Before regaling you with a lengthy list of the wonders that Mafia II has to offer, the best place to start a review of Mafia II would be to point out what the game isn’t. Picking it up with misguided expectations is the quickest path to disappointment, and a sure-fire way to overlook what’s actually great about the game. Mafia II is not Grand Theft Auto; though it offers an expansive city to roam and the potential for player-created chaos, it isn’t a game filled with a daunting array of side-quests, mini-games and other optional distractions, nor does it try to be. Mafia II instead uses its sandbox go-anywhere world as a gorgeous, immersive backdrop on which to project a linear, epic, engrossing narrative.
That’s not a bad thing either, by any stretch of the imagination. As wonderful as it is to have sandbox games filled with a dizzying collection of voluntary sub-quests and as much as I adore Rockstar’s output, their wealth of choice and activity often comes at the expense of the main storyline’s pace. So tempting is the desire to get lost in the world laid out before you that it’s not unusual to get swept away wrapping up dozens of optional side-missions while the main story languishes, neglected and unfinished for long enough to dent the plot’s momentum. Mafia II offers a welcome, structured change of pace from the sprawling distractions of similar open-world games, striking a harmonious balance between crafting a living, breathing, inviting world and giving the player a focused, tightly-plotted and propulsive storyline.
At the centre of both is Vito Scarletta, young Italian-American soldier fresh off the boat on leave after a military stint during World War II. He returns home to Empire Bay to find his mother and sister indebted to loan sharks to the tune of $2,000 thanks to his late, deadbeat father. After scrambling to find work at the docks (complete with a Shenmue-esque crate-carrying gameplay scene) and finding it pays a pittance, he ditches it and catches up with childhood buddy and small-time mafioso Joe. In an effort to get his family out of debt and avoid the life of drunken poverty that befell his dad, he’s soon swept away into the prototypical life of a gangster – a career as an organised crime middleman that’ll span much of the ’40s and ’50s.
The setting of Empire Bay is a bustling wartime metropolis filled with life, character and immaculately-presented period detail. As you first step into the city, it’s covered in a light blanket of winter snow as you guide Vito back to his family’s ratty apartment, the whole scene scored to Dean Martin’s ‘Let It Snow’. If you detour and explore a little, you’ll find optional touches of in-game life sprinkled around; stopping into a diner filled with pedestrians avoiding the snow quickly found an NPC calling out to Vito – an old friend wanting to welcome him back from the war. Stepping into the alley behind Vito’s apartment sees a set of china sail out of a 4th storey window, crashing at your feet, and while wandering upstairs you’ll hear a heated domestic dispute behind closed doors – seemingly the cause of the airborne crockery.
The streets teem with people, while apartment building hallways house loitering couples, snooping landladies and cops banging on doors. From the stunningly-designed neighbourhoods which brim with diverse character, the staggering attention to detail paid to everything from street signs, clothing and vehicles to the sublime selection of music on the soundtrack and the wartime ads on the radio, Empire Bay projects a seamless period aesthetic, bristling with life and immersive atmosphere.
It’s a life that strangely extends to the police system, too. The law we’ve come to expect in cops ‘n’ crooks games are twisted pixelpiles of unrelenting rage, triggered by crimes as severe as sneezing or peacefully obeying the rules of the road while a squad car plows into you, leading you to be suddenly and inexplicably marked for death. The police of Empire Bay are decidedly more nuanced; cops will check your ID and issue verbal warnings for minor altercations or pull you over and write you a ticket for traffic offences, providing more realistic and varied options to avoid a stint in the clink or a bullet in the noggin. If a cop issues an arrest warrant though, they’ll send a description of your car or physical appearance out over the wire, requiring a change of clothes or vehicle to shake them. If they catch you, there’s always the handy option to bribe them or, if you’re feeling scrappy, resist arrest.
You can often spot the after-effects of your crimes as well. Rob a diner or gas station and the owner will grab the phone the second you leave, warning that they just called the cops if you step back inside. If you come back later, a couple of officers might be interviewing the owner, who’ll quickly shriek “That’s him!” if you wander within their sight. If you engaged your homicidal impulses during the robbery, you’ll return to the scene to find the shop is now sealed with police tape, while snooping around the crime scene will immediately attract the attention of any nearby officers.
Cops will actively enforce the law amongst NPCs, too, pulling over cars, writing tickets, chasing, shooting or being bribed by fleeing suspects and blowing away gun-toting gang members. It all lends to the game’s sense of realism and life, and is only hampered by the cops being oddly blind to you running red lights (even though your passenger will comment on it often).
Of course, as a mafioso, you’ll be engaging in more than your share of violence, so it’s handy that Mafia II has a robust combat system at its heart. Hand-to-hand combat treads a similar path to GTA IV, with fighting comprised of a 3-hit light combo, a skull-rattling one-two heavy punch, while holding ‘X’ covers your blocking ability and doubles as a directional dodge. It’s a simple, brutal and satisfying system, made that bit more fun by the addition of counter-punches and a small selection of finishing moves which differ depending on your enemy’s position.
