Mafia II is an odd game.
It gets solid marks for its technical abilities. The game looks very good. In fact, in can be drop dead gorgeous at times. Environments are large and authentic and there's a good amount of physics at play.
The audio also gets high marks. Great voice-acting. Great period music.
The storyline and cutscenes are fun to watch. Classic gangster stuff, more Goodfellas than Godfather.
The gameplay is solid as well. Driving physics are realistic and the cars control as well as cars from the 40's and 50's can control. Gunplay is standard 3rd person fare, with a cover system and familiar play mechanics. Melee combat is a bit rough around the edges, but not horridly bad.
The one area where the game really excels is overall emersion in the era. The visuals, audio, voice-acting and story come together very well to create a great setting.
So then why, if all aspects of the game are solid to excellent, am I just not really enjoying this game that much?
I've put in about 10 hours into it, am towards the end of the game, and I just have weird mixed feelings about my experience. There have been moments when I've really enjoyed the game. The game gets some tiny details right, making the game seem really realistic (sometimes annoying so), and some other aspects are lazily done, looking totally "game-like" and ruining your immersion in this rich game world. And then there are just odd things added that seem to serve absolutely no purpose at all.
Some examples. Note, I am going into total rant/nitpick mode here:
- In your apartment (or the apartment of others) you have the ability to turn off any of the lights, turn on all facets, showers, flush the toilet, etc. Except it serves absolutely no purpose. Ok, many games let you do such things, but for some reason it just seems especially out of place in this game. Oh, you can also grab food or drinks out of the fridge to consume. Again, I do not see the point of this. I think it may replenish your health or something, but I have never been in my apartment and needed "health". Maybe if the game had some hunger/thirst system I could see the point, otherwise, it is just there for no purpose, other than the novelty of drinking a beer the first time and then never doing it again. Yes, this seems like a nitpick on my end, but for some reason this stuff seems to stand out to me in Mafia II more than in other games. Almost as if the developer had plans for all these others tasks and then left some gameplay mechanic out at the last second.
- While Empire Bay is a large detailed city, there is basically nothing to do in it aside from whatever mission you are currently assigned. This is definitely not a sandbox game, even though you can go anywhere you want. There is no reason (or down time) to explore, because there is nothing to actually do outside what the game has in store for you.
- You have to periodically put gas in your car. Realistic? Sure. Necessary? Nope. Again, another example of the game going to extreme lengths to do something "realistic", but in reality, it is just a cumbersome task to do. One the game could have easily done without.
- Speaking of gas and driving, seems like driving makes up 75% of the gameplay.
- The game also loves cutscenes. A bit too much. It has some of that Metal Gear syndrome, in that you might have a cutscene, then 15 seconds of gameplay and then you are right back to another cutscene. It just seems odd to give players control for those 15 seconds, to then go back to another cutscene. It is annoying. Especially when sometimes all you do is walk a few feet to trigger that next cutscene. Sometimes I'd much rather be actually playing what is going on in the cutscene instead of watching.
- And amusingly enough, sometimes the opposite is true. There is one mission where you have to pick up a heavy weapon to take to a location. So you go to the shop to grab this weapon. You then actually control Vito (your character) as he carries this weapon back to the car. Mind you it is heavy so you are walking at a snail's pace, and you have to walk through a few hallways and up a few stairs. Really? THAT would have been just fine to see in a cut-scene. It was not entertaining at all to control Vito carrying that heavy box for what felt like 2 minutes. WTF guys?
- One big problem I have with this game - and sandbox games in general - is that the game holds your hand way too much. I understand this is a large game world and you don't want players getting lost or wandering around aimlessly wondering where they have to go, but sometimes these games go too far, sucking out a lot of potential fun and opportunities to immerse yourself in your character's situation even more. An example: One mission tasks you with breaking into a building. It would have been fun to sneak around, trying to figure out exactly how to break in. Instead, you have a big dot on your radar telling exactly where you have to go to break in. That kinda sucks the fun out of figuring it out on your own. I don't have an issue with the radar showing how to get to a location, but there are times that once you get to that location, the rest should be up to the player.
- I also really wish the player had more input in where to take the story. Letting the player make some of their own choices would have been just fantastic in this game. There were times when I really wish I could choose which route I wanted my character to go story-wise. We don't need Mass Effect levels of choice here, but there were a few key story points where this would have been great, and added a ton of tension to the scene as you choose which direction to take a situation.
And that's where I am at right now. I've had some really fun, tense, exhilarating moments. Some pretty emotional ones too. But the game can't consistently pull them off and just when I was really enjoying the game (a span of 2 - 3 chapters in the later half of the game are really, really good), it throws a curve ball at you and I'm not really liking the direction it has gone since then.
I'll chime in when I finish the game with final thoughts.