Mafia II is one of the worst games I've ever played.
It's also one of the best.
A game that touches on friendship, brotherhood and the harsh realities of life in a way that few ever have, and yet falls short with some of the most horrific game design in recent years. An open world of unparalleled immersion, but minimal interaction. A game of mechanical excellence, but incredible design weakness.
I initially wanted to compare Mafia II to Obsidian's 2010 Alpha Protocol, but even that failed for very different reasons. For whereas AP fell down in its ambition, in its combat, and in its scope, Mafia II is an incredibly polished game. Every cutscene is beautifully animated, the game looks gorgeous, and the actual mechanics (shooting, driving and hand-to-hand combat) are passable at worst, and genuinely entertaining at best. Mafia II falls down because it tries to shoehorn gameplay into what should be a purely story-driven experience.
I set out to explore the 2K Czech's 2010 game because its reception was unlike almost any other AAA game. While Game Informer said that "in an era when games are moving away from relying on cinematics for storytelling...Mafia II weaves a gripping drama about family, friendship, loyalty, betrayal and pragmatism", giving it 90%, Eurogamer rated it a dismal 4/10, calling it a "hell of boredom" and saying it "[destroys] the myth that the Mafia is interesting at all". Was there something special in this game, supposedly in development for almost half a decade, or was it as bad as some had said?
Mafia II's story is exceptional, but different. Almost every narratively successful game out today relies on the idea that the main character is doing something worthwhile, that they have real reasons behind them, that they have motivation. Whether it be Joel in The Last of Us, Nathan Drake in Uncharted, or even a user-defined character like Commander Shepard in Mass Effect, the upper echelons of game storytelling are not about doing things differently, or reinventing the wheel. They are about power fantasies (whether they be the loss or gain of power) and about simple plots, told with quality animations and a good script.
Mafia II is not one of those games. It's storyline holds few pretensions or delusions of grandeur, and from the first emphatic "fuck" to the last it knows it's a 'Mafia' storyline first and foremost. But the game does so much with its premise that its hard to believe one of the best narratives in recent games exists out of 2K's latest attempt to add another open-world game to its stable, currently dominated by Rockstar's efforts.
Before we discuss the game's strengths, one should get the weaknesses out of the way. You should love driving virtual cars slowly to play this game. 80% (or more) of Mafia II's gameplay is driving. Luckily you're driving through a meticulously detailed, beautiful, and absolutely staggeringly rich city, but it's still driving slowly, following traffic, and so on. When there are shootouts, be prepared, because Mafia II has perhaps the worst checkpoint system I've seen in recent games in years. You can find yourself having to repeat half an hour of driving and conversations because you died once. So, it must be said, proceed with caution.
But optimism, too, because Mafia II (should you give it the chance) is, in my opinion, fantastic.
(Why not read the rest of this article with the incredible Mafia II OST, played by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra?)
The game's success lies in the fact that the player character, Vito, is not a "nice guy caught in a bad situation", like so many other 'anti-heroes' we often play in open world games like 2012's Sleeping Dogs (or indeed 2013's Watch_Dogs, from the looks of things). He is a genuine mafiosi, someone who kills people for the 'family', someone who beats people up who owe him money, someone who isn't afraid to murder, cheat, lie and steal for no reason other than because he its his job
And yet Vito isn't a cardboard villain, but a character that the player becomes deeply sympathetic to, a character that is deeply apathetic to everything but his friends. Vito seems to care little for the 'life', never showing much interest in his friend's passion for expensive alcohol, cars and women. When his friends ask him why he does what he does, Vito's answers make him sound more and more as if he pretends to like the 'Mafia lifestyle' just to get his friends to shut up. Rather than being a hero, Vito seems like you or I (probably are). Someone with ambition perhaps, but little of the drive to achieve all their goals. Someone who just wants to get by.
Even that, however, isn't Mafia II's greatest strength. For the game succeeds in immersing the player in the Mafia underworld like few experiences ever have before. Seeing Vito transform from a downtrodden kid into a Mafia enforcer into a cocaine middleman is shocking, but what is even more so is that fact that as he is doing so, it feels 'OK'. The police transform from being the 'nuisance' they are in other open-world games into being a genuine enemy. You don't feel like the bad guy- your allies aren't comically evil after all- and this draws the player in, perhaps in a way perhaps not too dissimilar from how young people really did join the Mafia all those years ago.
Moments of shock- the killing of an optimistic and promising protege, or the slaughter of a whistleblower, make one reconsider one's actions, but a few hours later these fade away into another beautiful Empire Bay sunset, shoved into the back of the player's mind and forgotten, in the same way that the protagonist might do so.
Mafia II weaves a tale set across a decade. It's cast of characters is rich, detailed, and beautifully animated. It's world is one of incredible beauty and immersion, and the music selection (both the classic songs on the radio and the impressive OST) only adds to the atmosphere. The snow falling like raindrops in front of 40's street lamps, the lights of the Empire State building (or equivalent) in the distance from the city's slums far away- Empire Bay is a city to enjoy. Indeed the lack of 'events' or 'side quests' or other activities helps with immersion in my own opinion- there is simply the story and the world, both complimenting each other, working in tandem to create a triumph in immersive game worlds.
Despite the almost complete lack of choice in the storyline, Vito felt more like a character I could sympathise with after 15 hours of Mafia II, than Shepard did after 90 hours of Mass Effect, or Drake did after 40 hours of Uncharted. He felt human in a way few other characters have, and the writers of the game deserve credit for that alone.
Mafia II is a deeply flawed game, one with myriad problems and a story that, while excellent, is ambiguous enough that it might turn off those looking for a slightly more straightforward narrative experience. But it is also a game that any aficionado of immersion and storytelling in games should experience- a wonderful title that lies forgotten in the middle of the current generation.
Mafia II, despite mixed reviews, seemingly sold well enough to warrant a sequel from the same developers, and 2K Czech is still hiring for an 'unannounced next-gen game'. I deeply hope that the studio learns from its mistakes, for with better focus and improved mission design, Mafia III has the potential to become a real game-changer, and take on the Rockstars of the world in earnest.
I wish them the best of luck.