Review: Mafia 2
Empire Bay greets you at the main menu with a lovely cityscape, complete with a faux-Empire State Building. One of the first sights you see in the game is the majestic towers rising powerfully into the sky. As you play, those structures are always there, in the background. They seem to whisper, "You have stepped into a large world. Welcome and enjoy everything this universe has to offer you." And you believe the mysterious voices. But there's something strange going on, something off-kilter. The skyscrapers, no matter where you are in the city, are always some distance away, always across a river or adjacent to the highway you happen to be on. It almost seems as though they aren't buildings at all, but more like a mirage. "The grand city is here somewhere, right? It has to be! I can see it clearly from here." But no matter which direction you drive or how many miles you travel, there they stand, off in the distance, taunting you.
This was my experience playing Mafia 2: a game that really isn't. Oh sure it has all the trappings of an OWTPAG (for those that aren't cool enough to remember: Open World Third Person Action Game), all the little bells and whistles like earning money, safe houses to sleep in and guns to load up on. Having played open world games since they were created, a part of me kept thinking "Ok, they're still just establishing the characters and the plot. After this next mission, they have to let me save my game and screw around in this neat little 1940's New York." But as one story point led to the next, led to the next, I began to realize that the game didn't seem to want me to enjoy myself. It's almost as though I invited myself into someone's house, but my new hosts, while remaining polite and never demanding that I leave, nevertheless hussle me along in an effort to speed the process along. Mafia 2 made me feel like I was inconveniencing Mafia 2 by playing it.
Let me explain. Once I got through the intro movie detailing my entire life up until my 20's, I was thrown into World War 2-ravaged Italy. I must credit developer 2K Czech for the best use of the WW2 setting I've seen in a game: as a tutorial. I was taught how to take cover, aim, etc. Wonderful, so far so good. I finally got back home to Empire Bay to begin my life of crime. My first night home, I'm forced to stay at my mom and sister's apartment. "This is great," I thought, "they are making me sleep in my 'little boy' bed so that when I finally choose to buy my mansion at the end of the game, it will feel all the sweeter!" Of course, immediately after that, my best friend Joe let me crash on his couch. Ok cool, they were still just stringing me along.
I ran a few missions for the lower-tier mafia thugs that Joe knew. I started to notice that everything important was happening in cutscenes. In fact, the only real input I seemed to have was in driving from one cutscene to the next. Sometimes there was a chaotic gun battle thrown in for good measure, but everything seem so staged. Nothing was exciting or spur of the moment. Not that I could really react all that well if something unexpected did happen. The controls, both vehicular and on foot, were sluggish and unresponsive. The geometry of the world, while authentically designed and very pretty, was always restricting movement, another sign that the game almost groaned in lethargy from the effort of having me play it.
After running various missions for the local crime boss, I finally got to the point where, in any other OWTPAG, I would start shopping around for my own place. I had the timing right, but I was still thinking in game terms. I had yet to realize that I was really playing a movie. I didn't get any choice in the matter; my friend Joe simply decided for me that I should have my own apartment, and then bought it for me. What the hell had I been saving money for? Every enemy drops a gun so there's no need to buy those. Clothing, while great for ambiance, is purely cosmetic, and very cheap to boot. The only thing left is cars. And this is where I discovered that the game really wanted nothing to do with me.
In the year 2010, in the age of consoles with 100+ gig hard drives and terabyte large PCs, in an open world game, there is literally no manual save function in Mafia 2. The only way your progress ever, ever, gets saved is by completing the next story mission. On more than one occasion (it took me a few times to learn) I grabbed my favorite car out of the garage, drove it to an auto mechanic across the city, upgraded its engine, painted it fire engine red, changed the rims to a shiny chrome, and even customized the license plate. I then carefully (so as not to scratch the new paint job) drove it back to my garage, again across the city, and parked it. I was proud of that gem sitting in storage. Stealing some shabbier car, I drove to my next mission where, after ten more minutes of movie followed by another ten minutes of walking through action-less environments, I was killed when a gun battle finally started. The crushing problem was, I had not yet hit one of the infrequently designated checkpoint saves. Not only did I have to start the mission over, but everything I had done since the end of the last mission was gone. No fancy car, no nice paint job and no damn chrome rims!
"I see how it is Mafia 2. You just don't want me here. That's fine, I don't want to be here anyway!" I turned the game off with no small amount of frustration seething in the back of my mind. Why was this game so ardently against me playing it? The problem, of course, is that it's not a game, not in the common understanding of the word. It's a movie that, like a cautious father, lets you sit in the driver's seat of his beloved sports car and make "vroom, vroom" sounds and turn the wheel, but you don't ever actually get to drive. Make no mistake, this is your dad's sports car not yours; Mafia 2's story to tell, not yours. And every fifteen minutes or so, the game will say, "Ok, that's enough play time, daddy needs to drive somewhere important now".
One area where 2K Czech earns high marks is ambiance. Damned if they didn't nail down the perfect microcosm of 1940's-1950's New York (or at least, how I imagine it). The clothes, the cars, the buildings, the grit and grime, the music...everything, except the gameplay of course, begs you to toss your fedora on the hat rack, put your feet up, and settled into this world. But just like the mirage skyscrapers, the atmosphere only serves to taunt you while you wish for a deeper experience.
I never did find those buildings and I probably never will. To me, they will always remain the promise of what could have been. You've made yourself perfectly clear Mafia 2. I'm sorry you had to put up with me for these ten hours. No hard feelings, I guess.
p.s. Do not, under any circumstances, buy the "made man" edition for $10 extra. Two cars and two outfits, in a "game" like this, is not worth your money.