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Mafia II: PhysX Tested, HotHardware Reviewed
Date: Sep 22, 2010
Author: Joel Hruska
Prior to its launch, Mafia II was portrayed as a deep, character-driven drama that would take full advantage of PhysX to add depth and realism to the game. With the game out and available, we sat down to investigate how PhysX enhances Mafia II; our review of the game is on page three.

The term APEX is also used when discussing PhysX in Mafia II, often in ways that don't explain the difference between the two. NVIDIA describes the difference as follows: "Rather than providing a low-level API that requires a programmer to use it, APEX creates an environment where artists can create complex high-level dynamic systems without depending on developers. Because APEX is completely artist focused, APEX provides the artist easy to use authoring tools, designed to let the content creator focus on the game, rather than struggle with low-level APIs."

In the game menus, the setting is referred to as "APEX PhysX" and can be set to medium or high. Hardware PhysX in Mafia II is used to generate fog, skid marks, debris interaction/collision, and, in some cases, advanced cloth simulation. When PhysX is engaged, clothing on characters will flutter and move in response to shifts in position or gusts of air—but the game runs this on the CPU by default. If you want this code to run on the GPU, you'll need to both install a dedicated PhysX card and set the NVIDIA Control Panel to run CUDA/PhysX code on it (as opposed to leaving these settings on Auto).

There are several ways to manually adjust which PhysX subroutines are executed when hardware PhysX is engaged, several of which are detailed at Physxinfo.com. If your CPU isn't sufficiently fast to handle having PhysX turned on, but you want the benefits of using it, we recommend consulting that site.

The Effect of PhysX On Mafia II's Clothing

Clothing in Mafia II is well-rendered regardless of whether or not you use PhysX; the designers clearly went to some trouble to ensure that textures and fabrics wouldn't resemble 2D paintings. The screenshots below are drawn from the default benchmark program—but we had to search for specific angles to show how PhysX changes what's drawn on screen.* The images on the left were taken without PhysX enabled, images on the right were taken with PhysX on Medium. The difference in cloth rendering between Medium and High is extremely small.


The static mesh shots with PhysX off aren't much less detailed than the Physx-enabled versions, but Vito's trench coat hangs quite differently. To be fair, the static mesh represents the status quo of gaming; developers tend to design form-fitting clothing for characters to avoid the rendering problems in the images above. The use of PhysX neatly sidesteps the problem; Vito's trenchcoat hangs normally and realistically, even when he's bent around a pillar or taking cover.

*Note:  PhysX is also used in-game to generate realistic ripples and movements as garments or fabric moves in the wind. This affect is impossible to screenshot.
PhysX By The Numbers
When we installed Mafia II using Steam, the game installed its own PhysX update (9.10.0512). We experienced major stuttering with PhysX on until we downloaded the most recent stand-alone version from NVIDIA's website (9.10.0513). This resolved our issues; if you've had performance problems with PhysX we recommend you try it.

Mafia II's PhysX Benchmark

Mafia II includes a benchmark based on part of Chapter V: The Buzzsaw. The sequence matches real game play with one critical distinction. If PhysX is set to 'High', the benchmark generates far more debris than in the actual game.

In the test, a quick exchange of fire blows apart enough concrete and wood chips to build two new homes in a tropical island ghetto. In-game, it took repeated shotgun blasts at point-blank range to reproduce a similar amount of debris. This difference is unique to 'High' mode—if you run the test with PhysX set to 'Medium', the benchmark appears to mirror what's seen in game.

The second screenshot is taken from the actual game.Camera angles aren't exact but there's a noticeable difference. While the farther column hasn't taken much of a pounding, the rock bits around the nearer column are what's generated after multiple shotgun blasts.

The 'High' version of the benchmark is a worst-case scenario that's doesn't represent the game as a whole. If you do hit a rough spot in one of the few PhysX-heavy areas, simply drop quality settings, play through the tough bit, and turn them back up.

