Mafia II: PhysX Tested, HotHardware Reviewed

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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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