This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Mafia II.
Once again I astound myself at my growing powers of clairvoyance, because I was able to accurately predict the entire story of Mafia II using only the fact that it's this game about the mafia. The main character, I foretold with the game's box to my forehead, will start the game licking the mildew off his landlady's crystallized vagina to make rent and will be lured into organized crime by the money, the clothes, the pretty cars, the fast whores, etc., but after a brief heyday will be ordered to kill a friend or a friend will be ordered to kill them and they'll realize that CRIME DOES NOT PAY (except for all the money, and the clothes, and the pretty cars, and the fast whores, etc.).
I have never seen a mafia story where a bloke joins the mafia and then everything is lovely forever. Why does society insist on demonising organized crime? We all agree Prohibition was a stupid law, right? So why is it socially acceptable to crave a nice cup of tea in the morning or a cigarette after a knobbing, but the moment I try to pound half a kilo of smack into my eyeballs, everyone thinks there's something wrong with me!
Mafia II is a game about the mafia (they were going to call it Quest for the Sausage Fountain, but you know how people are, you have to spell everything out) following the adventures of a European immigrant named Niko Bel -- I mean, Vito Scaletta, who arrives in the big city and enters into various criminal pursuits with his fat best friend Roman Bel -- I mean, Joe something or other. Events are largely unconnected to Mafia I, although there is one memorable crossover scene showing that Vito had an extremely brief appearance in the previous game, which I thought was a nice little touch. I even went back and looked at the scene again in Mafia I, and the characters kind of look like how they do in Mafia II, except that they'd all been hit in the face with a shovel a few times because this was PS2-era graphics. Anyway, Vito and Joe join a mafia family, get a whole bunch of pretty cars and fast whores, and then everything is lovely forever. Or that could just have been the point when the PCP kicked in.
Those attentive motherfuckers among you may have grasped from the previous paragraph that somewhere down the line from this speeding monologue a comparison to Grand Theft Auto 4 lies lashed and shrieking to the railroad tracks. But the more I played Mafia II the less apt this comparison became. For starters, GTA IV actually let you do shit. Mafia 2 is technically a sandbox in the same way that the occupant of a high security prison van driving through Blackpool is technically a holidaymaker. I'm not sure why Mafia II and, indeed, Mafia I felt they needed to be open-world, because they're both heavily story-based linear sequences of missions, and largely the only activity available between missions is schlepping to the next one through the same dull scenery.
People have suggested to me that this is to build an atmosphere of realism and highlight that life in organized crime was really just a sobering routine day job, to which I would say: "Piss off! This is a game. Games are fun. I want to knob prostitutes while singing songs from Bugsy Malone and say 'fuggedaboutit' without irony." You know, after a while "day job" is exactly the right word for it. Virtually every chapter starts with Vito waking up in the morning and driving to work. Work involves being led around by the nose following a linear sequence of instructions, then doing a bit of cover-based combat if you're very good. And the shooting eventually becomes just as routine as an office job, an office job where all you do is file bullets under faces all day. Then, at the end of your shift, the game instructs you to drive straight home, with nothing do to on route but collect Playboy centerfolds that the adult equivalent of the Easter Bunny has left lying around before having a quick sandwich and a wank before bed.
Some people have said this should be judged as an interactive drama rather than a game, but this only works if the drama repeatedly switches between two different theaters that are five minutes drive from each other. It feels unnecessarily padded. Give me some credit. You don't have to make me drive the guy home after every bloody night. I'm not going to going to assume he's going to drop where he stands and spend the night snoring away next to the shallow grave he just filled in. GoodFellas didn't feel it necessary to show us Joe Pesci flossing the babies out of his teeth every morning.
Now, while the police in GTA IV apparently trained in Baghdad and won't turn on the siren for anything less than an IED detonating under their grandmother's rocking chair, Mafia II 's cops actually come after you for driving over the speed limit and running red lights, which I didn't mind because the odd high-speed chase did a lot to liven up Vito's morning commute.
You see, the reason why I don't buy the "interactive drama" thing is that my favorite experiences in the game came when it went off-script, like when I didn't have enough money for the mission and took it upon myself to rob some fancy clothing stores, entering exciting stand-offs with police before nicking one of the suits on sale and instantly losing my Wanted level because the cops all have paving stones for brains. Or the one bit where I had to improvise my way across the city at night with a Wanted level, no money, no car, and dressed only in a vest and ThunderCats boxer shorts. When the game actually embraces its sandbox nature it becomes halfway exhilarating, but then it lassos you back into line with more linear, cover-based combat missions before you can have more than the regulation amount of fun.
As for the story it's so proud of, I'm underwhelmed. Vito isn't exactly Jean Valjean; he's just a dark-haired white guy in a game that seems to be populated exclusively by them. The only way you can tell him apart is that he's the only one being followed around by the film crew and a retro '50s soundtrack. All he ever does is go along with things like whatever the Sicilian word for "bitch" is, without the slightest flicker of emotion disturbing his pretty boy good looks. In the film, he'd be played by Keanu Reeves or a big balsa wood cutout with greasy hair.
I wouldn't say Mafia II is a bad game, I'm just not sure it knows what it wants to do. And the ending's a disappointment. Without wishing to spoil, it's like if The Shawshank Redemption ended while Tim Robbins was still covered by poo in a pipe. After reaching the CRIME DOES NOT PAY phase of the standard mafia storyline, the game just sort of cuts out halfway through resolving everythi-
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When I was a kid games really made you work to find the tits in them, and now they're just lying around in the gutters
Did anyone else notice that 'Vito' and 'Niko' are curiously assonant