By Darren Franich
September 10, 2010 at 02:00 PM EDT

Do you remember watching Face/Off and thinking, “If this movie didn’t have any slow-motion, it would be ten minutes long.” You get a similar, and far more aggravating, stretched-out feeling from Mafia II. The gangster video game is set in a lavishly designed postwar metropolis called Empire Bay: Think downtown Manhattan with San Francisco’s freeways, plus Chicago’s El Train and Vice City’s traffic laws.

There’s an impressive attention to period detail. Clothes, cars, buildings, mid-Atlantic accents…they’re all here, and you’ll enjoy them all from the comfort your car, as you drive backwards and forwards and round and round the city. I’ve played eight hours Mafia II, and I think seven of those hours were driving. If you’re like me, you’ll start doing crazy things to test yourself. Maybe you’ll only drive on sidewalks, or you’ll try to hit every fire hydrant. Inevitably, you’ll just get out of the car and start shooting people. Mafia II is possibly the first video game to bore you into a homicidal rage.

It’s sad, because it all starts off brilliantly. The first level sends you into the middle of a WWII firefight on the island of Sicily. You almost forget you’re playing a mob game…until the prologue ends with a local Mafia don ending the battle, brokering a peace between the fascists and the Allis. It’s an intriguing moment – you don’t remember seeing that in The Godfather.

Unfortunately, after that eye-popping opener, you ship back home, and it’s all Clichéville from there. Your mama wants you to be a good boy. She tells you not to hang out with your rascal buddy Joe. Joe looks like Michael Badalucco and talks a villain from a Tracer Bullet strip: “Eh, Vito, You drive like my sister!” Everyone in the game talks like that. They sound like Mario Puzo translated back and forth from Finnish until all subtlety was wrung out:

Mobster #1: “Let’s just say, they slightly underestimated him.”

Mobster #2: “How much?”

Mobster #1: “Fatally.”


Mobster #2: “That’s a fancy way of saying he’s dead, right?”

This would all be forgivable if Mafia II was fun. And it is…sometimes. The gunplay is a good mix of duck-and-cover and bang-bang action. There’s a definite retro-thrill in spraying a Tommy gun while wearing a fancy suit. Unfortunately, a typical mission is half driving and half cinematic, without much time for action.

For example: At the start of one mission, you have to drive a truck to one side of the city. There, you sell cartons of stolen cigarettes. Well, no – your buddy Joe sells the stolen cigarettes. You just press the action button to throw him a carton of cigarettes. If you find this exciting, allow me to pitch you my newest idea for a game: Dry the Paint! (You play as the Paint. Hit X to Dry.)

Then, you drive to another part of the city. Stolen cigarettes, action button, rinse and repeat. Suddenly, a bunch of greasers torch the truck. Quick, drive to meet up with your boss! Then talk to your boss. Then drive to the greasers’ hideout. Finally, a gunfight starts. It is awesome. Then it’s over, and you drive a stolen car down to the docks, and then you drive to the bar, and you drive, and you drive…

People, after ten hours of this, you’ll find yourself yearning to shoot somebody. If that sounds a bit bloodthirsty, it’s only because there’s surprisingly little to do in Mafia II besides violence. It’s a wide-open city environment, but there aren’t any minigames or sidequests, so there’s very little reason to explore Empire Bay. Not every game has to be GTA IV, but since the main storyline is such a meandering mess, the city’s emptiness starts to feel positively Twilight Zone-ish in the worst way.

The game has a few intriguing twists – including (SPOILER ALERT) a lengthy trip to prison which is bizarrely more enjoyable than the rest of the game. The gunplay really is a lot of fun. And sometimes, the period detail really pays off. As you drive and drive and drive, you’ll start flitting incessantly between radio stations. The creators stuffed the radio full of period-appropriate music, so as you listen to the splendid rhythms of Louis Prima’s “When You’re Smiling” or the Andrews Sisters’ “Victory Polka,” you’ll feel like it’s really 1945, and you’re really bored. C