The subject of organized crime is still fascinating for movie-goers and avid readers worldwide. In particular, the Mafia holds our interest the most because of its reach and long-standing presence in the United States. The same fascination holds true for video games, and while early games had you fighting against the Mafia, the gaming landscape from 2000 onward has focused on being a part of that group instead. One of the first games to do so was simply titled Mafia, and its depiction of the organization around the 1920s and 1930s proved to be a hit with PC gamers, though the later console ports didn't do much for the brand. Several years and one console generation later, the original developers of the title, now rechristened 2K Czech, have returned to the open world of organized crime with Mafia II, and while it may not be easily labeled as another sandbox-style adventure game, it is one of the few games in the genre that tells a good story.
The story plays out like any other classic Mafia story, and you play as Vito Scaletta. It's the late 1920s, and your family moves from Sicily to Empire City in the U.S. in order to escape poverty and live the American dream. Despite the promises, you encountered deplorable living conditions in the land of opportunity. With your father spending what little there was on alcohol, you take it upon yourself to earn money by any means necessary. You're eventually caught in a botched robbery attempt, but through fate, you find yourself serving in the army instead of jail time. A few battles and a bullet injury later, you are back in the U.S. and faced with trouble. With the military pension not paying enough to eke out a living and your family facing financial issues, you turn to your childhood friend to become part of the Mafia empire.
The game's multiple chapters, told in a linear fashion, have Vito performing multiple tasks in his quest to get in with the Mafia and stay in the good graces of each of the city's three families. As expected, things start off with small-time crimes like stealing a car for a corrupt mechanic. Soon, the tasks elevate to being the enforcer who takes the weekly payment from dock workers to stealing gas ration stamps and pawning them off before they expire. Finally, things go high-stakes with activities like taking out hits on snitches and burying bodies in undisclosed places. Mafia II will take an average of 12 hours to complete, with the multiple chapters encompassing two different eras of American culture.
One of the game's strongest points is the story. You've seen it before, but from a game standpoint, the tale is quite focused. Every chapter tells something significant in Vito's quest to make it big in the family and stay there. The dialogue is believable, and so are the actions of Vito and everyone else around him. There isn't a single mission in the game that seems to exist for comedic value or simply to give the player something to do. In every part of the game, the dialogue between Joe and Vito goes a long way to making them likeable characters despite their line of work. This is a game where the actions seem perfectly fit for a movie, and without spoiling much, the narrative gives the player a strong reason to finish the game.
From the minute you take control of Vito, you realize just how much of an influence shooters have had on the game. The shooting mechanics rival those of any other open-world game, thanks to their precision and sophistication, which you rarely see in most games of this type. It is unfortunate, though, that the hand-to-hand combat feels so stiff and basic. You can pull off a few light and heavy combos and you can block well, but the combat doesn't feel as developed as it could be. You can win plenty of fights by simply counter-attacking, making the hand-to-hand fights the low points of the game.
Players won't find much freedom in this game. Other open-world games promote sandbox play with side activities, but what's provided in Mafia II is hardly enough to merit the classification. You can look for wanted posters and vintage Playboy pictures, which are uncensored but tastefully done. There's also the ability to rob a few stores, but it isn't really promoted much since that feels uncharacteristic of a mafioso. The world is expansive, but it caters more to helping you complete missions than anything else. Gun shops, for example, are useful if you find a particular mission difficult to complete, while auto shops and clothing stores are invaluable should you try to escape the police. In a sense, it functions more like the open world in Need for Speed: Most Wanted than Grand Theft Auto IV: You can go anywhere you want, but you can't do much unless it is mission-related.
PS3 owners who buy the new game get exclusive content that their Xbox 360 brethren can't access at this time. The Betrayal of Jimmy DLC pack tells the story of an enforcer named Jimmy who is going through a rather harrowing day. Like the character, the missions have no bearing on the main game. Unlike the main game, the DLC has a point system in place; in each mission, enemies and designated targets yield points when destroyed, and eliminating civilians and cops gives you nothing. The point system is a nice addition because it gives the game a more arcade feel, but it still doesn't provide the full sandbox feeling of an open-world game because the missions are still given out one at a time. The missions are nice distractions, as you do some expected things like carrying out hits on certain people and breaking up shops to influence their proprietors to pay what they owe. Those who are looking for destruction-based missions will be instantly satisfied with this. The DLC pack is a nice way to have more fun in the game world, but since it has no bearing on the main story, it's not a huge deal if you miss it.
