When reviewing Mafia II, I focused largely on the manner in which the open world of Empire Bay was limited in many ways for the sake of the story. While this “wasting of an open world” might be perceived by some as a problem within the open world genre, it was this very quality that I admired most about the game. By not providing a great many distractions for the player, Mafia II is capable of crafting a rather well told story about the ups and downs (most often, the downs) of a criminal trying to make his way in the infamous organization.
While the world itself might seem “useless” by comparison to other games in the genre (say, something like the extremely robust and lively environs of Red Dead Redemption), nevertheless, the city created by 2K Czech still manages to provide a rather evocative atmosphere for the player to appreciate and immerse himself in. Atmosphere seems to be the dominant value of the open world in this series, rather than additional experiences or a sense of freedom and autonomy that other more typical examples of the genre provide. Indeed, as the review that I alluded to suggests, autonomy and freedom might be qualities that would undermine a story about a Mafia soldier who finds himself more often a pawn than a player in the world of organized crime, which is the basic plot of the full game.
With the release of a downloadable and additional story that takes place in Mafia II‘s world of Empire Bay, Jimmy’s Vendetta has reaffirmed my sense that the decision to leave out a lot of the additional trappings that are generally encountered in the open world genre, side missions especially, was a good decision in the full game. This sense of affirmation is largely because the design of Jimmy’s Vendetta results in one of the more tedious vendettas that I can recall ever participating in.
While a premise for the “plot” of the game is established in some opening cutscenes, Jimmy’s Vendetta is merely a collection of side quests that take place in Empire Bay. Jimmy is a freelance cleaner for the mob (you know, the guys that clean up messes made by other gangsters—think “The Wolf” from Pulp Fiction) who has been sold out by his employers. While incarcerated, Jimmy takes advantage of a prison riot to escape, setting up the chance to get his revenge against the mob higher ups that betrayed him. He intends to do so by disrupting their business before getting on to the bloodier business of permanently ending some careers.
As a result, missions in the game consist of things like shooting guys, stealing cars, or shooting guys and stealing cars. I am doing the game some disservice in describing the missions in this way, as there is some actual variety in the way that these missions shake out. Nevertheless, after you have accomplished a few of these mission types and with no real narrative driving these various “business disruptions” (barring some brief paragraphs to read prior to the mission that brief you and Jimmy on what’s up), the redundancy of just practicing gunplay and driving fails to create any sense of urgency or progression in Jimmy’s vendetta.
Indeed, because a lot more money is available at any given time than in the more carefully controlled economy of the first game, I spent more time collecting and modifying cars in the game than getting back to the business of revenge, creating a weird sense (for me) of Jimmy as a collector of classic cars rather than a wronged crook hell bent on revenge.
This content feels like it could have been poured into the initial game in order to give it a more traditional open world experience, allowing the player to choose some additional activities to engage with before getting on with the plot of the full game. Again though, I am kind of glad that this bit of editing took place (assuming some of this material was present in earlier builds of the game), since it resulted in a much tighter and focused game, whose plot I likely would have gotten lost in had I had all of these less obviously purposeful activities had been available to get lost in.
Players of Mafia II that missed such an experience may find a lot to like in Jimmy’s Vendetta, as it provides those “missing” open world experiences. As well as an arcade style scoring system and evaluation of mission success that might prove to some to be highly motivating (getting graded, a la Devil May Cry, didn’t matter much to me in accomplishing revenge but maybe it would to a more academically minded gamer that needs that kind of re-enforcement of their actions). Additionally, players who enjoyed the atmosphere of Empire Bay with its ability to build an appropriately post-War 1940s and 1950s vibe through its cars, architecture, music, and fashion (all of which I really did enjoy in the full release) and want to spend more time in this antique world may also enjoy this ability to revisit.
However, I find that I prefer Rockstar’s approach to DLC in their open world games. Lost & the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony provide the meatier story-driven material of a more complete game and manage to re-evoke the style and sense of place of GTA IV, for instance, while also creating a new sense of space and mechanics within that larger world (the motorcycle club and culture of the former and the club scene of the latter).
While I really recommend Mafia II as an experience somewhat different from the standard Rockstar experience that really manages to do some things better than those “other guys” as a result of this different kind of focus for the game, I have to admit that I wish 2K Czech had taken a cue from Rockstar on how to create compelling DLC or from their own full game in how to tell a good story while still playing around in a compelling and atmospheric world.