Mafia has always been a series of untapped potential, one that keeps hinting at greatness, but is held back by constant missteps. Nothing exemplifies that better than Mafia 2, a game that, in spite of an excellent story, by and large failed to capitalize on the universal acclaim that its predecessor enjoyed thanks to a disappointing open world setting and bland gameplay. A lot of time has passed since it first came out though, so with a fresh perspective and a new coat of polish, does Mafia 2 live up to its potential in 2020 the way it never could in 2010?
"Vito Scaletta’s journey as he goes from crook to war veteran to a mobster rising through the Mafia’s ranks is a riveting one. It is backed up by solid characters, sharp writing, and tightly directed cutscenes. That much was true in 2010, and it’s still true today."
A lot of time may have passed, but Mafia 2’s strengths and weaknesses feel as potent as they did a decade ago. The game’s biggest strength, in true Mafia fashion, is its story. Vito Scaletta’s journey as he goes from crook to war veteran to a mobster rising through the Mafia’s ranks is a riveting one. It is backed up by solid characters, sharp writing, and tightly directed cutscenes. That much was true in 2010, and it’s still true today, to the extent that the game is almost worth a try just for the story alone.
At about a dozen or so hours long, Mafia 2 is also the perfect length, and that length is bolstered by tight pacing. Things move quickly, and it never feels like the game lingers on any narrative beat for longer than it should. At the same time, Mafia 2 doesn’t rush things either- it takes its time to develop characters, relationships, and arcs as effectively as it should, but rarely dwells on any of it for too long. The tight pacing and accomplished storytelling encourage you to keep playing and keep going forward, even when you might start losing interest in other parts of the game.
Much like Mafia 3, however, Mafia 2’s remarkable strengths in story and storytelling are not reflected in other aspects of the game. Where its narrative is concerned, the game is a standout experience, but when you get down to actually playing through it, you can’t help but feel deflated by its terribly bland gameplay.
"Mafia 2’s remarkable strengths in story and storytelling are not reflected in other aspects of the game. Where its narrative is concerned, the game is a standout experience, but when you get down to actually playing through it, you can’t help but feel deflated by its terribly bland gameplay. "
Though Mafia 2 is set in an open world environment, it would have fared far better as a linear game. For starters, Empire Bay – its fictional recreation of 1940s and 1950s New York – is pretty small (even by 2010 standards). Its size would not have been much of an issue if Mafia 2 used that space well- but it doesn’t do that. There are very few (and very unremarkable) side activities to undertake, and the world feels static and lifeless. There are some interesting mechanics at play, such as the way it handles its wanted system, but overall, the world ends up being little more than stage dressing for the story, and for driving your vehicle to get from mission to mission.
Driving is also quite frustrating in Mafia 2. Vehicles handle like they’re made of rocks, the impacts of collisions feel disproportionate at times, and driving through its relatively small map to the same locations gets boring very quickly. The game does a good enough job of injecting the right kind of atmosphere to make its city feel like an authentic period setting, but sadly, that’s the most that can be said about its open world.
The act of playing Mafia 2 is better when you’re in the midst of its linear story-driven missions, but only slightly so. They are inherently more engaging because they’re tied to the progression of the game’s riveting story, but the fact that they all rely very heavily on bland, cursory cover shooting mechanics doesn’t do them any favours. Mafia 2 came out at a time when third person cover shooters ruled the roost in the industry, but even then, it felt like just another face in the crowd as far as its gunplay was concerned. The AI isn’t particularly smart, shots don’t land with too much impact, and about halfway through the game, all firefights start blending into one another. Other than one or two standout missions every now and then, they all end up feeling the same.
"Overall, the world ends up being little more than stage dressing for the story, and for driving your vehicle to get from mission to mission."
Mafia 2: Definitive Edition’s most disappointing aspects, however, are not flaws that the game always had- it’s that the remastering work done here is pretty disappointing. It’s the most basic of efforts. Visuals look slightly sharper, textures have a little more detail, and… and that’s pretty much it. It doesn’t feel like it’s quite enough. Beyond these cursory upgrades to the visuals, in fact, Mafia 2: Definitive Edition actually has quite a few technical issues.
For starters, the frame rate is terrible. I played on a base PS4, and the game stuttered constantly, and often stuttered hard. Frame rate dips were especially common and noticeable when I was driving around, but would frequently show up even during combat encounters. Most remasters of decade-old games are expected to improve the original game’s performance. Mafia 2: Definitive Edition actually makes it worse.
On top of that, the game is also rife with texture pop-in issues- and I don’t say “rife” lightly. Much like the frame rate dips, they’re a constant nuisance, and once again, most common when you’re driving a vehicle, from shrubs and lampposts in your immediate vicinity to buildings and structures in the distance. Add to that audio issues and the odd glitch here and there, and what you’re left with it a shoddy, messy remaster that only does the bare minimum- and doesn’t do it very well. If you really want a “definitive edition” of Mafia 2, go play the original release on PC with visual mods.
"Mafia 2: Definitive Edition’s most disappointing aspects, however, are not flaws that the game always had- it’s that the remastering work done here is pretty disappointing."
I can’t tell you that Mafia 2 is not worth your time, because even though its story is the only part of the entire game that stands out, it’s good enough that I can recommend the game to you. If you want accomplished storytelling and a riveting mobster tale, Mafia 2 will give you exactly what you’re looking for. But just as it was ten years ago, everything around that story is bland at worst, and unremarkable at best.
What’s even worse is how lazy this remaster feels- it does very little to update the visuals and actually makes the performance worse. It’s a real shame, because – at the risk of repeating myself – the story Mafia 2 tells is an excellent one, and one I think you should experience. But just as it was let down by an uninspired game around it in 2010, it’s once again let down by a lazy remaster in 2020.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Tells an engaging story, and tells it very well; Memorable characters; Tightly paced.
Lifeless, static open world; Bland cover shooting; Constant performance issues; Plenty of technical issues, including incessant texture pop-in and audio bugs.