The original Mafia garnered high praise for realistically portraying the life of a mafioso, combined with Grand Theft Auto-style sandbox gameplay mechanics. By creating a gritty, brutal setting unlike the arcade-like action of Grand Theft Auto, the developers now known as 2K Czech offered a unique and exciting mobster gaming experience. Live the life of a wise guy, through the glory and the inevitable downward spiral.
Mafia II, released eight years after the original, faces a much broader competitive environment. The Grand Theft Auto franchise by itself has gone from Liberty City to GTA4. Sandbox style games must live up to extremely high expectations in such an over-saturated market, let alone a gangster themed sandbox game.
So what did Mafia II do to set themselves apart? Simply put, they removed a majority of the sandbox mechanics from the game. Instead, they created a rich, linear storyline for players to enjoy. You’ll still have access to the open world of Empire City, but gone are any story-based side-missions. Your primary focus will be following the life of Vito Scaletta as he strives to create a comfortable life in the Mafia.
Is the sacrifice of your typical sandbox mechanics worth the far more engrossing storyline? Is the plot well-made and are the main characters easily relatable? How do the combat and driving systems feel? Continue reading as I discuss everything Mafia II strove to create, and how it comes together in a clumsy and tedious manner.
Vito Scaletta is an Italian-born immigrant who came to America with his parents and sister at a very young age. Horribly impoverished, his father is a drunk, a gambler and a few other uncomplimentary things. As the game begins Vito gets into some legal trouble and is drafted for World War II, and by the time he returns home to Empire City his Father has died and his Mother and sister are working to pay off a huge debt. A perfect storm for Vito to dive right back into illegal activity.
The other important character here is Joe Barbaro, Vito’s longtime friend. It’s Joe’s connections who inevitably get Vito involved in the Mafia. From there on, Vito and Joe partner up to progressively climb the Mafia food chain. It’s their complicated relationship at the forefront of Mafia II‘s plot, brothers-in-arms and reliant on each other to a fault.
The majority of Mafia II‘s storyline is told through cut-scenes and exposition that will run over the gameplay as you drive or move about. These scenes are undoubtedly the highlight of Mafia II, as they’re very well choreographed and voiced over. Each scene plays out very smoothly and you can tell 2K Czech spent a lot of time watching classic Scorsese films for tips and tricks. In fact, they might have watched a bit too many gangster films, because a majority of the major plot points feel extremely derivative.
As an over-arching story Mafia II is lacking. Rather than a coherent tale with smooth transitions, the chapters in the storyline feels bluntly asunder. This is, in part, a result of the open world-nature of the game and its reliance on time-skips. It’s also a result of what must be 2K Czech’s reliance on movie source material. Many, if not most chapters in the game are taken directly from scenes in high profile gangster films. While they’re still quite well written and performed, it invariably detracts from the otherwise unique storyline of the game, and in my opinion does a huge disservice to Vito’s story.
As a result, Mafia II never feels like it belongs to Vito, but rather becomes a conglomeration of dramatic Mafia scenarios tied together by having Vito involved in them. Characters or situations that might leave any lasting emotional effect on the player, or Vito, come and are then dismissed or otherwise ignored without being effectively entwined with the plot. Even as the game reaches its climax and ends, I wondered what the point of it all was. Vito’s lack of emotional investment in anything leaves him, and me, quite apathetic about the whole thing.