I drive through a frosty Empire Bay as Dean Martin’s Let It Snow plays on the radio. The peaceful song is eventually interrupted by an update on the overseas war effort. I’m careful not to let my Jefferson Provincial coupé slip off the road as snowflakes fall around me. The city feels authentic, its façades well-realized and its radio station announcements well-researched. There’s a lot to like here in Mafia II.

However, I’m playing Mafia II just days after rewatching the 1990 crime epic Goodfellas, and it’s difficult to not make direct and unflattering comparisons between the two. Pitting Mafia II against Goodfellas is a bit of an unfair fight — the latter was nominated for six Academy Awards while the former is sitting at a 77 on Metacritic — but video game reviewers praised the story in Mafia II, even if the rest of the game was middling.

So why does Mafia II’s relatively strong storytelling still fall well short of Goodfellas? The answer lies partly in the game’s own shortcomings, but much more in the nature of games themselves.

A Blank-Canvas Protagonist

Vito Scaletta is nothing you haven’t seen before. He’s an italian immigrant drawn to organized crime by a combination of financial insecurity and a personal fascination with the mafia. There’s not much depth to Vito’s character, probably because this allows the player some flexibility. Maybe your Vito is discrete and clean-cut, or maybe he speeds down the sidewalk in his convertible knocking down pedestrians. Mafia II tries to let you be either of these Vitos, and the result is a bit of a blank canvas.

The problem with this is that Vito ends up being rather boring. We get the occasional narrative monologue about his longing for a better life, more money, or less violence, but he spends most of his time just calmly following the path that the game lays out for him. A day in the life of Vito Scaletta finds him waking up, looking for someone who can tell him what to do next, and then going and doing whatever they tell him to. Each task is carried out with a level of emotional detachment that makes Vito seem less and less human as the game progresses.

Lame Maneuvering to Justify Gameplay Sequences

Speaking of those tasks, the game bends over backwards regularly in order to justify gameplay. Here are a few moments that made me cringe:

  • You need to steal some gas stamps. Conveniently, a woman named Maria is willing to tell you how to rip off her employer’s gas stamps in exchange for a ride to the hospital to see her sister, something that certainly can’t be hard to come by.
  • There’s a nonsequitur sequence in prison where you need to clean the urinals.
  • The inevitable prison shower scene serves primarily as a way to practice the melee fighting system.
  • You’re selling stolen cigarettes out of the back of a truck. Customers come up and ask for a “carton of blues”, “carton of reds”, or “carton of whites” and you have to pick the right color of cigarette.
  • A tense standoff with a rival mob turns into a one-on-one melee fist fight while the rest of the mafia members stand and watch. After the fight is finished, the situation turns into what I’ll call a “shoot-dozens-of-guys” sequence.
  • A final confrontation with mafia capo Derek sees another tense standoff. This time, the standoff ends with the line “we’re not gonna kill him here, we’ll do it later”, after which the enemies proceed to run off and arrange themselves into a shoot-dozens-of-guys sequence for your convenience.

These moments are the sorts of things we’ve come to expect from games. At some point, you need to play, and there’s not always a graceful way to get you into that state. However, the result is that Mafia II ends up with a number of scenes and dialogue that would look horrendously lame in Goodfellas.

Shoot-Dozens-of-Guys Sequences

In a similar vein, the designers of Mafia II decided to make shooting the core gameplay mechanic, which means you’re going to be doing a lot of shooting, regardless of how awkwardly it fits into the story. This manifests itself most commonly in a countless number of shoot-dozens-of-guys sequences, in which story beats devolve into long cover-based firefights where Vito murders a few dozen members of a rival faction in a matter of minutes.

In Goodfellas, this sort of sequence happens precisely zero times. Why is that? Because when mafia men need to resolve a dispute, they don’t generally do so by squaring off against each other in a burning building and shooting through as many Tommy Gun cartridges as they can find. Instead, the goal is to operate quietly such that a victim might not even know they’re going to get whacked up until the moment the knife is drawn across their neck.

Perhaps the best example of the disconnect here is a stealth operation where Vito and Joe plot to blow up a hotel conference room full of high-ranking members of a rival mob. The plan is intriguing: dress as maintenance workers and plant an explosive in the conference room, then camp out on a window washing platform until the mafia men return to the room, light the fuse, and walk away before anyone knows what happened.

