Mafia II Review

The premise of Mafia II should be blatantly obvious from the title alone (much like Snakes on a Plane, but less Samuel L. Jackson and more engaging story). It takes everything you think you know about Mafia culture in the mid-20th century and injects it with more violence, playboy centerfolds and cigar-smoking suits.

Mafia II moves from the 1930s, the era of the first game, to 1943 – 1951. Set in the fictional city of Empire Bay, inspired by New York City, you follow the story of Vito Scaletta as he enters the world of organised crime after a stint in the military following some bad decisions as a young man. Along with his childhood friend Joe, Vito has high ambitions and wants to do what is best for his family after the death of his father. A life of crime and rising to power through the Mafia in the ‘50s isn’t without consequences. Vito learns this the hard way as we follow his journey of changing social status through extreme violence and mayhem.

Mafia II ReviewNow I remember why I entered a life of crime.

Unlike most other open-world games, Mafia II is heavily reliant on its story. It’s more engrossing and strives to keep your attention in what is a truly fantastic video game narrative. However, it’s a one trick pony in that regard. The story is fantastic, but if you normally overlook that and like to run amuck in sandbox worlds, Mafia II isn’t for you. There’s a surprising absence of side missions and, while a nice backdrop, Empire Bay is not made for exploring in the same way that Liberty City is. If you’re not willing to lose yourself in the world of Mafia II’s plot you’re not experiencing Mafia II in the way it was intended. 2K Czech omitted all of the side attractions in favour of placing a greater emphasis on the story. That’s certainly not for everybody, but regardless, Mafia II is an enjoyable game.

The story of Vito Scaletta is not one for children. While Mafia II is a violent game and has a stack of classic Playboy centerfolds and covers to collect from the era (how cool is that as a collectable?) they’re not the only reasons anyone under 15 years of age shouldn’t play Mafia II. The story was written with adults in mind. It’s full of references and adult themes that children, and even some young adults, won’t understand or enjoy. It’s a much more serious narrative than we’ve come to expect from open world games. GTA and Saints Row have made names for themselves for being over the top and unrealistic despite being set in the real world. Mafia II presents a story that it wants you to believe actually happened.

By focusing on the core story, the missions are generally fantastic. They combine combat, both gunplay and hand-to-hand, with stealth appropriately, but not to the point that it bores you. There are a host of classic weapons from the ‘50s, including my personal favourite: the Tommy Gun. Mafia II is an extremely violent game and the greater focus on action compared to the first game is evident from the get go. Vito kills in cold-blood without any remorse and then runs off to a chinese restaurant or hotel and unloads a couple of .45 rounds into everyone insight. It’s brutal, yet epic. For the most part, the gunplay is superb with a cover system that works most of the time. That said, getting out of cover is often a little too awkward. We’re used to being able to run out from cover, but Mafia II requires you to press a button to leave a wall or crate. You eventually get used to it, but the learning curve is much bigger than one would expect as it’s not something we’re used to in third person action games. There’s an auto-lock-on system that allows Vito to snap to enemies when he looks out from cover, but only if you were aiming near the enemy to begin with. There’s no jumping across a fifth of the screen here; aim-assist is only useful if the player is already close to making the shot.

Mafia II ReviewThis guy’s freakin’ oblivious to me ramming him off the road.

Hand-to-hand combat is quite simple, but effective. Vito can execute light and strong punches, block attacks and finish off his opponent with a cool slow-mo move. Several missions require him to fight with his fists to reinforce an emotional attachment. It’s a clever technique that shows certain kills are meaningful to Vito in contrast to his inconsiderate murdering with a firearm.

Unfortunately, Mafia II spends too much time driving around a fairly lacklustre city. The consequence of no side missions is painfully boring attempts to kill time inbetween the story. Too often you have to drive from one end of the city to the other just to drop someone home and finish the mission. Occasionally that’s okay, but when it’s happening every second mission it starts to become tiresome. Then, when you eventually get somewhere, it triggers a long cut-scene; it’s great for the story, but it feels like too much time is spent not actually doing anything.

The driving mechanics are a vast improvement from the first game and no longer feel like a never ending chore. The vintage, and rather cool looking, cars handle much better and are noticeably faster (as they should be 20 years on). The police are no longer a total buzz kill and will let you go for small things like running a red light. They’re still furious about you zooming past way over the speed limit or running over oblivious pedestrians, though. If that happens, you can evade them, pay a fine, bribe them or resist arrest screaming “I’m innocent I tell ya!” at your TV screen. More serious crimes will result in roadblocks and rather persistent cops, but you can easily fool them with a change of clothes or a new set of wheels. A speed limiter can be turned on or off at anytime, allowing you to remain within the road laws and avoid having to deal with the rozzers.

Mafia II ReviewAre we all firing blanks or is someone actually going to be shot?

I played Mafia II on PS3 and quickly compared it to 40 minutes of the Xbox 360 version. Most criticism of the visual inconsistencies between the two versions is greatly unfounded. Yes, the PS3 version is missing some grass and a little bit of blood, but really, that’s it. There are a couple of rough edges but most of the differences are negligible and didn’t make me regret electing to play on the console with the free, exclusive DLC. The Betrayal of Jimmy extends the gameplay and is a great little bonus for PS3 owners; after all, we can hardly argue with free bonus content.

The primary characters are fantastic in both gameplay and cut-scenes. They’re detailed right down to the last stitch on their stylish suits and besides some minor lip syncing issues, are very well rendered. Empire Bay is brought to life in a believable and atmospheric style that recreates a city inspired by 1940’s and 50’s New York City. The fashion, the people, the places and the music are all reminisced of the time. The environments are good without being mind-blowing and are generally diverse enough to develop the sense of driving around a large city – even if you never really explore it.

Mafia II ReviewMafia Rule #1: Be cool.

The soundtrack is great, for the first couple of hours, if you’re a fan of 50’s music. However, it does start to become repetitive and limited long before you’ve finished the game. In this day and age you could always play your own music, but that’d be a shame considering how important the soundtrack is to developing the atmosphere of Empire Bay. The voice acting is amazing and can hardly be faulted. The characters deliver genuine emotion through dialogue and have contrasting accents from American to Italian and something in between.