Morning. The phone rings, I answer. It's Joe, chirping the usual advice. Get dressed and get my gun. I go to the fridge instead for a Master Beer. In the bathroom I flip on the light. I flush the toilet.
None of these actions in Mafia II are from cutscenes, and that is both the novelty and the shame of 2K Czech's long-awaited gangster game noir. Shots and beers are chugged, lights turn on and off, windows open and close, tubs and faucets and the john all run water.
For what purpose? Am I going to hide in the shower and blow away someone from behind the curtain, dripping wet in my suit and hat? Am I going to interrogate a snitch by jamming his head in the commode? Do these things foreshadow any purpose in the game? No, no and no.
Like the staggeringly beautiful architecture making up Empire Bay's landscape, so much of Mafia II's details serve only a cosmetic, background purpose. It's a city that oozes the delightful charm of a richly detailed model railroad. The game's engine, however, steams along a disappointingly short and predictable track that fails all the expectations of depth such features set.
A Feast For Your Eyes: Mafia II's rich visuals are the game's calling card and provide an inspiration to immerse yourself and even roleplay through the open-ended portions, walking instead of running, buying a beer before you meet your boss. There's no clock on your heads-up display, but there doesn't need to be one: the game's amazing quality of light lets you know the time of day almost to the hour. In the dead of winter you still know it's about 2 p.m. outside the dingy bar where you're supposed to steal a car. In early autumn, you know you've finished a day's work when the action's just beginning. Cars don't just damage, they get snow and grime buildup. Cover, which you'll depend on throughout the game, is nearly always destructible. The sound is perfectly atmospheric. Playing with headphones, many times I thought a far-off siren was coming from my own neighborhood. The immersion this game provides in its set design is both its blessing and its curse, because it leaves you wanting so much more from your experience.
Acting: Rare is the video game whose characters can communicate clearly by facial expression. Those in Mafia II do, through a combination of superb film editing and extraordinarily detailed facial animations. Mob movies depend on subtle and unspoken moments and the ability of this game's rendered characters to meet the emotion of their human actors' lines is a true breakthrough. Vito, the protagonist, gets an award-winning effort from Rick Pasqualone. Games typically get you to care about the main character through the actions you share; I cared about Vito the old-fashioned way, through the acting. Sonny Marinelli's portrayal of Henry Tomasino, who veers from authority to outcast, nearly steals the show and makes you wish the game featured much more of him. Robert Costanza's Joe Barbaro rounds out the trifecta as a versatile character, swinging from violence to comedy relief. The story may get threadbare in spots, but the acting and dialogue are among the best you will ever find in this young art form.
A Sandbox With No Toys: Mafia II offers very few incentives to explore the open world its spent so much time creating. There are no side missions, like its predecessor. Unlike its predecessor, there's no dedicated Free Ride mode. If you want to explore or raise hell, you must do it before you trigger a mission at the beginning of a chapter, or after the job's over. The narrative does its best to discourage this, as nearly everything begins in the morning with an urgent phone call ordering you to a meeting spot immediately, and ends very late at night. You will make more than enough cash on missions themselves, and pick up plenty of useful weapons and ammo from the guys you kill, to make the game's barebones side tasks - robbing stores and stealing cars - utterly pointless. The saddest wastes are features like Empire Bay's replicas of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, Yankee Stadium and the Brooklyn Bridge, whose pedestrian walkway is traversable. Such detailed renderings would seem to beg for a sequence set in or atop one, and yet all of the iconic settings in this world are ignored by the story.
Empire Bay 911: The cops in this game are as trivially useless as its toilets. Their AI is just plain bad and easily fooled. I was robbing a gas station and a squad car plowed into the pumps, killing everyone except me. Their tendency to ram is easily exploited and they rarely recover from a wreck in time to continue the chase. When your car is wanted, cops pass by too quickly on the road to fill up the light blue suspect-o-meter, or whatever it's called, that triggers a pursuit. I don't think anyone ever noticed me picking a lock to steal a car. Speeding tickets are easily outrun in most vehicles, especially if you've paid the nominal fee to upgrade the engine. Running red lights, a no-no in Mafia I, gets you only a scolding from Joe if he's riding shotgun.
Action, Packed Loosely: There is a colossal amount of interstitial time spent either on boring tasks or watching cutscenes. There is a ton of mundane, non-chase driving as a lot of the mission points are scattered throughout the map, whose navigation never seems to guide you to the freeway. The worst example of Mafia II's imbalanced design came in a chapter in which you're tasked to warn someone of an impending hit. I timed it: 7:40 combined cutscene time, 8:49 combined driving time (three minutes of that was rushing to the scene, but there was no pursuit), and just 44 seconds of action trying to help the guy escape. The amount of interactive time spent on setup is simply too high for a game this short - especially when the guts of your rise in the mob, as a skullcracking soldier and a dope dealing renegade, are literally condensed to cutscene montages. You sell cigarettes off the back of a truck in this game; couldn't one more hit, one more drug distribution job gone wrong, be included in a mission set that's largely templatized in the first place?
*Spoiler warning - plot cliches about to be spoiled*
Played Out Again, Sam: The first six chapters of this game are very well written - perhaps a bit fast paced, but still believable and compelling. And then, once you get out of prison, the game makes every grab it can for the low-hanging fruit of the mob genre. Joe, your fat Fred Flintstone of a gangster friend, plainly defines the screenwriting failure of unearned emotion. Of course he loses it when a hanger-on character, who has maybe five lines, gets killed on the game's major hit. Of course one of your associates is the FBI rat. Of course there's a late betrayal. Of course there's a reversal of that. The game's ending is plainly written to account for either a sequel or DLC, but even then it's nothing more than a shoulder-shrug that makes you wonder why this supposed buddy crime story was worth telling.
*End of spoiler*
Mafia II is eminently beatable in a single sitting, and its achievements and trophies can be plundered in the span of a rental. With no multiplayer - not saying there should be any for this type of game - I simply can't see Mafia II as worth the full fare. It would take a lot of DLC to get this game to a satisfying length. PS3 owners do get a free game extension - "The Betrayal of Jimmy" - that provides some structured-yet-open-ended mayhem that crime sandbox fans expect. Another extension, "Jimmy's Vendetta," is due for both consoles and PC in the fall. It probably won't be free.
There may be nothing broken or dysfunctional about Mafia II, but it falls well short of expectations built by three years in development and a seven-year-old hit. It's hard to shake the feeling that 2K Czech built six awesome chapters expecting to provide a game twice or three times as long as this, then had to condense it when someone cracked the whip and said finish up.
Many will marvel over the game's visual polish, destructible and interactive environment, and it is indeed impressive. But this is a mob game. I'm here to steal money and whack people, not flush the john and turn out the lights.
Mafia II was developed by 2K Czech and will be published by 2K Games for the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC or the Wii on Aug. 24. Retails for $59.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Finished the game's singleplayer campaign mode and replayed several missions; played the free DLC included with the PS3 version.