At the end of a benchmark run Mafia II assigns a grade (A-F) to your system, but these ratings are of dubious value. According to the benchmark, our testbed scored a "D", but in-game framerates were substantially higher than our benchmark frame rates. Mafia II's benchmark is useful as a worst-case scenario, but we recommend you play through parts of the game before you settle on video settings.

Mafia II recommends an Intel Core i7-920 CPU and at least a GTX 260 with a dedicated 9800 GTX for PhysX at Medium and a GTX 470 + 9800 GTX for High. We tested the following GPU configurations:

  • 1x GTX 480 (no dedicated PhysX GPU)
  • 1x GTX 480 + 1x 9500 GT (512MB of RAM, dedicated PhysX GPU)
  • 1x GTX 480 + 1x GTX 260 (896MB of RAM, dedicated PhysX GPU, 65nm, 192 cores)
We swapped the 9500 GT for the GTX 260 when we realized that the budget card didn't meet Mafia II's minimum specs. Because Mafia II is the first game to emphasize the importance of a dedicated PhysX card we were curious if a low-end GPU could substantially boost framerates in PhysX-enabled games. A 9500 GT is currently ~$44 on NewEgg, whereas a GTX 260 is $169. If you don't have an older card, we'd consider the recently launched GTS 450.

We tested Mafia II on an Intel Kentsfield Q6600 @ 3GHz, a GeForce GTX 480, 4GB of RAM, and 32-bit Windows Vista. None of you are allowed to snicker since the testbed, in this instance, is the author's primary PC. We ran the benchmark test 3x in each case and averaged the results.

All graphics detail levels were turned to their highest levels, anisotropic filtering was set to 16x, antialiasing was enabled in-game (there's no selection option beyond On/Off), and vertical sync was off.

The GTX 480 slumps when we turn PhysX on; performance drops by 55 percent. Adding the 9500 GT actually slowed the game slightly, but improved Medium performance by eight percent. When we upgraded to a GTX 260, we saw a very different set of numbers. In both cases, using the GTX 260 for PhysX improved frame rates by 30 percent over the GTX 480 alone. 

According to NVIDIA, the additional performance a dedicated PhysX card can provide is inversely proportional to the load placed on the primary GPU. The more eye candy the primary GPU has to deal with, in other words, the less difference a dedicated PhysX card can make. Adding the GTX 260 markedly improved framerates, but the value of that contribution depends on whether you have a spare NV GPU, your primary video card, and how much you care about PhysX.

Mafia II is good enough to be another feather in NVIDIA's hardware PhysX cap but it's not as good a game as Arkham Asylum. If you're curious as to why, flip the page and check our review.
One Page Review: Mafia 2
The Good:

Visually, Mafia II impresses. Vehicles are well-rendered and the period setting is excellent. You'll traverse Empire Bay through both the winter of 1945 and the spring, summer, and fall of 1951. Both time periods are well done, but the 1950s are where the game shines; driving around Empire Bay while listening to early rock'n'roll hits is a lot of fun. The game is also genuinely funny; the latter half of Chapter 7, "In Loving Memory..." is laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Empire Bay looks gorgeous, particularly in the 1950s

Mafia II's developers clearly wanted the game to tell a deep, gripping story; certain cutscenes and missions build tension/drama quite effectively. The voice acting is well done and the missions are well-structured (if of wildly uneven lengths). Mafia II is meant to be anything but a GTA IV clone, and the developers deserve credit for attempting to build something different.

The Bad:

Unfortunately, the developers failed to deliver what they claimed would be a mutifaceted, story-driven saga. The game initially establishes Vito as a young man struggling to provide for his mother and sisters' financial needs. His struggle to do so through conventional work, however, is dealt with in less than five minutes. His family vanishes almost immediately; his mother has but a single cameo while his sister makes only minor appearances thereafter. Vito's relationship with his best friend Joe is played for good comedic effect, but there's barely any in-depth conversation between the two.

I know Kung Fu.

