Summary: Set during the 1940s and '50s, Mafia II chronicles the rise of Vito Scaletta through the ranks of the Italian-American mob. Armed with your trusty Colt M1911 and several other period pieces, you take on the city of Empire Bay and try to become a made man. How does its open-world gameplay with support for NVIDIA PhysX and 3D Vision compare to games like Grand Theft Auto? Read on to find out in today's review!
A petty criminal his whole life, Vito, along with his childhood friend, Joe, will descend into the world of organized crime. Together, they will work to prove themselves to the Mafia as they try to make their names on the streets. Starting with low-level jobs like robbery and stealing cars, Vito and Joe escalate quickly up the Mafia family ladder… but the life as a wise guy isn’t quite as glamorous as it seems.
In 2002, Illusion Softworks released Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, a Grand Theft Auto clone with a more mature and serious attitude. It met with critical success and garnered a cult following, as independently-developed games deemed fit for international distribution often do. It takes place in the 1930s in the fictional American city of Lost Heaven, which drew influences from New York, Chicago, and New Jersey. In an open world environment, the player takes part in the telling of a tale inspired by classic gangster films like The Godfather, Once Upon a Time in America, and Goodfellas.
Several years later, Illusion Softworks (now 2K Czech) began work on a sequel. Mafia II tells the tale of up-and-coming made man Vito Scaletta, a decorated soldier returning from World War II who is introduced to the mob life by his childhood friend, Joe Barbaro. Vito has the ambition and the talent to rise to power among Empire Bay’s crime syndicates, but has he bitten off more than he can chew?
Mafia II features an epic storyline that progresses through two decades of the mid-20th century, an authentic, highly-detailed environment to explore, plenty of gun-toting and car-chasing action, enough licensed period music to span a half-dozen CDs, and a new proprietary game engine to tie it all together. Exclusive to the PC version is support for NVIDIA PhysX and 3D Vision technologies, both of which have the potential to greatly increase the visual quality of the title when played on modern GeForce GPUs. All of that sounds great, but is the game as impressive in practice as it seems in theory? Read on to find out!
The action in Mafia II boils down to that of a cover-based, third-person shooter. This is unfortunate because the combat is not nearly as polished as many of the other games in this genre… The controls are rather sloppy – you can’t vault over most objects and there’s no way to easily move from one piece of cover to another – while the AI does little more than pop in and out of cover like a corridor version of whack-a-mole. On the bright side, it’s more realistic than other shooters in the sense that you can die from only a few bullets or even a single shotgun blast, so you have to be at least a little careful. If you do take some non-lethal damage, you can hide for a few seconds to allow your health to regenerate up to about three-quarters (you must eat or drink something to fill it all the way back up).
The variety of weapons is very decent, though they all fit neatly into four categories accessible via the 1, 2, 3, and 4 keys: throwables (grenades, molotovs), pistols (M1911, .36 revolver, magnum), long arms (pump-action shotgun, Kar 98k, M1 Garand), and submachine guns (tommy gun, M1A1, MP40) You can carry the entire arsenal with you at once, including some that are not listed here, likely to offset the fact that the amount of reserve ammo you can carry for any one of them is pretty limited. Even so, you’ll rarely have to go purchase ammunition because every fallen enemy provides a clip for whatever gun they were using.
It’s also worth mentioning that the hand-to-hand combat is mind-numbingly tedious at best. Considering that you’re forced into fisticuffs multiple times throughout the game, you’d think they would make it more, well, fun. All you do is hold down the evade key until the enemy attacks, counter-punch, rinse, repeat several times, and then finish with a scripted triple-click combination. There are rival mobsters scattered around the city that will pick a fist-fight with you on the street… Just pull out a gun and blow their head off. Done! No sense wasting two minutes trading blows with a nobody, right? That is, if a cop doesn’t notice and come break up the brawl.
Fighting the cops isn’t fun like it is in Grand Theft Auto because their highest alert level only means the handful of officers that spawn around you will shoot tommy guns instead of pistols. If you’re well-armed, you’ll be able to knock them out before they get close enough to be able to hit you. It is far more entertaining and fulfilling to evade the police, due to their ability to recognize you as a criminal even after you’ve gotten away. If you’re in a car and speed or crash into another motorist, the police will pursue you and eventually mark the car as “wanted.” Similarly, if you’re on foot, they will broadcast your description to the rest of the force and you will be hunted down that way. In that case, you’ll have to change your clothes in order to get them off your back for good.
