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Gaming Review

'Mafia II' (Xbox 360)

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Released on Friday, Aug 27 2010

Gaming Review: Mafia II

Also available on: PS3, PC
Developer: 2K Czech
Publisher: 2K Games
Genre: Open-world adventure

From The Godfather to Goodfellas, Al Capone to John Gotti, the world's uneasy love affair with the Mafia is long and enduring. With open-world action game Mafia II, 2K Czech has attempted to create a cinematic narrative that really immerses the player in an epic tale of life in the mob, including all that entails. On that goal, the game is a resounding success as the powerful sense of storytelling, believable characters and rich art style delivers a distinct, engaging and memorable experience. Such a narrative focus, though, often comes at the expense of good gameplay, which could frustrate some players. Underneath the bonnet, Mafia II is a fairly standard third-person action game that sometimes lacks a bit of sparkle beyond its main story. However, fans of narrative-driven games will still find a lot to love in the gritty and violent world of Mafia II.

Set in the New York-style fictional US city of Empire Bay, the game's story spans a decade from the end of World War II in 1945 to the emerging optimism of the mid-1950s. The player becomes Vito Scaletta, the son of a Sicilian immigrant who heads off to war as a way to avoid jail time after a botched robbery. The game opens up with a short military mission in Sicily, before Vito gets shot by the Nazis and sent back to his old life in Empire Bay. After re-connecting with his childhood best friend and now rotund gangster Joe Barbaro, Vito embarks on a journey to become a Made Man in the mob. However, he soon finds a world where America and its organised crime are changing rapidly.

Over its 14-hour main campaign, Mafia II documents a period in history when the American mob moved away from the ways of the Sicilian old country and leaped head first into a new era of guns, drugs and organised brutality. The game's heavy focus on narrative works well, aided by a strong attention to detail in the world, especially in the contrast between the snowy austerity of the 1940s and the sun-soaked consumerism of the '50s. The game's art style has a realistic texture and celluloid quality that adds atmosphere and dramatic weight. The character models are fantastically drawn and animated, with the little blemishes on their faces adding genuine realism. The script is a bit pedestrian at times, but the actors bring essential personality to the characters and dialogue.

Empire Bay also has a distinct colour palette and feel that really sets it apart from its contemporaries, particularly Grand Theft Auto IV's Liberty City. However, where the sandbox world loses ground against Liberty City is in the activity around its edges. Empire Bay feels alive on the surface, but delving deeper rather lessens the sense of immersion. There is an overall absence of the side quests, distractions and surprises that always made GTA games such a memorable experience. The player can rob shop owners or modify cars in garages as side tasks, but that's only really padding for the main story. Mafia II's focus is always on its narrative, which will please some players, but irritate others.

Players are able to go on mad killing rampages around Empire Bay, but the game always tends to channel them back to the story. The main campaign features a large amount of cinematic cut scenes and dialogue sequences, while some missions involve surprisingly limited actual input from the player. The approach is brave and often works well, especially when 2K Czech pitches the atmosphere and balancing just right. There is a sense that fulfilling all the minor criminal jobs increases the sense of realism and immersion. Whether it's selling dodgy cigarettes from the back of a van or taking a corpse to be buried in the woods - there isn't much actual gameplay in these moments, but they build up the realistic pieces that make up mob life. However, players wanting more engaging gameplay may find it a tad frustrating to be a passenger while the game tells its story, rather than allowing them to make their own.

When the game does conjure missions, the vast majority are third-person shooting set pieces, which prove solid and occasionally spectacular. The game features a strong range of weapons from the era - mostly pistols, shotguns and juddering machine guns - all of which are fun to shoot. Most of the time, combat involves taking cover and picking off all the enemies in an area, before moving on. The cover system is well designed and not sticky, which is important as the game makes run-and-gun a quick route to death. Players are encouraged to use walls, tables, pianos or whatever object is closest to provide a shield from the hail of bullets. Occasionally, it can seem like you are in cover only to be shot anyway - such as a tricky fight in a closed warehouse against a Molotov cocktail throwing boss - but mostly the combat is well designed and satisfying. The AI is also decent and it's good to see enemies changing position to flank the player should they stay still too long.

Alongside the shooting sequences, the game also serves up lots of hand-to-hand combat, especially in its early stages (including an excellent prison section). The fight scenes involve the player holding down a dodge button during locked-in scuffles, while waiting for a moment to strike with light and heavy attacks. The system is really fun at first, but soon become a bit tiresome due to the basic nature of the gameplay. It would have been good to mix up the fighting by using weapons or environmental tools to inject a bit of variety, including options for defensive counters and so on. Its not a showstopper, just possibly a missed opportunity.

Aside the shooting and fighting, there is not a great deal of variety in the missions, barring a few stealth-orientated sections or short driving tasks. The player gets to try out a surprisingly varied range of 50 cars, which are all fun to drive. However, the game unfortunately doesn't quite make the most of its vehicles. Driving is often used solely to impart story information from passenger characters while travelling to mission objectives. Alternatively, the player is sometimes forced to take a long and tiresome trip back across Empire Bay to their home base to complete a mission and reach a save point. Again it's not a terminal fault, just something that could have been done better.

Driving, shooting and fighting in Empire Bay usually brings the attention of the law in a wanted system that largely works well. The cops in Empire Bay are extremely twitchy and are as likely to tackle the player guns-a-blazing for a speeding offence as they are to kill someone in the street. The game uses a wanted bar around the excellently-designed mini-map to indicate the player's level of heat, with the bar declining once they find a place to hide. However, there is a secondary system in which Vito and the cars he uses during crimes are posted as being wanted by the cops, which is indicated by an icon above the mini-map. That requires number plates to be switched in garages or outfits changed in clothing shops to permanently shake off the law.

Overall, Mafia II succeeds in creating a gritty, realistic and engaging story that depicts the life of an uneasy gangster at a critical period of change for the American mob. 2K Czech's unerring focus on narrative is a brave decision which often proves successful, particularly with the believable characters, beautifully produced art style and memorable story. However, the approach sometimes comes at the cost of gameplay, which could disappoint some players. Stripping away the high production values leaves a fairly basic third-person action game that sometimes lacks sufficient variety in its sandbox world to really sparkle. However, any players who enjoy well-presented and cinematic story-driven games will still find that Mafia II makes them an offer they cannot refuse.



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