2K games really swung for the fences with Mafia II. Unfortunately, at the last second, a ridiculously fast outfielder scaled the wall and caught the ball to deny the homerun. Then the fielder turned around and threw it back. After that the metaphor kind of falls apart.
Mafia II is a great game, with high technical marks and a compelling story tailored for an adult audience, but its lack of depth and substance will ultimately drop it from being a classic to just being a good game. Which is a shame, because it really is a fun game, and with a little more time, 2K Czech’s Mafia II could have been something special.
Mafia II will both benefit from and suffer from inevitable comparisons, and the release date will be the best and worst thing to happen to the game. With the shadow of Red Dead Redemption still looming, fans of the open world genre hungry for more will likely flock to a mafia-inspired game, but the depth and surprises that made RDR (and Grand Theft Auto IV before that) such a hit, are noticeably missing from Mafia II.
Welcome to Empire Bay
After a brief tutorial level in 1943 Italy, the game begins in 1945, as juvenile delinquent turned war hero, Vito Scalleta, comes home to the New-York-esque Empire Bay. Scalletta, the son of Sicilian immigrants, returns to find that when his father died, he left the family with $2,000 of debt, and the bill is due. Vito talks with his childhood friend, Joe Barbaro, and the two embark on a life of crime that entwines them with the three dominant crime families in the city, the Clemente family, the Falcones, and the Vincis.
Although Mafia II starts in 1945, the majority of the game is set during 1951, and both eras have their own look and feel. Empire Bay itself is meticulously detailed, and while it does serve as a New York fill in, it’s also a mash-up of American cities from the time that draws upon Midwestern and West Coast influences.
The various neighborhoods feature multiple locations to interact with, including clothing stores where you can give Vito a touch of class, garages where you can pimp your (stolen) rides, and gun shops to stock up on the tools of the trade. In the tradition of most open world, sandbox-style games, Mafia II will have you explore the city of Empire Bay from the docks, to the affluent neighborhoods in the hills above the city, as Vito progresses from a lowly grunt, hustling to earn money for his family, to a made man on the rise.
Fans of the mobster genre, rejoice!
If you missed the original game, Mafia II is a sequel to the award winning 2002 PC hit Mafia: City of Lost Heaven by Illusion Softworks, the company that eventually became 2K Czech. There was also a PS2 and an Xbox port that was graphically nerfed to meet the system limitations for each system. Mafia II, while building off the themes of the original, is its own game, with no direct connection between the two. If you played and liked the first game, you might be surprised to see the shift in tone from the original that romanticized the 1930s mafia life, to the darker and more realistic world of Mafia II.
The single best thing about Mafia II is the story. The screenplay for this game is said to be over 700 pages compared to the original’s 400, and that seems reasonable, with over 2 ½ hours of cut scenes sprinkled in. You follow Vito as he climbs the rungs of the underworld, avoiding backstabbers and cutthroats, and fighting his way up. Taking heavy inspiration from movies and books like Godfather II, Once Upon a Time in America, and Goodfellas, odds are most players will rush through missions to see what happens next with the story, and I mean that in the best way possible.
The story of the game is for a mature audience. Not mature in the sense that blood will explode from people like fountains of red death, nor in the sense that hookers can be picked up then hilariously killed in ways that are sure to piss off avenging soccer moms, but in the sense that the story is written for adults, with adult themes, and it is grounded in reality. Where in the GTA games, you might face off against a gang of dozens, and a realistic course of action would be to wipe them all off the planet, in Mafia II it isn’t that simple. You still wipe out a lot of people, but there are rules.
Where similar styles of games like GTA and RDR also feature mature themes and lots of violence, they temper it with humor and over-the-top characters. Mafia II is a dark and gritty game, made for people that want a fun time in the same way that watching Casino is fun. The game plays out like a movie, with a linear story that builds the tension up throughout, and by the end you are seriously worried for the fates of the characters you have grown attached to. Mafia II deals with adult themes, and it does it well, something that more games will hopefully take note of.