Each time I dragged myself out of bed in Empire Bay I looked out of the window to check the weather. On a gorgeously bright day, a silk shirt would do. If it was a little overcast, a suit and hat. If it was raining or night time, I’d add a trench coat. Everything had to be grey or black – from my suits to my cars. I had to fit, because in the spectacular experience of Mafia II, filling the role of Vito is everything.
Before I plough on, we had better have full disclosure. Goodfellas, The Godfather I and II, and Millers Crossing are some of (if not) my favourite films. I own every series of The Sopranos on DVD. I adore trench coats, fedoras – the styled ’50s look. More importantly: Mafia I is one of my favourite games ever. So, it’s fair to say that my interest in Mafia II is more involved than most and to simply have a new game set in that universe is going to make me happy. Mafia II hasn’t disappointed even if other reviews from other lesser sites led me to believe it would, though that’s not to say it’s perfect, which it certainly isn’t.
Vito is our main guy; after getting arrested while on a less-than-legit job with his best friend Joe he gets drafted into the Army and sent to Italy. A few years of service later and Vito is returning on leave after taking a bullet, which is when Joe picks him up, gets him out of the Army for good, and then lines him up with some jobs. This is where Vito and Joe start on their journey to Mafiadom proper. Small time associates looking to make a buck on the periphery of the Families of Empire Bay – and this makes up the first half of Mafia II.
It’s a bit of a problem, really. It’s clear what 2k have tried to do, but the result falls a little short. The first half should have seen you, as Vito, bond with Joe. You spend a hell of a lot of time with each other, all the while constantly chattering and joking. They should be Henry and Tommy from Goodfellas, but they aren’t. Both are likeable, sure, but there isn’t much to connect with in Vito and thus the connection to Joe fails too leaving it all a little inconsequential come the second half.
Vito doesn’t really have much going on – he could really be a support character for all we know about him. It seems the only time he really gets any emotion is when family issues arise, but as family only really make cameo appearances it’s difficult to care. His mother disapproves of his new life choices as a typical mother should and his sister seems only to be there to explain the family backstory involving lonesharks and throw in a homage to The Godfather later. It’s implied that the Mob killed Vito’s father, but it never really goes anywhere par it being dragged up towards the end as an excuse for a fight. So, while we are meant to play as Vito: man with family, friends, personality, history – all we actually play as is Vito: Gangster. Which is fine I suppose, I like playing as a Gangster; but it makes the relationship with Joe fall by the wayside and lacks the punch of playing Tommy in Mafia I.
In the first half a lot of time is spent driving around doing low level jobs – sell these illegal gas stamps, sell these cartons of cigarettes from the back of a lorry, collect cash from these dock workers, drive over here and pick someone up – and Mafia II has had a lot of criticism pointed at it as a result. However, I think it’s great. It feels authentic – films, tv and books have taught me that a lot of mob “work” is relatively dull – it’s a business after all and constant violence is bad business. And sure, it’s not an exciting gunfight after exciting car chase after exciting gunfight, but good. I’m unbelievably glad it’s not like that, currently, if I have to play one more game where I battle through endless enemies as some bullet sponge to get to the end of some shitty plot that is barely holding together then I’ll start murdering.
Games are all too often ACTION PACKED from start to finish, racing at six hundred miles per hour and a thousand rounds per second. I don’t need this – shooting an assault rifle at someone is probably the most boring thing we do over and over again. Mafia II is a sweet relief – it has plenty of gunfights, sure, but they never feel like another gunfight. Instead most of the time you’re being a gangster in Empire Bay. Doing Gangster jobs, wearing Gangster clothes, hanging out with Gangster guys and driving Gangster cars. It’s interesting.
In fact I revelled simply being in Empire Bay. I drank it all in every moment I could. Cruising around the city, only really hammering the car when I needed to or I was feeling particularly reckless. I’d go buy a new suit, or if I couldn’t afford one I’d go rob a a store so I could. If I saw a car I liked I’d take it. If the police caught me I’d bribe them. Running away was the last option – Gangsters don’t run.
Gunfights when they do crop up are pretty great even if going against what I’d really like out of a Mafia game. They still fall back on “you versus 30 guys or so” in set-piece locations like rooftops and elaborate factories or scrap yards where really it should be a couple of guys killing a one or two guys in the middle of the street or a cafe or something, but hey, it’s a mainstream game so I guess I’ll have to put up with it. And the gunplay works – letting loose with a Tommy Gun is as deadly and destructive as it should be: scenery collapses, shatters, fractures and falls apart in a satisfying hail of gunfire as mobsters hats go flying. The cover system even works and feels solid with Vito flinching as shots fly a little too close for comfort.
If anything though, the second half shows us what we could have had. Everything picks up pace, escalates, and actually brings in a decent plot if a little messy at times. It starts to show us a Mafia story rather than just being a Gangster in a city, and while I was fine with the latter it wouldn’t have hurt to have more of a natural narrative curve than the first/second half split that’s so apparent here. And actually, this is a bit of a bugbear – the first and second half are split with a montage of stuff that looks really interesting: Vito and Joe doing deals in back streets, some going wrong, others going right, them basically moving up in the world. Why couldn’t we play that instead? In fact – why couldn’t that have been the first half rather than us doing mundane jobs for small cash? Playing as Vito with him and Joe having a good time together day to day, surviving the scrapes, being brothers in arms, would surely have given them more character and a stronger bond – instead Joe shouts out what cigarettes to throw him and takes you to a brothel.
The cutscenes throughout are to be applauded. There are many, and they are frequent, but they are exceptionally well acted. Everyone is extremely detailed, individual faces expressing subtle emotion – the likes of which we only normally see from Bioware but even then people often look “Angry” or “Smug” – Mafia II is far more delicate. The same goes for its characterisation – I mean, by no means is it The Godfather, but it’s no Mickey Blue Eyes either. Joe, for example, is often stupid, racist and a tad misogynistic – but then it’s clear that this is the environment he lives in. He’s not a horrible person, he actually has a few moments that are quite touching, but he’s still a Mafioso – a sociopath. Basically, it’s complicated, which is a good thing.
Mafia II isn’t a thrill a minute. A lot of people wont like it and it has clear problems, but I love it. I love it because it doesn’t try to be a Mafia skinned action game, I love it because Empire Bay is such an interesting place to be in, and I love it because it lets me be that guy that struts down a street in the rain wearing a trench coat, a fedora, and a .45. It’s a slow paced narrative with a lot of driving nicely and not a lot of shooting, but if you’re tired of the endless action and generic firefights and actually want a game with some character, some style, and something to soak in and enjoy, then Mafia II is perfect.