Mafia II looks great, and the narrative is fun to play through. On paper a 10-12 hour sandbox sounds great, but this sandbox only has sand in it. There are no shovels, no buckets, and no Tonka trucks to drive around while making engine noises. If you didn’t deliver packages for Jacob in GTA IV or tear down statues in Just Cause 2, then maybe the narrative is enough for you.
When Vito comes home from WWII – which makes a great tutorial for all the shooting you’ll be doing – he hooks up with his buddy Joe. Joe offers Vito a way to help his mother and sister who have fallen on hard financial times after Vito’s father died. Vito starts out doing menial jobs that aren’t terribly fun – you’ll beat people up, sell ration stamps, hawk cigarettes, and drive from place to place. Easy missions at the beginning is to be expected, and the driving needs to fun. The driving mechanics are sound, but the cops in Empire Bay are amazingly good at catching you speeding so you’ll spend a lot of time evading the police because driving the speed limit isn’t fun. If I wanted to safely drive the speed limit I wouldn’t be playing a video game.
Mafia II is in second place all around. Both visually and it terms of AI behavior it pales in comparison to GTA IV. As a third-person shooter it feels sloppier than games fully-devoted to the genre. Thankfully the bone-headed AI makes up for the less-than-stellar shooting mechanics. Snapping to cover feels strange because it doesn’t always work. You’ll hit the button and not snap. You’ll move a step to the right, turn 90 degrees, hit the button again, and it’ll work. If you’re setting up for a gunfight that’s not a huge deal. If Vito is taking fire it’s more bothersome because bullets hurt. Mafia II is designed with cover in mind, and it hurts the experience when it doesn’t work quite right.
The narrative is lifted straight from mobster movies, and that’s fine for a game called Mafia II. What isn’t fine is that the linearity becomes glaringly obvious when you pair it with the crippling lack of other things to do. There are no packages to deliver, no cars to steal for other criminals, no chaos meter to charge up, and no ambulance to drive around to eventually earn a health upgrade. What really hurts Mafia II is that it has an open world that is only populated by icon for your next story mission. There are no choices for next mission a la GTA and causing trouble just isn’t rewarding, and those things make Mafia II feel like an action game pushed into an open-world framework. And once you get there you compare the third-person action mechanic to Uncharted 2 and it just doesn’t hold up in terms of atmosphere, characters, or mechanics.
If you really need to continue the Mafia story or absolutely hate feeling like you have a choice in what you’ll do next in a game then Mafia II is a serviceable game, but it feels like it should have come out about five years ago.
Pros: Narrative is accessible, and you’ll never be lost
Cons: Open world with nothing else to do, cover doesn’t work well, cops care too much that I’m speeding