The Dreaded Backlog: Mafia II

Welcome to THE DREADED BACKLOG! It’s incredibly easy to buy video games, but it takes a lot more time to play through them. All of us have a backlog of good gaming intentions that need to be fulfilled. Together we must overcome the overwhelming threat of THE DREADED BACKLOG!

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I have never been particularly drawn to gangster films. Obviously I am aware of the cinematic skill in many of the ‘big’ ones, but as a wider genre I lack interest. I don’t mind crime or noir films, but those with a specific ‘gangster’ focus I find off-putting. I get clichéd images in my head of stereotyped Italian Americans in overly sharp suits. There’s always a betrayal and lots of intertwined criminal and family politics. So why would I play a game like Mafia II? It’s primarily story driven and operates as a homage to many of these exact gangster flics and tropes. I want to play Mafia III that is coming out later this year. It features a American American Vietnam War veteran in New Orleans in the ’60s. That appeals to me a lot. I then learnt that the protagonist of the second game, Vito Scaletti, is to feature in the new game. So I threw caution (and £7) to the wind and bought Mafia II as a set up game at the very least.

I was instantly rewarded with a game that is good in itself, but not due to its gameplay.

The shooting mechanics in Mafia II are dreadful by the standards of its release date and certainly by today. The camera is floaty and difficult to control. You can be shot through cover often even when elevated above your enemy. You can’t just step out of the cover, but have to repress the cover button to get back out. I have never experienced this mechanic in any other sticky cover game. At this point Gears of War 1 and 2 and Uncharted 1 and 2 had both been released. Mafia II doesn’t even close to matching the normally dreadful standard of the latter, let alone the glorious rhythm of the former.

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The driving is solid enough, but there is way too much of it. Due to the game lacking side missions and operating mostly through a day-to-day level system, at the end of each level you have to drive home. I understand why this is in place. The player may want to stock up on ammo and so on before the next level. However this doesn’t excuse the lack of any quick travel function in the game. Given all this bullshit you’d at least hope for quick loading times between levels/lives, you’d be wrong. With slow loading times you’d expect some visual fidelity (relative to 2010), you’d be disappointed here too. At best Mafia II comes across as a wannabe AAA-title that can’t hide it’s obviously smaller team and budget.

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BUT. None of that really detracts from the whole experience. Aside from a few frustrations this is a story worth living. Despite it’s clearly derivative nature, Mafia II makes you feel like you’ve lived through a crime epic. You follow Vito Scalletti from childhood, to the second world war in Sicily, back to crime in ‘Empire Bay’, to prison, back into crime and then up into the upper echelons of the criminal world. All of this occurs over ten years. For most of the journey Vito is joined by his friend and half-sidekick/half-mentor Joe Barbaro. He’s overweight, overbearing and dresses loud. He’s a bastard you’ll learn to love. The story has an obvious moral murkiness to it. You’ll kill cops and rival criminals alike, but everyone seems to be as bad as each other. In fact the game makes a point of showing that Vito could be worse. After all he only gets into crime to save his sister. As events unfold what Vito’s life becomes reminds me of a quote from SPECTRE about Bond being a ‘butterfly in a hurricane’.

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This epic is filled with many signature ‘moments’. These are things that truly immerse you and you won’t forget from playing the game. Early on Vito and Joe are on the run (across rooftops and billboards) from a battalion of cops after a heist gone wrong. The time spent in prison is a collection of attempted assassinations and underground boxing matches. The best sequence occurs when after a rowdy night out a friend of Joe reveals he has a body in his trunk. The three of you have to drunkenly drive to a graveyard and bury the body. On the drive home Vito grumbles as his friends burst into song alongside the radio. A close second to this moment is the climax wherein Vito and Joe actually survive their heroic last stand only for something far darker to strike afterwards from those they trust. Here the family and Mafia politics hit at a rough emotional core. Although it does suck to be a person of colour or a woman in this universe.

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The lack of side missions is striking, but given that the characters and story are the focus, it is forgiveable. One can collect and customise cars and get new outfits for Vito and get him better guns. I even found myself getting into this aspect a bit too much and was embarrassed that I was so easily drawn into a satirical point of the game myself. At one point the main story will remind you quite harshly how fleeting these pursuits are via the medium of a house fire.

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The city of ‘Empire Bay’, a obvious homage to the usually opposing New York and Chicago, is rendered well. It isn’t too large and it has pockets of interest. It looks beautiful in the snow and has a pleasing grime to it in the sunshine. Whilst you will see the same sort of car often, it’s no more often that would make sense for the wartime and post-war period of the United States. I don’t believe I ever noticed a single repeated character model of passer-bys in the streets. The only character model I saw twice was in the prisoner…in a cut scene…which isn’t great. Overall Mafia II does very well in the variation regard for the world building compared to now and definitely compared to other titles in 2010.

I loved this game, I cared about the characters and the stories despite having an aversion to this particular branch of crime story. It is rare for a video game to cause me to feel things, but Mafia II managed. I suppose all that even gave the shitty gun play a better edge too.