Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is a perfectly decent game but rather insubstantial, a bit like popcorn or candy floss: fine for a bit of a DAKKA! here and there, but not something to really get your teeth into. I poked around the rest of the recent 2K Humble Bundle for something else, and found Mafia II. First impressions are pretty straightforward: Grand Theft Auto in the 50s, with the Mafia. Dammit! Sorry for the spoiler; GTA in the 50s, with a mysterious criminal organisation that you’ll never guess from the title.
I’m probably not the ideal target for the game as I’ve never found the Mafia especially interesting; haven’t even seen any of the Godfather films. Still, the game builds an impressive world as a set, hooking you into the story from the start and using some nice techniques like jumping from a rather drab 1945 to a more vibrant and colourful 1951. The cars, fashions and music available on radios evoke the general period nicely, if not particularly accurately (mystical time-travelling devices have widely distributed rock n’ roll and blues hits from the mid-to-late 50s in 1951; maybe Gary Sparrow took a transatlantic holiday…)
GTA is an obvious comparison/inspiration, and a quick glance at the map of the city reveals various staples: apartments, garages, gun shops, clothes shops, a scrapyard where you can sell cars etc. Like most GTA-esque games early missions are tightly scripted, introducing the player to the various elements of driving, combat etc. As the game went on, though, the missions continued to follow a tight script; Mafia II isn’t an open world, it’s a linear story. You progress directly from objective to objective with little choice (even illusory) about what to do and when. You can take cars or weapons when needed, so shops and money are rather incidental apart from a brief interlude where you need to raise some cash. That’s another GTA-a-like staple, usually a prompt to explore the wide range of side activities available in an open world; in Mafia it seemed to boil down to ‘steal a few cars’ or ‘rob a few shops’. The linear nature isn’t a problem, I found it compelling enough to play it right through, though as the game went on it was increasingly to see just how many bad decisions one person could make.
Vito, the protagonist of Mafia II, is a tearaway youngster, and given a choice of jail or the army he picks the latter. The start of the game sees him fighting in Sicily, 1943, then jumps to him on convalescent leave in the US in 1945. He could have been set up sympathetically; an honourable discharge, difficulty adjusting back to civilian life, something like that, but instead his old friend sets him up with a fraudulent medical discharge and Vito hardly needs any persuasion to return to a life of crime. Obviously criminality is going to be a fundamental aspect of a game called Mafia (or indeed Grand Theft Auto), and unless (or even if) going down the undercover cop route of e.g. Sleeping Dogs you’re going to be a pretty shady character, fair enough. As Mark Kermode talks about in film reviews protagonists don’t have to be conventionally “good” or admirable, but if you don’t want to spend any time in their company it’s problematic, and I think that’s even more applicable when you’re directly controlling them in a game. I have more empathy with characters who get pulled in by their circumstances and at least show a bit of reluctance before beating up dockworkers for cash, who might be “Bad Guys” but at least have some relative moral high ground over Even Worse Guys; Vito does show a few flickers of conscience, but not many.
As time passes it’s hard to feel sympathy for anyone. Violence begets violence as gangs and families clash, and startlingly enough it seems that killing a whole bunch of dudes annoys other dudes who kill a bunch more dudes which annoys other dudes, though fortunately they can be mollified by killing yet more dudes, though wouldn’t you know it that seems to annoy different dudes, until finally Vito says “hang on a minute, killing everyone doesn’t really seem to be working out, why don’t we all have a nice sit-down and talk it out over a cup of tea?” (Spoiler: that might be a lie.) Attitudes to gender and race seem authentic for 1951 (not that I have first hand experience), with the roughest edges filed off so as not to be completely unacceptable these days. Other than a brief appearance by Vito’s sister and mother the female characters spanned the whole gamut from prostitute to Playboy centrefold (the latter being collectibles found around the city, again anachronistically as Playboy was first published in 1953; presumably Gary Sparrow has a sideline in jazz mags). Black, Irish and Chinese gangs provide cannon fodder in stereotype (not that Italian Americans were particularly chuffed with their portrayal either). The game wasn’t condoning those attitudes, or crime in general, but it made it all the more difficult to warm to Vito (or anyone, really).
Maybe that’s the point, the natural state of man from Thomas Hobbes; “every man is Enemy to every man… and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” The grim nature of crime, war, humanity in general can make for an involving, if perhaps not entirely enjoyable, story. There’s a tension to the game, though. On one hand there’s a separation from what’s happening – you have no choice in Vito’s decisions, you watch the cutscenes, he says what he says, you’re observing someone else’s story as “they” get dragged further and further in. On the other hand you obviously control Vito as he goes about those objectives, sometimes game mechanics (“Press ‘E’ to scrub floor!”) more closely involving “you” in what’s happening on screen, and as I got more disconnected from the former the latter could be a tad jarring.
This is probably coming across as a touch harsh; I finished Mafia II after all (though it’s fairly short, which helped), it kept me playing through to the end. Gun combat works well, though the selection of firearms is a touch odd (including four separate submachine guns with little functional difference). Driving is OK, though crowded streets and police who take exception to reckless automotive behaviour can be irritating. All in all it’s an interesting effort, I can see how it got some rave reviews and if I’d been more engaged in the story I might have agreed with them, but for me it didn’t entirely work. Good for a balanced gaming diet, a story-heavy thought-provoking if flawed game to go with the enjoyable, if a bit mindless, blasting of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel.
It’s a bit late really (by about six years) to weigh in on Mafia II, but also quite timely with Mafia III about a week away; I don’t think I’ll be rushing to pick it up, but I’ll keep an eye on reviews and perhaps grab it once it’s discounted a bit to see how the series develops into the 60s.