Unfortunately, the excitement of this tense moment is bookended by two shoot-dozens-of-guys sequences, and it is impossible to believe that Vito and Joe managed to fire several hundred bullets in various parts of a hotel without blowing their cover. Even disregarding this logical leap, the presence of lengthy cover-based shooting sequences in a stealth operation undercuts the sense of tension or danger that could otherwise have made the moment thrilling.

Using a Lot of Words Without Saying Much

Perhaps the biggest difference between Mafia II and Goodfellas is that Goodfellas’ runtime is exactly as long as Scorsese wanted it to be. Every line of dialogue was constructed to serve a purpose, and every scene is there because it needed to be there in order to make a complete film. Mafia II, on the other hand, has a lot of time to fill to make its 10+ hour play time, and much of that is populated with unnecessary dialogue.

A few examples:

  • Building guards chatting at length about television just being a fad.
  • A Chinese boxing coach saying “ahh, this no happen if you use Tiger style”.
  • Enemies shouting “I never trusted you, from the moment I saw you” ad nauseam during a shootout.

Additionally, there is a phone call between Vito and a bartender that was so unnecessarily wordy that I documented the entire conversation:

(VITO) Hello.
(LEON) Yeah, uh, is this, uh Vito?
(VITO) Who’s asking?
(LEON) Name’s Leon. I’m the bartender at the Lone Star. I’m ringing you because Joe Barbaro gave me your number. Says he’s a friend of yours.
(VITO) Yeah, what about him?
(LEON) Well, old Joe been guzzling my good hooch all night long growling about some guy named Marty and now he just gone plain salty on me.
(VITO) What the hell you talkin bout?
(LEON) Your friend is out of control, man. He all waving his gun around and shit and we can’t talk to sense to him.
(VITO) Great.
(LEON) Yeah, look. I ain’t lookin’ for no trouble from you fellas. Could you please come pick his drunk ass up before he shoots somebody or somebody calls the police? Vito, you gots to come on down here and pick his ass up. You coming or not?
(VITO) All right, I’ll be right there. And hey, don’t give him any more booze until I get there.
(LEON) I’ma try, but your friend, he ain’t gonna be down with that, you dig?
(VITO) Hey, if you don’t cut him off right now, I’m gonna cut you off when I get there, aight?
(LEON) Aight, man, just hurry.
(VITO) Alright, how many people are in the bar right now?
(LEON) Just me now. Joint was jumping about an hour ago, but now everybody done gone and split.
(VITO) Alright, listen. Lock the place up until I get there. I’ll be there in a minute.
(LEON) Gotcha.

My guess is that this conversation is intended as a way to gain the player’s sympathy for Leon, because he’s going to be accidentally shot dead by Joe in the next scene and you need to feel bad about that. However, the phone call ends up feeling like words crafted to fill time, rather than anything that truly advances the characters, the plot, or your understanding of the game’s world.

Being a Shooter

Ultimately, it’s difficult to ask Mafia II’s storytelling to live up to Goodfellas. This is not due to some untouchable genius on the part of Scorsese, but rather a fundamental difference between game and film media. Mafia II cannot tell as finely-crafted, emotionally dense of a story as Goodfellas because at some point, it has to let you play its shooting game.

When you play, you’re going to pointlessly shoot a lot of targets, you’re going to die, enemies are going to say the same things over and over again, and the game is going to twist around itself awkwardly to justify handing the controls over to you. Thus, the problem really lies in trying to tell a mafia story — something full of intrigue, tension, and subtle cues — in a medium that requires you to spend hours dodging bullets and pointing at heads with a crosshair.

But we shouldn’t let this get in the way of enjoying Mafia II, just as we shouldn’t let the lack of interactivity stop us from enjoying Goodfellas. Instead, we should recognize that these are two distinct experiences and stop pretending that Mafia II is telling the same sort of story as its film counterparts.

The story in Mafia II is the story of your experiences — the time you took out the last enemy with your hands after running out of bullets, the time you drove a 1950’s hot rod off a cliff really damn fast, or the time you dodged the cops by driving down a grass road with a body in the trunk. These stories are what make a game fun to play and interesting to talk about, but they don’t add up to a mafia story and never will, and that’s probably ok.