The controls work well enough as long as you can deal with the world's limitations. Movement and shooting rely on the standard control scheme methods of many modern third-person shooting games, though you don't have the ability to jump, and your aiming and shooting buttons are on L2 and R2, respectively, instead of L1 and R1, which most PS3 games now use. The controls are nice and responsive, and the cover mechanics are done well because it isn't as adhesive as other games.
While the controls are good for general foot movement and shooting sequences, it isn't so great for driving sequences. The controls are fine, but the cars of the 1940s and early 1950s were never known for their impressive handling. Driving slowly or a little below the speed limit is fine, but going at high speeds makes the cars almost unmanageable during turns and even more so when trying to recover from a crash. The car handling makes chase sequences and timed events a bit frustrating, and it takes quite some time before a car's driving mechanics can be mastered. Considering the number of different cars in the game, though, you'll dread the driving missions.
Graphically, Mafia II is quite intense. The environments are nicely rendered, with building designs perfectly reflecting the eras and living conditions. The weather conditions and day/night cycles cast a nice amount of polish to the environments and don't feel as tacked on as they do in other titles. This is certainly evident during rain sections, where it comes down like it does in the movies, and during snowy sections, where snow that's been piled up on a car gets blown away the faster you drive.
The environment interiors look just as good as the exteriors, with the same dingy or pristine textures depending on where you visit and what era you're in. The character models are also nicely done, with some pretty good textures on the details. Since the cut scenes use the in-game engine in real time, you get a better look at the hair and skin blemishes of each character, and they look only a tad below what you'd see in a full-blown CG sequence. The animations also look good, especially the lip-syncing during cut scenes.
It does lack a few things in the graphics department. There are missing details, for example, like grass in the parks, and the text is often too small to read. Even on an HDTV, the subtitled dialogue and some of the button prompt instructions are difficult to make out unless you're sitting close to the set and focusing on the lines as they appear. Driving at high speeds will expose lots of pop-in for the environment, and while clipping isn't much of a problem, screen tearing when turning and object collision are. There were a few instances where a car was sunken into the ground. During the review of the game, it also caused the system to shut down, and while it would have been a sign that the review system was dying, it didn't occur with any other title played on that same system. You may be fine if you have a newer version of the console, but be warned that the same fate can befall you if you have one of the launch systems.
The sound is superb and goes a long way toward making the story more enjoyable. The sound effects are nice and booming, but the real standouts in this category are the music and the voice work. Since the game takes place over two eras where musical tastes wildly changed, the soundtrack reflected those changes quite well. The scripted nature of the game also ensures that the right music plays at the right time. Early on, you'll only hear songs dealing with World War II, and the ads and news reports will go along with it. Later on, the music and radio disc jockeys will deal with more lighthearted fare to coincide with the rock 'n' roll vibe of the day. The music helps establish the setting and mood of where the story is going, and it does a tremendous job.
Like the music, the voice work is great, with some very notable character actors lending their talents to the game. The dialogue may be a bit much to handle for those who aren't used to hearing things before political correctness became the norm, but the delivery is done well enough that every character is believable. Even though we're now reaching a time where good voice acting is normal in a game, the quality of work here is still noteworthy. The only time the sound begins to falter is in The Betrayal of Jimmy DLC. The effects and voices are fine, but the music doesn't adhere to the time period constraints. It's strange to hear a 1950s DJ talk about a swinging party happening on the weekend and then play a song meant for the war era.
Your enjoyment of Mafia II will come down to what you're expecting from the title, DLC notwithstanding. If you were expecting a modern sandbox experience set in an older time, then this isn't the game for you. The city may be large, but looking for wanted posters, robbing businesses and perusing Playboy centerfolds is about the extent of the unscripted material in the game. If you were looking for an enjoyable mob game, though, Mafia II should certainly be near the top of the list. Not only does it play well and sound great, but it also has a very good story. Action game fans will certainly have fun with this title.
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