The wrong medium for Mafia II

Mafia II Glitch

Are you there, God? It’s me: Vito…

I’ve had the opportunity recently to polish off a couple of games that I never had the chance to play when they were originally released. First up was 2K’s Mafia II, a game that I enjoyed while I played it, but I’m not sure I’ll ever play it again. (MAFIA II SPOILERS BE HERE)Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate Mafia II as much as some gamers. I liked the story and characters a lot – in fact, they’re the main reasons I persevered with the game until the end.

While I know a lot of reviewers thought that the game’s protagonist, Vito Scaletta, was a bit of a blank slate, he struck me more as stoic – a believable demeanor for the character to have, since he was screwed over early in life, sent to war, and then came home to a destitute family. He was also the straight man in his relationship with his loudmouth mate, Joe Barbaro. Next to Joe, most anyone would come off looking slightly withdrawn. I know a couple of commentators complained that Joe, Vito and most of the characters they kept company with were mindless thugs or – as one critic described them – “coarse brutes”. I didn’t have a problem with that at all. Vito and Joe are lowlevel foot soldiers in the mob. They’re sociopathic thugs. Forgive me if I don’t expect a stream of witticisms to usher forth from their gobs.

Likewise a lot of their bosses come across less as criminal masterminds and more as blunt instruments – the notable exception being Leo Galant, a mob consigliere. Again, I didn’t have a problem with this, as I thought it dovetailed nicely with one of Mafia II’s principle narrative themes, which dealt with how the mob was deteriorating from the inside. Drug dealing, back stabbing and (strange as it is to say so about this lot) a distinct lack of character leads to the eradication of the mob’s code of silence and tradition of loyalty in Mafia II. Also on the pyre is Vito’s soul and conscience, which slowly ebbs away over the course of the plot, and then vanishes altogether as he watches, without complaint, as his best friend Joe is driven away to be killed.

Mafia II tells a pretty decent yarn, but while I found engrossing and interesting while it lasted, it also came packaged with enough shonky mechanics and bad design that playing it a second time feels like it would be a genuine slog. This is because Mafia II has three elements that temp the player to rage-quit on a regular basis. Taken as separate entities, they don’t sound like much, but when you combine them, you truly enter control-pad smashing territory.

First up, Mafia II has a lot of a padding in it. This is mainly because most of the story is played out in cutscenes and outside the main plot there’s a paucity of activities to get stuck into in the game’s open world map. You can rob gas stations and convenience stores or you can steal cars and drop them off at the mob’s local junkyard. That’s about it. However, the developers clearly went to some lengths to create an urban environment that looks and feels like city in the 1950s, and by God, they were going to ensure you saw some of it. So since there’s no reason to explore it in any detail for side missions, 2K Czech decided they’d make driving over long distances an integral part of many of the missions. Early on, because the dialogue’s decent and the story’s still interesting, you don’t realise that some missions consist of driving somewhere, watching a cutscene, driving somewhere else, watching another cutscene and then driving back to Vito’s apartment. Later on in the game, you become wise to this trick and it really starts to grate.

Next, the game has take a couple of knocks for its cover-based shooter sections. They aren’t exactly awful, but they aren’t all that fun, either. A lot of the guns feel lightweight and most of the machine guns are inaccurate after the first couple of bursts. Added to which, a lot of the gun battles at the end of the game take place in dank, badly-lit environments making drawing a bead on opponents nigh-on impossible. Unless you whack the brightness on your TV up, you can barely see them until they shoot at you, and if you’re not behind cover when that happens you die. The shooting sections reach their absolute nadir in a boss battle in a darkened warehouse where one of your opponents lobs an endless stream of molotov cocktails down on you from a walled-up balcony.

So you die in Mafia II. You die a lot. And here is where the third weak-link in Mafia II’s chain seeps into the proceedings: the checkpoint system. To put it bluntly, Mafia II has one of the lousiest checkpointing systems I’ve ever seen in a video game ever. Time and time again, a car crash or a stray bullet can dump the player back into really early stages of each mission. This would be frustrating enough in a game with decent shootings sections that weren’t augmented by lengthy periods spent driving around a huge open world map. Since the other two aspects are in full effect, the checkpointing system becomes almost game-breakingly horrendous. And then there’s this:

Mafia II glitch

Mafia II meets Inception

This glitch occurred late in the 14th Chapter of the game. By the time it had happened I had suffered through several horrible gun battles, one hair-tearingly frustrating boss battle, a couple of chases and a couple of hours of driving. I’d died quite a few times and was on the verge of throwing in the towel. The battle leading up to this screen had taken me about forty or so minutes to complete, due to it being set in the abyss a blacked out building site. After all, you can’t fight what you can’t see, right? So I finished the gunfight, left the building site and was greeted with the above image. When I looked down, this is what I saw:

Mafia II Glitch

Are you there, God? It’s me: Vito…

And when I tried to move, this happened:

Mafia II glitch

And I’m FREEEEEEEEEEEEE!!! FREE FALLIN’!!!”

Now, I’m no stranger to glitches in games. And yeah, for about twenty seconds this glitch was pretty amusing. It stopped being amusing, though, when I exited the game, reloaded it and found that this glitch was now a permanent fixture of my saved game. In order to get rid of it – since Mafia II helpfully has no in-game saves available for the player – I’d have to play the entire f*cking chapter again from the f*cking beginning. Mafia II was ejected from my console and spent the rest of the day on the naughty step.

I did get back to it, eventually, mainly because I wanted to see how the story panned out. As I said, I really like Mafia II’s story, I just hated a lot of its gameplay. This got me to thinking that maybe a video game wasn’t the right medium in which to tell Mafia II’s story. Maybe it would have been better off as a movie or a TV show. I’d watch a movie made from Mafia II’s story more than once. I’ll never play the sodding game again, though.

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