Mafia II Review
Given pop-culture’s obsession with a romanticized notion of organized crime, it’s shocking we don’t see more games based on the subject matter. But outside of the Godfather titles and a handful of others, there’s just not that many opportunities for gangster-loving gamers to tote Tommy guns and spout “Fuggedaboutit” at NPCs. Even Scarface, a successful game that seemed a shoe-in for a sequel, has been sleeping with the fishes since the last console generation. Thankfully 2K Games’ Mafia II makes fans of the gritty genre an offer they can’t refuse.
Sequel to their last-gen hit Mafia, 2K Czech’s follow-up delivers an engrossing interactive mob tale that fans of The Sopranos, Goodfellas and the Godfather trilogy will eat up like a homemade bowl of Pasta e Fagioli. It’s important to note that Mafia II’s not a sandbox style entry in the traditional do-whatever-you-want sense. Sure, it takes place in a beautifully realized open-world, but its tightly scripted story never encourages you to stray far from the campaign path. This is intentional on the developer’s part, allowing them to closely direct a narrative that would be tarnished by tedious side missions or optional quests not directly serving the story. As someone who generally sticks close to the critical path and often finds open-world games’ freedom-granting gameplay distracting, I found Mafia II‘s take refreshing. However, GTA players planning on losing hours to tearing a city a new one for the sake of wanton destruction and violence, might be disappointed in Mafia II’s more deliberate pace.
More than the actual gameplay, it’s this cinematic framework that defines 2K Czech’s expertly polished production. After a short flashback to World War II, Mafia II‘s story picks up in 1945 Empire Bay, a fictional New York City stand-in. As returning war veteran Vito Scaletta, you grab a cab to your humble childhood home in a slummy part of town. It’s here you first feel the game pulling you into its immersive atmosphere; as you step out of the taxi, you hear Dean Martin’s “Let it Snow” playing as fresh white flakes fall from the sky; you see rats scurry under street vendors’ fruit stands, and hear the crunch of snow under your boots. Vito’s weight realistically shifts to one side because you’re lugging a suitcase; old-timey cars, exhaust spitting from their tale pipes, rumble by, and sharp-dressed business men race home to their wives--you never see these wives, but Mafia II’s striking authenticity guarantees they’re home preparing meatloaf while Sinatra croons from the living room turntable. Finally, you come to your doorstep, where your very Italian mamma welcomes you with open arms and immediately feeds you.
During gameplay and the campaign’s many cut-scenes--another possible sticking point for trigger-happy players--stunning, story-serving touches like these abound. The dedication to detail similarly drives the dialogue; characters are more authentic than caricature, but their personalities are still as colorful as any wise-cracking capo in Tony Soprano’s crew. From low-level goons with identifying ticks to hard-ass bosses with a penchant for F-word-laced rants, NPC’s come in a variety of entertaining flavors. Vito’s best bud, Joe, who plays a supporting role through most of his criminal path, is a highlight. As a playful sociopath with a voracious appetite for wine, woman and song, he uses slang such as “youse guys” and “frigerator”, perfectly capturing the essence of an unpolished lug from the “old neighborhood.”
Following Vito, Joe, their enemies, allies, and all the low-lifes, scumbags and shysters in between is like watching a gripping mob tale--complete with double-crosses, betrayals, and unexpected twists--unfold in a passionately envisioned world. But Mafia II isn’t just about polished dialogue, pretty scenery, and immersion-pushing details. Complementing the Scorsese-like narrative are car chases, gunfights, fisticuffs, and even some stealth play. Some aspects are underused--I could’ve used a few more hot pursuits--but all are well crafted and paced perfectly to the story. Gunplay is straightforward duck-and-cover stuff, but the weight and sound of the weapons, destructibility of the environments, and gory death animations make for some of the game’s most intense moments. Blaring alarms, shattering glass, and bullets realistically registering death on Vito only serve to spike your pulse even further. Whether ventilating goons’ chests with a shotgun in a meatpacking plant or dropping the boys in blue with a .38 while blasting your way out of a heist-gone-wrong, unleashing hot lead provides plenty of thrills.
As with the gunplay, melee combat keeps things simple yet satisfying, meant more to make a point in the story rather than saddle players with a complex combo system. Light and heavy attacks, and blocks are executed in a cinematic fashion to silence thugs with big mouths--a brawl-ending kick in the teeth effectively reminds any disrespecting fool who he’s messing with. Behind the wheel, Mafia II is similarly satisfying; classic cars all have a unique feel, balancing between realism and fun. Additionally, the coppers aren’t nearly as annoying as they are in other open-world environments. Sure, they’ll harass you for hitting top speeds, but they won’t tail you every time you run a red light. When the man’s siren does come calling, you can give chase, pay a fine, or offer a wad-of-bills bribe.
Aside from un-spooling an engaging yarn within detail-drenched environments--which beautifully transition into the 1950’s at the game’s mid-point--populated by characters who’d fit right in with the Corleone family, Mafia II does offer some play-extending side activities. Players can shop for new guns, clothes and cars, and completionists will want to seek out every Wanted poster and Playboy centerfold. Best of all--and exclusive to the PS3 version--is the Betrayal of Jimmy, day-one DLC offering a more action-cranked criminal underworld experience. Packing plenty of hours of arcadey mob-tied fun, it’s worth spinning this one in your PS3.
When I stated fans of mob dramas would enjoy this game, I meant exactly that; even if you rarely pick up a gamepad, but love a good mob-themed tale, Mafia II is worth checking out. This is a testament to its superb storytelling and spotless production values. But I’d also let this serve as a warning to gamers expecting GTA with a Godfather paint job. In fact, I’d go as far as recommending 2K Czech’s latest to gamers who enjoyed the story-focused Heavy Rain rather than players accustomed to setting their own pace in open-world games. If you’re looking to blow up city blocks with a rocket launcher, Mafia II may not be your cup of cappuccino. However, if, like me, you’re hoping HBO’s upcoming Boardwalk Empire fills the gaping Soprano-less void in your life, Mafia II‘s ready to fit you for a nice pair of cement shoes.