A film has to be Lawrence Of Arabia to justify more than three hours of your time, it takes a highly skilled or supremely foolish writer to attempt a 1000-page novel, and double-albums have become synonymous with musicians who give rather too much credit to their own talent.
Yet with videogames, ridiculous playtimes in the dozens or hundreds of hours are credited with a seemingly inherent value, and little thought is given to whether the gameplay and narrative can actually sustain it.
Red Dead Redemption would have been a more satisfying experience with several hours of story missions removed or turned into Stranger quests. Uncharted 2 would have taken a step closer to perfection had it spent less time fooling around with blue guys and reached a conclusion shortly after the tank battle. If you’re looking for proof that videogames have progressed as a storytelling medium, the fact that comments like this are now perfectly valid criticism is a good place to start.
This trend is at the very heart of what 2K Czech is trying to accomplish in Mafia II, though that may not be widely understood. When we informed our colleagues that the game could be completed in around twelve hours, the revelation was greeted by a baffling chorus of frowns and furrowed brows. Evidently, the fact that Mafia II is an open-world crime thriller set in an abstraction of New York City was taken as a tacit assurance that it would also be 40 hours long – or, to put it another way, if it sounds a bit like Grand Theft Auto IV, being given anything else is tantamount to a broken promise.
At its core, Mafia II is a linear adventure in the vein of Alan Wake. It is a game of texture and detail. A thick, luxurious atmosphere blankets the experience from its surprising beginning to its inevitably bitter end – an effect that can only be created by exerting the sort of intricate control on what the player is able to see and do that Grand Theft Auto’s free-roaming structure logically precludes. Mafia II is a dozen hours long because that’s how much time it takes for the story to play out. There are no side missions, no conveniently placed ramps, and only a small handful of collectibles that work in harmony with the fiction. 2K Czech has invested serious time and effort into conjouring a peerless sense of time and place – we won’t begrudge it for not encouraging players to shatter the illusion.
Mafia II’s open world is expansive and populous enough to feel like an actual city, but its real function is as set-dressing for the story. Near the start of the game, Vito Scaletta, the game’s protagonist, arrives in his neighbourhood in a taxi. It’s Christmas time; snow falls gently from the sky, fairy lights illuminate the shop windows, a pair of drunken revellers serenades a woman leaning from of a second-floor window, and, behind it all, Dean Martin’s mellifluous voice sings ‘Let It Snow’. The weather, the music, the time of year, the activity on the streets; these aren’t the product of ambient systems doomed to repeat themselves in endless randomised loops as in most open-world games, but scripted events thoughtfully placed by the developer, unique to that location at that moment.
Mafia II isn’t so intricately crafted at every single moment, but its structure affords 2K Czech more opportunities to do so. The gameplay is divided into chapters, with each one typically beginning with Vito waking up, and concluding with him going to bed. This ultimately means that you’re always on a mission; you always have someone to see or somewhere to go. The map contains shops where you can buy guns, clothes, food, and so on, but beyond the option to steal their money there’s little reason not to press on with the task at hand.
However, while this approach creates a unique sense of momentum, it presents two significant problems: first, the fact that you often start and finish each chapter in the same location means Vito has to traverse the same narrow selection of routes a dispiriting number of times. The excellent range of period music on the game’s three radio stations – some of which is anachronistic to the time period, but still works in context – soften the blow, but there are any number of ways 2K Czech could have done more to alleviate the issue. The second, potentially more damaging problem is the importance Mafia II’s tight focus places on the characters and the story, but 2K Czech avoids that pitfall with admirable skill.
This is helped in no small part by the impressive character models. There are no Nathan Drake-esque poster boys here; just a motley collection of ruffians whose physical imperfections help to make their characters seem real even as the script occasionally betrays them as stereotypes. The story, too, contains nothing you won’t have encountered in any number of mob films, but Mafia II succeeds despite its reliance on borrowed inspiration.
In videogames, we’re seldom given more than cinematic clichés. That’s all Uncharted 2 is, after all, but when they’re reheated with such conviction and love it’s very often enough. This is what Mafia II does, and yes, it left us wanting more. In a game crammed with workaday wise guys, that’s probably the wisest move of all.