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As far as vehicles, Mafia II carries the tradition of more realistic handling, but not much else. You can limit the speed to make driving legally easier and it is possible to run out of fuel. Don’t worry, though, as there are plenty of gas stations. Most damage to a car is only cosmetic, and even then not as true-to-life as it was in the first game. You can still blow up a car by shooting its gas tank, but the more subtle effects like overheated engine and broken gears are no more. Once a car takes enough damage that the it dies completely, you can step out and tighten a few things under the hood with your magic wrench to get it going again. As crazy as that sounds, it’ll allow you to take your car to a mechanic’s garage to fix it up like new.
Auto repair shops are plentiful in Empire Bay, the reason being that they also function somewhat like a GTA Pay ‘n’ Spray. That is, you can have a car painted or even change the license plates to make it legal, so the cops won’t recognize it and try to apprehend you on the spot. It’s also possible to tune up the engine for extra speed, as well as improve the overall handling. This whole system encourages you to get a car you like and stick with it for a long period of time, though you might end up leaving it at the start of a mission or where you’re forced to drive something else, and when the chapter ends, it’ll be gone. Sometimes in those situations it automatically warps back to your garage, where you can store up to 10 vehicles, but it’s unpredictable at best.
Mafia II is very linear, about as linear as an open-world game can be. You are often able to wander about the world in between untimed objectives, but you need to make a conscious effort to ignore the task at hand because you are always on the clock, so to speak. There’s always somewhere you need to be going and there are no side missions beyond robbing stores and scrapping cars. There are a few levels where your actions are able to produce a slightly different result (a little bonus money or alternate cutscene/dialogue), but there don’t seem to be any actual branches in the story.
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The visual effects in Mafia II aren’t too shabby, but the lighting and post-processing are probably the best. It seems we’re to the point where fully dynamic, soft shadows are the norm, which is definitely a good thing. Otherwise, most objects look good from a distance but won’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny, not even in the cutscenes, where that sort of thing should be controlled. The best example of this is in the faces and hands; the details make them look great from a medium distance, but the textures are quite blurry up close.
The draw distance is also terrible, with most objects popping into view about 100 feet ahead of you. Surely this can be blamed on the consoles; despite the overall average quality of the graphics, the PS3 version also had to have some effects disabled in order to salvage the framerate!
The voice acting in Mafia II is up there with the best of any video game. It’s too bad, then, that you can't say the same about the writing… If you can look past that, though, there are a lot of well-crafted cinematics that keep you entertained for the most part. A 700-page screenplay adds up to about 2 hours of cutscenes in total. However, many will feel that that is too much for a game that doesn’t last very long.
The Apex PhysX effects, on the other hand, are very slick and permeate most aspects of the game. This includes gunplay, car crashes, explosions, clothing, destructible environments, and more. There are three settings: Off, Medium, and High.
The “Off” setting will rely purely on the CPU to drive physics effects that are only marginally better than what you tend to see in other games that use Havok and the like. Clothes are more realistically simulated, but they aren’t dynamic, while particle debris and smoke are sprite-based and statically-generated. None of the effects have physical properties that allow them to interact with the rest of the game world.
The “Medium” is where things really get interesting. Clothing is physically simulated for Vito and a few other characters (unless you’re using a dedicated GPU for PhysX, in which case clothing for all NPCs will be simulated), meaning it will flap around a lot while you move or even a little due to wind while you are standing still. It’s really one of the best ever examples of a physics effect bringing omnipresent realism to a game, all the while remaining subtle enough to only wow you when you notice it doing things that you’ve never seen before.
The particle effects are very impressive, with up to 3,000 little bits and pieces made of cement, wood, glass, dirt, etc. being created at once from collisions, explosions, bullet impacts, or in the case of dirt, doing donuts in your car. They pile up on the ground and remain there indefinitely, able to be affected by explosions and whatnot. If you burnout on the road, lots of dynamic smoke is generated, making those robbery get-aways even more fun.
The “High” setting is largely the same as “Medium,” however the particle count is more than tripled, for a total of 10,000 particles to be seen on screen at the same time!
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NVIDIA 3D Vision
Mafia II is also 3D Vision Ready, meaning it is fully compatible with NVIDIA’s 3D Vision tech. If you have three 120Hz monitors, you can even do 3D Vision Surround, which triples your field of view for 3x the immersion!
Voice acting is much better than the usual. The cast doesn’t have any big stars, but they do a damn fine job.
Empire Bay is a shallow, boring place. Like the fabled blonde bimbo, its beauty is only skin-deep.
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