Saturday, August 28, 2010

Mafia 2: An Unorthodox Review

 Let's get it out of the way: fictional mafias are cool, especially in games. The sense of entitlement to do bad things and still be considered prestigious is a quality that makes an irresistible narrative and good gameplay all the better. If you've been reading other content I've released about Mafia 2, then you know I've been totally excited for it's release. It's dedication to a detailed story in a mission-based world is a refreshing spin on the average sandbox title. While it did have more things to be excited about than you can shake a cannoli at, there were a few things I wasn't too happy about.

Empire Bay on a sun-shiny day.
Empire Bay in all it's snowy glory.

Since I'm feeling unusually optimistic today and not just saying that for a convenient segue, I guess I'll start with the good news. For one, the driving is awesome. While I can understand many other people's complaints about it, I, myself, don't feel that way. It's approach to realistically depicting the bricks-on-wheels of the time makes it unique to the point where driving becomes a feature of the game rather than a necessary component. Whether you're sliding around with your brakes slammed to the floor of your car on ice-covered streets or cruising comfortably down the highway on a bright, sunny day, you're sure to be having fun. And it's a good thing, too, since you'll be driving for a good portion of the game with around 50 cars to do it in... driving I mean.

Empire Bay is about 1/3 the size of GTA IV

The gun store.
While driving around in the world can be fun, exploring its contents is sometimes underwhelming. There are a lot of little ways to interact with the world, but none of them feel very deep and never feel as though you truly play a role in influencing it. It may not be the game's focus, the world could have been a bit more immersive considering its relatively small size.

Gunfights are action-packed.

Anyway, the shooting mechanics of the game are on par with the driving: they're quite awesome. Mafia 2 shares a similar layout to other sandbox titles like GTA IV that is simple and dynamic, which is a good thing. Its good shooting mechanics are complimented by a satisfying arsenal of weapons that Vito can use to mow down his opponents. While I didn't fall in love with any particular killing-machine, I did enjoy using them to fire rounds into helpless enemies. There's also a fist-fighting component worth mentioning. Rather than mashing on your mouse to pound in your opponents face, you have two different attacks two choose from which you can string together to form awesome combinations. I did find it a bit strange that almost any single person, besides the women, will fight you in the game. I've found myself almost losing a fight to someone who looks like they should be in a nursing home on more than one occasion.

Just as I have mentioned before, authenticity is important in this title. This also goes for the game's music and great dialogue. The sounds of Vito, Joe and the plethora of other characters sound great and the music from the radios around Empire Bay are really true to the time period. The visuals look just as good and seem to be quite manageable on a wide array of systems (minus that whole Nvidia Physx thing). This also applies to the cinematics which are so detailed you can see individual specs on a person's face. However, sometimes the animations can be a bit wooden, especially during dramatic moments. Nonetheless, the game's graphics and sounds are generally very good and only add to the strong mid-1900's feel the game has.
Organized crime is no little thing. Although it's hard to sympathize with criminals who knowingly commit horrible deeds, Mafia 2 certainly does a good job of getting you to root for the "bad guys". It's true, even after the terrible things that they do to thrust themselves to the top of the chain, it's almost impossible to completely dislike Vito or Joe. Vito's down to earth personality and sarcastic and often logical remarks make for an interesting yet ideal main character while Joe's outlandish  and reckless outlook on life and its circumstances make him the perfect character foil. Together they are the perfect duo, like that crazy, old, cat-obsessed lady who lives down the block and her bizarre Christmas sweater collection. However, any greatness achieved by the narrative really stops there. The few moments in the game that really sparked any sort of emotion are few and far between. Vito's readiness to accept just about any job and feel little remorse until something personally affects himself is certainly one of the factors in this. In the end, you might not really care what happens to the amazing characters that you might have grown to adore. Of this count, Vito and Joe are mostly innocent, but I couldn't say much for the story or its events.

What really lowered the bar in my experience was the way in which things progressed, or didn't for that matter. It seemed that throughout the course of the game some things never really changed, particularly the characters and how events shaped their lives, which is even stranger when you take into account that you travel between two totally distinct time periods with completely different moods and feels. Compared to the caliber of other components in the game, the game's poor progression becomes more obvious. For instance, there are some portions of the game that require you to do boring tasks for the sole purpose of creating a bond between the character and the player, like being forced to clean up a dirty floor by a disrespectful guard. In these events, it's easy to see what the developers were going for and admire what cinematic qualities they contained. However, because of the large expanse of time the game covers within 15 missions, its not easy to feel any sort of attachment to anything since you'll only be seeing some of the characters in one or two missions. And even if you do see them later on within Vito's journey, they don't seem to be any different, rather the same way you had left them years ago, as if preserved with formaldehyde. By the end of it, you might feel some slight disappointment or you may not, I guess it all depends on how the narrative rubs off on you.

I almost flipped that car!

If you know what you're getting into, Mafia 2 is certainly going to take you for a fun ride, but just know that this is far from an open sandbox game. It's emphasis on a structured level design is refreshing, yet its unemotional and uninspired story take away from the good game that it is. And while its good bits of action are very exciting and awesome, they definitely should have occurred more frequently in between the cinematic events where Vito has to stack boxes or mop floors. Although not the best single player experience out there, I did enjoy playing it. Mafia 2 is not an I offer I wouldn't refuse if I had to, but its spectacular gunfights, driving, and interesting characters certainly make it an offer that's hard to give up.

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