The gangster setting is one of the most prevalent backdrops for some of the greatest stories ever told. It’s hard for most red-blooded men (and women, we suppose) not to adore movies, books and videogames based on the mafia or modern organized crime. Tony Soprano made HBO what it is today. Leonardo DiCaprio’s pretty-boy demeanor from Titanic was effectively smudged by his role in The Departed and Al Pacino created a slew of one-liners for us all to abuse. And who could forget that scene in The Godfather with the horse’s head. These are all epic stories, typically following the rise of a poor young man into a family of organized crime.
In 2K Games’ Mafia II, Vito Scaletta is an Italian immigrant (Sicilian, to be precise) during the 1940s who wants nothing more than to make it in America. After witnessing the failures of his father—a tired drunk who apparently had his own problems to settle—Vito teams up with his buddy Joe and the pair are quick to turn to crime. Throughout the game, Vito and Joe climb through the ranks of organized-crime families in Empire City (essentially New York City).
Mafia II appears to be set in a sandbox world, similar to the most obvious comparison—Grand Theft Auto IV. However, the game is not a true open-world experience. It tries very hard to appear expansive, full of side-objectives and random events to kill some time, but the game is completely centered on the story and you will have virtually no time to just cruise Empire City to look for fun, or trouble. This caught us off-guard. We expected Vito to wake up in the morning, look at his nice GPS-centered map, and decide which goon he wanted to work with in a given day. As the player, maybe we just wanted to go to the local brothel or have some fun picking off pedestrians. That is not how Mafia II works, and it came as quite a surprise.
Nearly every event in Mafia II drives the narrative. There is no down time, no side missions, nothing to distract from the overall story. That’s not to say players will be turned-off by the lack of side objectives, but it should be noted that there is little reason, or even ability, to venture off outside the story as you would/could in other sandbox games.
After our 11-hour campaign, we didn’t really notice the lack of side objectives because the story was so compelling. If Mafia II excels at one thing above other games recently, it’s the scope of the story and how developer 2K Czech tells this epic tale. As an example, all you have to do is look at our protagonist. Vito originally wanted a better life for his mother and sister after returning from war, but throughout the game he seemed conflicted with his decision to turn to a life of crime rather than making an honest living. You can even see he’s at odds as he decides who to befriend and who to betray. He is bold, confident, and he’s seen one crappy life. We found ourselves incredibly attached to this lead. To further emphasize our point here: This writer played the game in front of his better-half, and she frequently checked in to see how Vito was doing, and what’s happened in the game. Not many games can make your observing significant other actually become this invested.
Empire City is a gorgeous setting for this crime drama. The game opens in 1945 during winter. The streets all have a fresh coat of snow and classic Christmas songs play on radios. Attention is paid to billboards showing ads from wartime America, while disc jockeys talk about Nazis and the gasoline shortage. There is an initial sense that Empire City is untouched by the time’s notorious underground violence, especially during the opening chapter. As the game progresses, moving into the mid ‘50s, the lay of the land remains the same, but girls wear fluffy dresses and rock music fills the radio waves. All of these details help make Mafia II a timepiece; a capsule for a period none of us (most likely) lived in but is certainly familiar.
The story is driven through chapters and missions that have you perform major tasks like taking out a rival family mob boss, or small and mundane tasks like unloading cigarette cartons or cleaning a toilet bowl. There are quite a few points in the game where players are required to carry out some decidedly lacklustre duties, and while on the surface it sounds pointless, these events are generally pushing the story further. There are a few instances where players will undoubtedly be drawn away from the pacing of the main story. For instance, many missions require you to return home, often driving from one end of the city to the other, in order to complete the actual mission. It’s not that driving isn’t fun; it just gets repetitive, especially after a long mission. Vito also likes to take his time answering the phone, occasionally staring off at the wall.
Combat in Mafia II is standard for a third-person shooter. You’ll dive in to cover behind wooden crates or behind blown-out walls, and then pop your head out to shoot enemies. The cover system is pretty solid, requiring a tap of the X button to find a safe spot and another tap to exit it. There are plenty of weapons from the era, all with substantial weight and terrific sound effects. In fact, this is a game you want to play loud, not just for the sound effects, but for the wonderful voice work and well-scripted dialogue.
Vito isn’t just handy with a gun; he is a pretty rough roller when it comes to hand-to-hand combat. Fist fighting is pretty simple. Players hold down X to dodge, retaliate after an opposing swing with a tap of the O button, or press O or Triangle for offensive manoeuvres. The game does a great job of distinguishing between events where Vito is quick to shoot, and times he’ll just punch a thug around. In particular, he seems personally driven and invested in all of his fist-fighting sequences. He’ll beat up his sister’s no-good, cheating husband, or teach a prison inmate a lesson for messing with one of his friends. Combat mechanics in general, whether fist-to-fist or gun battles, are pretty easy to master but tense and engaging.
Combat is made even more intense by destructible environments. One of our favorite moments was a huge gun battle in a Chinese restaurant. Glass debris flew everywhere and the décor was perfect for the environment. The meat packing battle was also tense. There are a few moments where Vito can use stealth to quietly eliminate enemies one-by-one, even dragging them out of site in hopes another foe won’t see the dead body. We would have liked to see more use of this style action because the battles can get repetitive. Luckily, there is enough variety in weapons, settings, and even the actual approach to levels to keep just about every instance interesting.
Mafia II is a joy to play. The controls are tight and responsive. Driving is a blast, but you should be warned: You’ll drive, a lot. The city is alive and even cops are under the mobs spell. Sure, they’ll chase you around if you are caught speeding, but you can lose the heat through a bribe or by simply outrunning them. For some reason they won’t pull you over for running a red light, but they will pick you off if you run over a pedestrian—who would have thought.
Since the story is so well told and the gameplay various from shootouts to driving a get-away car, you’ll find it hard to stop playing Mafia II. The biggest flaw is that 2K built such an enormous and gorgeous city, yet players can’t really do all that much in it outside the main story. Lucky for us PS3 owners, we get some additional content in the way of a free add-on, The Betrayal of Jimmy. Still, the game could use for some down time to allow players to explore, get into fistfights with strangers, or visit a local brothel. You can search for Playboy magazines, revealing actual nude centerfold images, or wanted posters, but that’s about all the extras in the game.
When Vito’s story finally comes to a close, you can look back on an epic tale that rivals some of the best mobster movies out there. The conclusion feels a bit weak considering there was so much we had to overcome to actually get to the final battle, but if we felt unsatisfied, we simply had to remember that most mafia-inspired movies or stories don’t have happy endings. While Mafia II has a great story, we wanted more of a reason to hop back into the game after we beat it. Hopefully we’ll get some additional add-on content down the road, but for now, we’ll look back at one heck of a great ride.