Friday, August 27, 2010

Mafia II: A Standard Shooter in a Pretty Package?

After a four year wait, Mafia II  hit the shelves Tuesday, Aug. 24 with a bang. If you're a fan of Grand Theft Auto style games, the first Mafia title or both, you probabbly want to sink your teeth into this seedy sequal right now. But there's a few things you should know first! Check out my "Game of the Month" Mafia II review at Gaming Life!

Or, if links just ain't your bag, here's the full text:

It’s just after Christmastime in the Big Apple and the Second Great War rages across Europe. Near a rundown alley in Little Italy, an elderly woman speaks to a homebound soldier about his family and the changes that have taken place since he was deployed; a group of young men try to lure their reluctant friend out for a beer; and a war plane buzzes overhead, on its way to defend the Stars and Stripes against the tyranny of Hitler and his Nazis. It’s not the typical video game setting – and at first, you’ll think that Mafia II isn’t going to be a typical video game.

It’s hard not to be jazzed after such an impressive introduction to the game’s world and characters, but underneath all the painstaking period research and the dazzling atmosphere, Mafia II is just a standard Grand Theft Auto clone. It’s an enjoyable way to spend a few of your gaming hours, but there’s not much here that hasn’t been done before.

Mafia II tells the squalid story of Vito Scaletta, an immigrant from Sicily and a WWII veteran who goes from decorated war hero to cold-blooded mobster. Over the course of the game, Vito and his lifelong buddy Joe Barbaro – voiced by Robert Costanzo, who also played Detective Harvey Bullock in Batman the Animated Series – try to live the good life by pulling odd jobs for dangerous people. Petty thefts and illicit trades escalate and soon the blood flows deep freely. In this game more than any other that I’ve played, there’s something intensely profound and disturbing about watching an otherwise good man throw his life away and, via your own controller, you are the driving force behind it all.

A moderately compelling narrative is enough to keep players interested beyond just the gameplay, but sometimes the storyline gets sloppy. Towards the end, it seems like nearly everyone in the game is somehow responsible for the despicable deed that has Vito suddenly out for revenge, and with no real main antagonist, the final fight utilizes “the ol’ switcharoo” that’s become common in Grand Theft Auto style games over the years. Your efforts will earn you a cliché but suitable conclusion and the final, potent line will stay with you for quite awhile. I just wish the ending were more than two minutes long.

A word of warning: Some players might find the dialogue and subject matter of this game offensive, and for good reason. Vito and his mostly Italian compatriots drop f-bombs more than actual explosives, racial slurs are part of everyday conversation, and judging from the actions of Joe and his buddies, drunken sex is always the order of the day. Though potentially offensive, Mafia II just manages to be less distasteful than some other games that come to mind.

Stunning skylines and sunsets are enough to make any graphics hound happy, and Mafia II has some of the best water effects I’ve ever seen, this generation or last. The cut scenes are near movie quality and Gearheads will appreciate the level of detail in the cars as well as the inclusion of a “carcyclopedia” accessible from the main menu. It’s a shame that Mafia II’s highest available resolution is 720p, because this game would look spectacular in full 1080p HD glory.

Mafia II’s soundtrack is nothing short of awe-inspiring. In addition to excellently crafted symphonic suites, period accurate tunes like “Let It Snow” by Dean Martin, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” by Kay Kyser and “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets help create a realistic and vastly immersive atmosphere unmatched by any other video game up to now. The plethora of licensed tunes also lend themselves the game’s cruel sense of humor: “Straighten Up and Fly Right” by the Andrews Sisters suddenly pops on the radio as you speed away from the police in a freshly-stolen car, and as you’re trying to unload illegal goods on a strict time limit, a bunch of cops burst into the shop as the radio blares “Held for Questioning” by Rusty Dapper.

If you’re familiar with action games at all, it won’t be long before you’re ripping off cars and taking down mobsters like pro. Mafia II’s run ‘n gun controls are similar to Grand Theft Auto IV and don’t take much to get used to, but they can also be strangely unresponsive. For example, when the fuzz is on your tail and you’re trying to jack a set of wheels as quickly as possible, sometimes Vito simply refuses to get in until you ram the button 15 times. By then you’ve either been captured or cut down by a volley of unrelenting gunfire, so it’s a bit annoying to say the least.

The action is focused mainly on gunplay, so there are no melee weapons available beyond your own bare hands. Just like in the demo, the player cannot engage another character in hand to hand combat unless that character is willing to come to blows. So unlike other sandbox games, stalking around the city and pounding random innocents into the ground like some kind of reverse Spider-man is basically out of the question. However, this sacrifice is made in the name of a simple but satisfying unarmed combat system, consisting of light and heavy punches, a dodge button and a few easy combos. You’ll be coming back to this over and over again, so it’s best to master the fighting controls early.

While it’s a fun play to be sure, Mafia II’s biggest problem is that it’s too linear. Other sandbox games have multiple missions you can chose to deal with at you leisure; this one wants to keep the player on a specific path, as evidenced by the fact that the game is broken up into chapters. The action drags a little near the middle of the game, and it’s at this point when Mafia II is at its most “business as usual.” A truly explosive finale is coming, replete with betrayals and blazing guns, so hang in there until the end – you’ll be happy you did.

There’s not much in the way of side quests. Collectable wanted posters and Playboy magazines litter Mafia II’s landscape, but that’s about it. The retro erotica has a certain naive charm and it adds to the game’s seedy atmosphere, but it’s mostly pointless in terms of gameplay. It’s just another fetch quest, this time with a little nudity thrown in. If you’re not a teenage boy, you probably won’t be spending too much time with these sensuous centerfolds.

Unless you’re a huge fan of the original Mafia or a GTA action junkie, there’s not much reason to rush out to the store and drop 60 of your hard earned dollars on Mafia II. This game has a lot going for it and I urge you to play it, but it’s probably to your advantage to wait until the price drops a bit. It’s a shame, too: The game’s elegant ambiance is almost enough to make me recommend Mafia II to the masses, but an occasionally stagnant storyline, a several uncreative missions and strictly linear gameplay knock this one down a peg. Say it ain’t so, Joe!

Score: 7.7 out of 10

Collector’s Edition Information

With its sleek metal packaging and sweet cover art, the $80 Mafia II Collector’s Edition looks like a no-brainer, but should you really shell out the extra cash for it? The 100 page art book proves to be mildly appealing and is packed with concept art, a pin-up girl gallery and even some Mafia II “movie posters,” but as a whole, it’s probably not going to be that interesting to the average gamer. Likewise, if you can’t see yourself cruising around in your ride while pumping gripping, orchestral beats, the included CD soundtrack probably won’t persuade you to blow another 20 bones on the game.

What really separates the Collector’s Edition from the standard release of Mafia II is the bonus downloadable content. Those who take the Collector’s Edition plunge will have immediate access to the Made Man pack, which includes two stylin’ suits and a couple of new autos for your in-game garage. My Mafia II: Collectors Edition from Best Buy came with a “preorder” bonus of the Greaser pack, even through I didn’t reserve a copy. (The Greaser pack is very similar to the Made Man pack in that it grants the player two new outfits and a few extra cars.) I can’t guarantee that you’ll luck out and get the Greaser pack if you shop at Best Buy, but that little tidbit might make a difference in your choice of stores. Finally, the PS3 Collector’s Edition has a one-up on the Xbox version: It comes with the Sony exclusive mini-game The Betrayal of Jimmy, an arcade style take on Mafia II’s brutal brand of action. While it’s not fantastic, this add-on is just enough to make the PS3 version more desirable than its 360 cousin.

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