So yeah, Mafia 2. As an avid fan of the original game, I was very much looking forward to its sequel. It's received some very mixed reactions, with both story and gameplay alternatively praised and criticised. My overall impressions are accurately reflected in this review, which bottomlines to a striking juxtaposition of Mafia 2's story and the mechanical setting used to tell it in. It's not that the two aren't meaningfully connected, it's that the former doesn't measure up to the strengths of the latter. What the original game lacked in technical prowess, it more than made up for with a compelling story centred firmly around its well-rounded protagonist, Tommy Angelo. Mafia 2 does a 180° and lets down its solid gameplay mechanics and visual presentation with a story that meanders along without any significant cadence or ambition. And as is specifically stated to his face at the end, it's all Vito Scaletta's fault.
First things first: Mafia 2's gameplay is thoroughly enjoyable when it's actually allowed to shine through. The gunplay, while not any kind of fresh take on the cover system, is satisfying and properly worked out. Especially the option to still swing your weapon around a full 360° when in cover is a welcome one, given the tendency of enemies to run around and surround you. The driving similarly has a good feel to it, which is for the best since there's a lot of it to be done.
But, though I have repeatedly stressed that gameplay comes first, that's not an excuse to cut corners in the story department. Mafia 2's rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches-to-rags tale comes across as a random assortment of scenes gleaned from a wide variety of mafia movies, stitched together by the common thread of Vito's baffling lack of initiative and resulting willingness to go along with whatever he's presented with. He only once refuses to engage in criminal behaviour in the entire story, but it's a hollow gesture when contrasted with everything that came before (and everything that follows).
The ending especially has received a lot of flak. While at first glance it does fizzle out as opposed to providing any form of closure, it is not a bad ending in its own right. It only becomes a bad ending through all preceding events making the exact same point in their own right. Yes, a life of crime may provide momentary enrichment but ultimately comes at too high a cost. This was already overemphasised with Vito being sent to jail (the shock of which was too much for his mother to bear), and everything that follows continues to pile on the misery in highs and lows.
Yet Vito is not deserving of sympathy or compassion, since he vehemently refuses to take anything away from repeatedly being taught the same lesson. Even if it was the intention of the developers to create a pigheaded protagonist, it falls flat when considering that he never seriously questions his association with Joe, a man so blatantly an idiot that every character (including Joe himself) regularly pokes fun at it. Vito is at the centre of the story's failing, because he essentially amounts to no more than a grown-up version of Calvin.
It's not a stretch to see Vito huffing around with his arms crossed while his parents waggle a finger and stress that "work builds character". It's fitting then that such a characterless protagonist is feverishly averse to anything resembling actual manual labour. This aversion is even a mission objective in one of the earlier levels, where Vito is told by the game to quickly give up when performing an honest job. This adds insult to irony when later tasks have a different context but mechanically come down to the same thing, such as scrubbing down urinals (no choice in the matter) or picking out cartons of cigarettes (more money to be made, but technically no choice in the matter either).
And now the pun for which this entire post was a mere setup: somebody should've vetoed Vito.
Welcome to Playthroughline, a personal blog focused on the implementation of stories in games. In addition to general musings about narrative design, you’ll also find a collection of Scripts that basically do for videogames what The Editing Room does for movies.