Thanks to Goodfellas
, The Sopranos
, and, oh yeah, The Godfather
, the life of a wiseguy has been pretty well deromanticized in popular culture. Credit Mafia II
, then, with the difficult task of deconstructing the genre even farther. Not only is being a low-level Mafia hood not all glitz and glamour, in this game, it's got all the drudgery of your usual nine-to-five, without the health insurance.
|Mafia II | for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC | Rated M for Mature | Developed by 2K Czech | Published by 2K Games|
The hardscrabble life of the protagonists — a life punctuated only rarely by victorious montages of money, cars, and women — makes Mafia II
anything but a power fantasy. In the first chapter, the main character, Vito Scaletta, struggles through a firefight in WW2 Sicily before being bailed out by a local don. Later, Vito will spend time in prison, and that leads to a playable scene in which he fights off rapists in the shower room. None of this is played for laughs. The matter-of-fact way in which the game tells a reasonably mature story is one of its strengths.
Another strength is the deliberate pace. Although the big-picture gameplay is standard open-world fare that allows you to walk and drive through a massive, bustling city based on New York, transgressions against everyday laws are punished severely. The police will come after you just for breaking the speed limit. For players accustomed to the mayhem of Grand Theft Auto, this will take some getting used to, but it's a brave choice that helps to ground you in the fiction. My favorite moment came when I was driving across town with a machine gun in the trunk and a police cruiser pulled out of a side street in front of me. For several minutes, I followed at a respectful distance, afraid to pass him.
This sort of understated suspense is the exception, not the rule. Early on, when Vito attempts to go straight, he loads crates onto a truck for a couple of minutes before quitting in disgust. But the crate-loading mini-game is no less dreary or repetitive than the action scenes that come later. Shootouts are interminable, with wonky targeting and enemies who take numerous bullets with no ill effect. Fistfights follow the same predictable pattern. Car chases handle reasonably well, but they all play out the same way. Cheap deaths and sparse checkpoints mean you'll end up playing the same parts over and over.
The game even has an unfortunate habit of killing you right at the start of a mission. At different points, it places you behind the wheel of a getaway car directly in front of frighteningly accurate gunmen. If you don't die at once, failing the mission later on will reset you to the start of the chase. It may be realistic that your bullet-riddled, Sonny Corleone–esque corpse should come to rest mere feet from the scene of the crime — but in video games, there's good realism and bad realism.
For long stretches, Mafia II manages to accrue goodwill with observant details and endearing character moments. (Driving home two drunk mobsters, as they sing along loudly to the radio, is a highlight.) But it's all gone in a muzzle flash. As soon as the action starts, the game falls apart. It's only when Vito isn't committing crimes that the Mafia II feels alive. Maybe that's a trenchant statement on mob life, but it doesn't make for much of a game.