creeping down the right takes you dangerously close to some flunkies packing shotguns, so just hang back to the left and take pot-shots at their squishy faces -- the auto-aim feature will only feel ignored if you don’t. Hell, most of the time you’re accompanied by an invincible ally AI, so you can pick off stragglers from afar while they wade into waves of munitions like the immortal bullet-bait they are. In a surprising twist of retroism, Vito actually has a health bar -- remember those? He can refill it by drinking coffee or munching down a sandwich.

Sometimes the most laughable aspect of the experience is Vito himself, though I’m not sure if it’s intentionally clever writing from 2K on the hypocritical ‘honour’ system employed by stereotypical Mafia types. Vito happily mows down anyone who looks at him cross-eyed, but will balk at the suggestion of drug running, worrying about the people pumping certain death into their veins in an uncharacteristic sensitive moment. Seconds later, he’s shooting a middle aged guy watering his front lawn because someone out of state doesn’t like him too much. I like to believe it’s intentional, because for all the short-term glamour, the cheap floozies, the shiny cars and the respect of lesser ne’er-do-wells, Vito’s life never really stops being shitty. The game drags him through the gutter by his waistband, trailing his face in the murky brown water, then tries to tell him he’s gargling champagne. Brief highlights of happiness make him think he’s living the dream, but they only serve to crash him even harder when, a few seconds later, he’s hitting the lows. Parroting his life’s code of honour while he’s putting a bullet in between the eyes of someone who’s wronged him helps him believe he’s on some kind of twisted road to justice while he ignores his own actions mimicking his victim‘s supposed crimes against his family He just has a bit more skill and a lot more luck. In this respect, in the unfolding of the rise and fall of Vito Scaletta, the crippling linearity and the acres of obsolete city existing for no other reason but to exist make sense. They reign in focus. They highlight a story.

But Mafia II is not just a story. It’s a video game.

A limited one.


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (November 08, 2010)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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