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.
There are three main systems of gameplay that you'll find in Mafia II: driving, close combat and gunplay. Each system by itself is well-done and enjoyable to an extent. I'll break each one down in detail so you can understand my meaning.
Driving seems to be similar to Grand Theft Auto 4 and other modern sandbox games. The controls are intentionally loose, so you'll slip and slide all over the road until you find an expensive car with excellent handling. While you can't purchase cars, you can steal any you see and store them your garage for access later in the game. Stealing a car is as simple as walking up and pulling the driver out. Or, if it's an empty parked car, you can either break the window or do a quirky little lock-picking mini-game. I never discovered what the advantages were to lock-picking rather than breaking the window beyond the car damage, so I stuck with that since it was quicker.
Speaking of car damage, it works really well in Mafia II. Thumping into other cars will scrape your paint job, shatter windows or break bumpers. Gunshot holes will stay with you as long as you have the car, and so will bloodstains! Luckily, police will never bother you about your car's odd appearance. Unless you're going over the speed limit of 40 MPH, that is.
Close combat was one of my favorite aspects early on in the game, allowing you to throw quick soft punches, slow heavy punches, or to hold down a button to continuously dodge. About half-way through the game you'll also learn how to counter, and from then on you'll never have a problem in a fight again. After you do enough damage to your opponent you can do a finishing move which typically ends with a knee to the face or an environmental head smash.
The gunplay is standard for your typical 3rd-person cover-based shooter. Duck behind cover, pop out and shoot an enemy and then hide again, rinse and repeat. You'll gain access to what must be every weapon in the game within the first few chapters. Then, if you run out of ammo it's as simple as finding a fallen enemy with the weapon you want. Of course, most of the weapons aren't worthwhile when compared to the Tommy Gun. Much like the close combat counter, after you acquire a Tommy Gun combat goes easy-mode.
All three of these systems, unfortunately, become stale quite quickly. Driving is great once you get your first high performance car, but the game will still take it away from you fairly often and force you back into the junkers. Close combat, as I said before, becomes a breeze once you acquire the counter punch. While it's fun to finally beat certain characters senseless, it loses its glamor. A very disappointing aspect of the game was how fast the gunplay became disappointing. The lack of new weapons along with slow and unchanging pacing makes everything become overly repetitive and, quite frankly, boring. It all becomes a means to an end rather than an enjoyable activity.
And here comes my major gripe with Mafia II: the tediousness of the gameplay combined with the barren remnants of a sandbox-style open world. In some odd design choice, 2K Czech decided that in order to maintain the open world aspect of the game, you need to drive everywhere. So every chapter starts with you have to drive to the other side of the city, complete the mission driving to each individual check point, and then finish the chapter by returning to your home. You need to pick up your friends, visit the boss at the bar, go pick up some tools from the shop, it's completely ridiculous for a story-driven experience. Literally every chapter will include 15-30 minutes of pointless driving.
It would be fine if there were other activities you might be able to able to jump into as you drive along, but there isn't. No side-quests or other activities at all. I hope you like 40's and 50's radio, I did until I was listening to the same songs for the fifth or sixth time.
The other surrounding aspects of Mafia II are all extremely high quality. Graphically, Mafia II stands its ground with the best sandbox games out there. The draw distance is likely the most impressive aspect of this, as you can see prominent city buildings from the other side of town. Weather effects are also very well done and the winter chapters are especially atmospheric. As I slid my cars into countless ditches and was forced to walk to find a new one, I couldn't help but feel a chill.
The soundtrack, while repetitive as I mentioned earlier, is still very appropriate and well chosen considering the setting. It's all 40's and 50's songs, most of which you'll recognize, but some which are new and add some perspective to the times. I still have this "Rum and Coca Cola" song stuck in my head. Still, while it's era-appropriate, with the amount of time players will spend driving I think the soundtrack may ultimately annoy more players than it appeals to.
I also wanted to mention how sketchy some of the Artificial Intelligence works on occasion. In one particular situation, I was driving back from selling some stolen hot rods when a random station wagon swerved into me on the freeway, driving me into a pylon and killing me instantly. I lost over a half hour of gameplay because an NPC erroneously decided it was an appropriate time to switch lanes. Also, random police cars with their sirens ablaze would come barreling down a street and completely misjudge a corner, driving straight into buildings or guard rails. These odd situation are fairly typical for an open-world sandbox game, but I figure it's still worth mentioning.
Character skins are another thing altogether. There were seemingly only two or three skins apiece for Chinese or African American NPCs, and every shop keeper or police officer looks exactly the same as well. It was outright creepy always ruined any sense of immersion, such as when I'd talk to a police captain and he'd have three identical twin officers standing behind him.
What I want to make clear about Mafia II is there are good portions. Taken in bite size amounts, say a chapter a day, Mafia II might be a better experience. Played continuously though, an abhorrent amount of flaws come to light and will constantly frustrate you. All of the high production values 2K Czech put into the game fade away and you can't help but wonder why they didn't realize a lot of this game simply isn't enjoyable. Perhaps if they had portrayed Vito as more of a human being, rather than a tool for tying together a story, the game would have more heart.
As it stands though, all I'm walking away from Mafia II with is that terrible "Rum and Coca Cola" song stuck in my head, and an urge to either play Grand Theft Auto 4 or watch Goodfellas.
Mafia II is available now for the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.