The first time I played Mafia II I had the flu and I played it in one day because I was stuck in bed with nothing else to do. I thought it was okay. I thought the city was lifeless and the story was contrived, and too much of the game was functional rather than emotional. But I also liked the violence. I liked how depressing it all was. I liked the bit when you went to prison.
I'm playing it again now and I like it a lot more. I'm not whether it was because I was too young to care or too sloshed on tablets to notice but I didn't really pick up on Mafia II the first time round. This second go through has shown me a lot more. Despite some flaws, Mafia II is a hell of a game. Here are some initial thoughts.
1. I love the mundanity. I know the intention is pretty obvious, and that Mafia II isn't the first thing to try and demystify gangster life, but I think it's incredibly brave. This game came out two years after Grand Theft Auto IV. It shared shelf space with Saints Row 2. In a climate of fun-first sandbox games, Mafia II had players driving home and going to bed after every mission. It had them visiting diners, answering phone calls from their mother, drinking coffee in their kitchen.
Honestly, it's kind of boring. And I love that. I love how Mafia II doesn't abbreviate, how it makes you stick with your shitty, idiotic, violent character every step of the way.
When Vito goes out at night and shoots six cops, then wakes up next morning, throws on a jacket and eats his breakfast, it makes him seem all the more malevolent. It's like he doesn't care. It's like that scene in Goodfellas where, after Jimmy has had Maurie killed, he's at diner with Henry. “What about Maurie's wife?” Henry asks. “Fuck her,” replies Jimmy. These guys don't just do terrible shit, they don't care about doing it either. Those workaday moments in Mafia II are a perfect contrast. They show how easily Vito shrugs off the things he does; to put it in mob parlance, they show how he's able to just fahged abarht it. His lack of conscience is scary.
2. The characters are all racist, stupid assholes. One of the first missions has you boosting a car from a poor, black neighbourhood. Vito and his scumbag friend Joe spend the whole drive over talking shit about black people. “These people breed like rabbits...they're only interested in shooting dope and killing each other,” that kind of crap. It's disgusting. The character you play in Mafia II is disgusting. And so, so dumb. He botches a simple robbery and gets sent to jail. When Joe is reciting his crummy pick-up lines, Vito's responses are all “heh, you need help buddy” and witless shit like that.
And he's got no honour, like, at all. One of the early missions sees Vito trying to fake an honest living hoisting boxes at the docks. It pays ten bucks per day and he spends the whole time bitching about how tough it is.
Eventually, he gives up and walks off, and tells the foreman that he don't need this slave labour. Once the bosses at the dock find out he's friends with the mob however, they ask Vito to help extort money from the dockworkers, and he agrees. He agrees! Ten minutes earlier, this guy was working alongside the stevedores, feeling first hand just how crummy it is to work hard and get paid nothing. Now he's beating them up and stealing from them. He'll do whatever, as long as there's easy money in it. Vito's dad was a dockworker. He never had any money because of guys like Vito. But Vito doesn't care. He's getting paid and that's what matters.
Later, when his house burns down and his possession are destroyed, he tells Joe that material things are all that matters to him. He's a fucking degenerate. For all the Cosa Nostra bullshit about old countries and omerta and honour, Vito's a guy who'll do anything for a dollar.
Some other quick pointers.
3. The game is beautiful. Not enough games are set in autumn/winter/the fifties.
4. Mafia II is the only game I know to get walking speed right. It's not a drag to walk from place to place and if you're playing the game for the first time, I encourage you to go on foot as much as possible.
5. The sister character is indefensibly shit. Weak, unquestioning, terribly acted - she has nothing to do except be saved by Vito. I wish she'd flip at him or turn him away or something. But no. She's just this little vole of a person with no agency. Same goes for most of the women. Yeah, the mob is a man's world, but since when was this game on the Mafia's side?
6. The scene where Vito arrives home from the war is fantastic. Let it Snow is playing non-diegetically, and it's all kind of pretty, but if you look close, his neighbourhood is a shithole. Some people are lying in the street, others are yelling at each other and fighting. He's glad to be home and, compared to the European Theatre, this place is picturesque. But we know straight away it won't last. Eventually the song will stop and all Vito will be left with is this shitty neighbourhood. Obviously he's going to want out.
Anyway, that's Mafia II for me so far. I'm also linking to my interview with Daniel Vávra who wrote both Mafia games. We talk mainly about the first one and I wrote it a while ago so it's shit of course, but anyway, it's there if you want it.
I might write more about Mafia II in the future.