Review – Mafia II

Mafia II wowed me with its beginning and at the end, it couldn’t leave my thoughts. Set in the large, open-world city of Empire Bay, an amalgamation of New York and San Francisco, Mafia II is a dark, gritty look at the world of the mob.

The story is excellent – it tells the tale of Vito Scaletta, an Italian-American whose family arrived from Sicily in the late 1920s. Growing up in Little Italy, Vito found himself robbing a store as a young man with his best friend, Joe. Caught in the act, Joe gets away, but Vito is arrested sent to the war in Europe as an Italian translator, and returns a decorated veteran. While Vito is eager to make a good living and be somebody, the only way that he can do so is to work for the mob. He tries to work at the docks where his father worked at the begging of his mother, but the measly earnings can’t possibly help pay off his father’s enormous debts that he feels obligated to repay. So, he uses his best friend Joe’s connections to begin working for the Mafia, and eventually finds that the mob is a world of shady dealings, drugs, and backstabbing.

It’s hard not too compare Mafia II to its predecessor, Mafia. Mafia arrived on the PC (and later, on consoles) shortly after GTA III made such a huge splash on the gaming world. As a result, it was compared by many to GTA even though it was vastly different. Mafia took place in an open-world city, but unlike GTA, the goal of the city was to create an environment that felt alive but was host to a linear, and stunning, story of a man rising in the mob, and eventually, becoming an informant.

The same idea applies to Mafia II. Empire Bay is a living, breathing entity. It’s far more alive than GTA IV’s Liberty City. Pedestrians walk on the streets, cars crowd the roads, and different neighborhoods bring a unique character to the town. On one side of the river is Riverside, a poorer, immigrant-laden, factory town. On another side of the river that bisects the city is a quiet suburban neighborhood that Vito wants to own a home in someday. Then there’s downtown Empire Bay, a striking collection of towering buildings, docks, highways, parks, and, on the outskirts of the city’s center, Little Italy and Chinatown.

The beauty in Mafia II is the attention to detail. The game is set in two different decades, and when the game begins it is winter and it’s the mid-1940s. As a result, the music on the radio has a definitively pro-American, support our troops feel. Posters adorn buildings asking for you to carpool (“When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler”) and do other things for the good of the country’s war effort. Icicles cling to the buildings, snow swirls, people huddle against the cold, clutching their jackets around their waists, and the sun has a definitively cold, wintry feel to it, setting early, with long, cold rays. Being from New England, I’m used to cold, long winters, and Empire Bay’s winter setting felt incredibly authentic.

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The second half of the game takes places in the 1950s. Rock and Roll dominates the radio, leaves hang on the trees, and Greasers have made a sudden appearance on the scene.

Setting the game in chapters worked well for the team at 2K Czech. By segmenting the game they were able to change the look of the city, change the cars, change the billboard, and even change some buildings. Empire Bay is a growing city and Mafia II reflects that.

However, the game should not be considered a sandbox title. If you are a gamer who is looking for the next GTA IV or Just Cause 2, don’t pay attention to Mafia II. You’ll be disappointed. The game does not offer side missions or distractions. The purpose of Mafia II is to tell a story, and the city of Empire Bay exists to help players feel like they are truly a part of the city. Much like Mafia, Mafia II is a tightly-wound experience. Vito’s free to explore the city and all of its wonderful nooks and crannies and sights, but there’s nothing else to do in the city other than the main missions. Which is perfectly fine. I only mention it because many of the early reviews of the game seemed to find a problem with the lack of side missions. I think the fundamental problem in those reviews is that they mistook Mafia II for a sandbox game because it’s set in an open-world. That’s not the case, and to discredit it for not including the ability to run missions for other people you meet in the game is like criticizing Half-Life 2 for not allowing players to go anywhere they want in City 17. It simply isn’t that type of experience.

What Mafia II does provide is a very good game, and an extremely involving story.

Mafia II’s action is divided into 15 chapters which take roughly 13-15 hours to complete, depending on whether player’s take the time to smell the roses and stop at red lights and look at the city or whether they just power ahead to each mission at 100 miles per hour. The missions crescendo as the game goes on. Vito becomes embroiled in an all-out Mafia war, and some of the missions are absolutely incredible in terms of action, setting, and scale.

There are car chases, bombings, reprisals, and rescue missions. The shooting is well-tuned. The shotgun booms and shakes like it should, the automatic weapons are powerful but wildly inaccurate when fired in great, big bursts, and small pistols pack an effective punch when putting a bullet in someone’s brain. There’s even a melee combat system for fighting punks who don’t have a gun. It’s wonderfully executed. Vito can dodge punches realistically, and landing a nice sock on the jaw never felt so good.

There’s even a great little mission towards the end of the game that fans of the original Mafia will be absolutely giddy over. Trust me, it’s one of those, “Oh my God, no way!” moments that rewards fans who still remember the first game with great fondness.

Capping it all off, though, is the excellent voice acting, which may be the game’s best feature. Vito is wonderfully acted as a man with conflicting morals – sometimes he is enthusiastic as all-hell to go and kick some ass while at other times you can literally feel his caution. His best buddy, Joe, is a bravado-filled, chubby, Italian-American gangster who likes to wear Hawaiian t-shirts and celebrates every victory with laughter, gusto, and drinks. Their good friend Henry has the somber voice of a man who doesn’t mess around, and the Mafia bosses exude confidence and swagger. It’s the best voice-acted game I’ve come cross, and adding to the experience is the excellent character modeling. These guys look realistic.

There were a few problems with the game, but not enough to warrant any serious disclaimers. There were times where I was hidden around a corner and somehow died from shots that seemed to bend like Beckham’s best free kicks, and there was one cutscene in which Joe simply didn’t show up. He was supposed to be there, but he wasn’t. I went back and played the cutscene over again and he showed up, so it was obviously a clipping error of some sort. Other than that, there weren’t any real issues I found with the game. It’s beautifully put together, action-packed, and features the best voice acting this side of Hollywood.

Mafia II isn’t a sandbox game, but it’s set in a stunning open world that deserves to be explored. It’s story is a fast burner. It picks up right away and never stops running. It’s dark, gritty, and focuses on the hardship of being in the mob. The ending left me thinking about the game long after I finished – it occupied my dreams and my morning routine the next day. It’s a great story, and a great game. The only person I wouldn’t recommend it to is the person who is looking for the next Just Cause 2. You won’t find it here. This is a tightly-scripted, linear, rollercoaster experience. And it’s one almost everyone should play and enjoy.