This one-dimensional portrayal undermines any sense of Vito as a person. Developers often use side quests to flesh out various facets of a character's personality but Mafia II includes none. Worse, there are no alternate solutions to primary mission puzzles. Late in the game, when your sister confesses that her husband beats her, Vito beats the man senseless. There's no way to avoid the quest, talk the man down, or even threaten him with a gun.

This flatness extends to Empire Bay. You'll drive past all manner of businesses and hear car dealers advertising the largest selection of vehicles in Empire Bay but the lots are always empty and the businesses are closed. Of the four available businesses (clothing, deli, body shop, and gun store), virtually all of them are physically identical and stocked with identical NPCs. It quickly becomes apparent that Empire Bay isn't so much a virtual world as an exquisitely detailed scale model of what a real virtual world might look like.

The Weird and Downright Ugly

Mafia II contains a few teeth-grinding frustrations, discussed below:

It's a good thing Empire Bay is gorgeous, because you spend most of the game driving through it. This is only slightly less maddening than Chinese water torture. Vehicles are sluggish, particularly in 1945; attempting to race through the streets is inevitably expensive and/or fatal. The game offers a "speed limiter," which helps eliminate car crashes and police tickets, but simultaneously turns cross-city treks into excruciatingly long trips. What the game desperately needs is a speed limiter that the player can adjust. Near the end of the game, when high-end vehicles are easy to find, this is less of an issue, but the first two thirds are an exercise in perseverance.

The game never escapes the Uncanny Valley, but some models are a lot stranger than others. This obese gentleman wants to help Vito play "Find my trouser snake" with nothing but a bar of prison soap and the back of a plunger. You'd at least think he'd offer flowers.

Save Points:  Mafia II's dearth of save points is enraging, particularly given the issues with driving. The game never auto-saves based on time passed or the act of having traveled from location to location. Should you choose to spend an hour searching for a particular car but then die before the game saves again, your progress (and vehicle) are both gone. Simply storing the car in a garage doesn't save it, and there's no in-game mechanism whatsoever with which you can trigger or even purchase a save.

This problem also plagues the storyline missions. Most missions don't save at the end of a trip; If your task is to travel from Point A to Point B and then complete Task C, failing Task C almost always means restoring back to Point A. Even if the trip from A to B is relatively short, being forced to complete it multiple times is nothing more than a cheap hack designed to artificially prolong the game. Exploring a game world is supposed to be fun, but Mafia II tacitly discourages players from exploring it too much at any one time.

Mafia 2's Mature Content:

"Why do you think we do the things we do anyway? It's to buy things."
    --Vito Scalleta to Joe Barbaro

Mafia II deals with racketeering, theft, extortion, prostitution, and murder. The game's protagonist, Vito Scarletta, commits, witnesses, or is an accomplice to all of these activities. If you're opposed to game content that features such content, regardless of context, you won't want to buy Mafia II.

If you do care about context, Mafia II can be hard to pin down. While all of the above activities take place, Vito is almost never a primary actor. He never gets drunk, he curses less than his peers, and his sex life is just one small step above nonexistent. The game also enforces a sort of morality system—you can start a fight with any guy on the street, but the game won't allow you to punch or target women or the homeless. Similarly, while you'll witness plenty of violent behavior in cutscenes, Vito almost never directly participates. The game doesn't glorify violence for its own sake; Vito tends to pointedly withdraw in situations where his associates are preparing to tune up on a prisoner.

On the other hand, Vito never argues with his orders to kill and opts for murder as a means of revenge in several cases.The game's plot is full of reminders that gangsters tend to die violently and young for no good reason, right up to the very last scene of the game. This, however, doesn't change the fact that Vito is a criminal. While he's arguably less evil than most of his fellow wiseguys, he's neither a role model nor an upstanding citizen.


Mafia II uses PhysX to good effect; Empire Bay looks and sounds wonderful. Besides these points, there's not much to recommend the game. If you're a fan of old gangster movies or you loved the original game Mafia, you may love this sequel. Anyone looking for a well-developed story or a game that confronts the moral and social consequences head on should look elsewhere.

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