The game’s gunplay is tight and accurate, too, and shoot-outs are often intense and always immense fun to engage in, with a welcome array of period-specific weapons to aid you as you lay waste to mafia goons, cops and rival gangs. The controls are simple, responsive and familiar to most third-person shooters, with the ‘X’ button sending you sliding towards the nearest point of cover, the shoulder buttons allowing you to pop up, take aim and obliterate some unfortunate foes. Everything from pistols, rifles, Thompson machine guns to explosives are at your disposal, all of which affect the environment with impressive destructive force, shattering glass, chipping away at concrete cover, splintering tables or sending enemies tumbling realistically.
The driving system follows suit, controlling perfectly, with a refreshing sense of weight to the impressive selection of lovingly-detailed period vehicles, and a tiered choice of speedy tune-ups to upgrade your car with. While driving around is fun and controls like a dream, the game has an unfortunate trend of setting every new mission way-point at the farthest point of town from your position, so you’ll almost always have to traverse the entire length of the map with each new mission. However, just when I started to get frustrated at seeing the distance I’d have to drive, I’d pass through some new gorgeously-designed patch of the city’s scenery, or a fantastic choice of music would come on the radio and make the journey a joy to experience. Your metaphorical mileage may vary, of course, and it’s a shame there isn’t more variety in distancing, with a few more missions placed a block or two away instead of at map’s end.
Despite being a generally wonderful gaming experience, the gameplay isn’t without its nagging fundamental foibles. Attract enough cop attention and they’ll barrel behind you at 120mph, guns blazing, their wailing siren a harbinger of doom as their desire to enforce law is now replaced with an insatiable need to relocate your innards to the sidewalk. In those situations, it’d be handy to be able to shoot back. Alas, the game forgoes allowing you to fire weapons from cars, rendering a lot of the high-speed chases frustratingly unfair, especially if your car comes to a stop, taking a good few seconds to kick into gear as bullets riddle your anatomy. The cover system’s lack of a blind-fire ability can also leave you at a disadvantage against waves of enemies who often simply wander past your point of protection while you’re momentarily locked to cover. When the developers neglect to include gameplay elements that should be genre requisites, it sometimes feels like a fundamental regression that betrays the care put into the game around it.
There’s also a slightly imbalanced divide between driving and combat missions, with gunplay elements nudged aside as lengthy vehicular quests take precedence for a large chunk of the game. It’s a flaw off-set by an action-centric third act, though, and the sheer variety of criminal escapades on hand throughout is incredibly impressive. The missions themselves are largely varied and original, occasionally covering similar territory to the GTA series, with a familiar ‘tail a car without getting too close’ mission popping up, amongst others, but throwing a surprising amount of diverse and fresh gameplay elements and settings into the mix.
An early chapter adopts a military motif, following Vito’s last operation in the army, while a later, unexpected change of venue (that I won’t spoil here) ushers in a wonderful surprise in the story and covers material that’s rarely tackled in open-world crime games. Also vying for attention as the games highlights are a couple of stealth assignments – one with Vito and Joe posing as window-washers to carry out a bombing, with another seeing Vito staging the theft of gas ration stamps in a deceptively non-linear mission with multiple avenues of completion. There’s a commendable amount of variety on display, all of which keeps the game feeling fresh without cramming in any jarringly unfitting segments.
Though the gameplay and mission design are impressive and entirely entertaining, it’s the narrative that’s the driving force of the game, and the most memorable, enjoyable and most satisfying element of Mafia II. It’s stacked with a cast of mobsters who are well-written and brought to life by splendid voice acting, but even more notable is the wonderful use of the game’s amazingly expressive character animation. Rendered in stunning detail, the games cut-scenes convey added layers of character with little more than a few subtly-performed CG facial expressions.
The story propelling those characters forward is great, too; archetypal without being overly familiar or boring, the plot offers up rich, well-developed characters with a wealth of personality on a journey that’s tightly-scripted, engrossing and wonderful fun to experience. The swift, driven momentum of the epic plot makes the absence of side-missions that much easier to understand and appreciate as it barrels forward at an enthralling pace, only hindered by a rather abrupt ending.
Minor flaws aside, Mafia II is an impressive achievement in atmosphere, gameplay and story, dragging players into a gorgeously-designed ’40s setting that’s every bit as detailed and immaculately-presented as an episode of Mad Men with about 2,859% more bloodshed. There’s undoubtedly a lack of discretionary missions and activity (PS3 owners do get a free added expansion offering a more arcade-style action campaign though), but those who can embrace the linear nature of the plot will be rewarded with a driven, engrossing and entirely rewarding story that’s incredibly entertaining and propelled by wonderfully rounded and satisfying gameplay. While you won’t spend hundreds of hours lost in arbitrary extras, every moment you do spend in the world crafted by Mafia II is an incredibly memorable, enthralling joy to experience.
Mafia II is out now for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.