It's Nothing Personal
It’s hard for me to estimate whether or not the “Mafioso” motif is a bit overplayed. I don’t often play games based directly around Mob activities; on most occasions it’s only tangential – based on whenever my usually “bad” main character decides is the right time to align with The Don, or when The Family interferes with business. So, when I say I found the overarching story (not to say there’s any other story) interesting, please keep in mind that I don’t spend all of my free gametime bribing cops and calling people “mooks”, Capiche?
In Mafia II, from 2K Games’ Czech studio, you assume the role of Vito Scaletta, a World War II veteran sent home after being wounded on the frontlines of Italy. Upon returning to Empire Bay, made to resemble a rather stunted New York City, you learn that your mother has accrued a large debt to a rather unsavory gentleman. To help you pay off the scummy loan shark, your boyhood friend Joe suggests you join him in his activities to earn the money. And what sort of activities would they be, you ask? Why, criminal activities of course.
And with that first taste of fast money, so begins Vito’s stretched, labored, and blood-soaked journey into the life of organized crime. The tale can be predictable and at times even a bit clichéd, and from beginning to end the story never really felt like it was going in one particular direction. Events sometimes happen without warning, and with vague explanations linking them. A few memorable moments are interspersed (the disposal of a body comes to mind), but these are disappointingly rare.
Allusions to Grand Theft Auto can be made, for sure, but those similarities – for better or worse – are only cosmetic. Unlike the aforementioned open-world title, Mafia II’s Empire Bay isn’t really an “open world”; that is to say, there’s not much to do outside of the main story missions except for the usually dull procurement and then export/destruction of automobiles (both will earn you cash for your trouble). It would seem that Empire Bay’s entire existence is derived from the necessity for you to drive to and from your various hideouts, missions, shops, or the previously stated moneymaking endeavors.
At the start, Mafia II tries to instill a sense of life into the environment. It’s a cold winter evening; the streets are covered in snow and the classic “Let It Snow” plays while you walk the blanketed city streets to your mother’s home. Along the way, many interactive events occur, whether they be talking to the newspaper stand owner or watching as a couple of guys try to convince a reluctant woman yelling out of her window to come downstairs so they can go out. These events serve their purpose; they surround the player in the happenings of a real city. Sadly though, after the introduction these sorts of occurrences drop dramatically. Era-specific music plays over the radio, and more often than not will be something you recognize. The occasional policemen serving a warrant or people loitering in the hallway are also a nice touch, but on the whole, Empire City is pretty devoid of character.
What does make up the whole of Mafia II’s character are, hardy har, its characters. Voiced and characterized well, your comrades, confidantes and competitors are the true redeeming quality. Say what you will about the game’s use of stereotypes, but the primary cast does an excellent job of filling their roles (i.e. smooth-talking wiseguys, gruff right-hand men or weathered old bosses). But much to my dismay, the story’s presentation limits the sense of character development. With the game being structured as it is – outlined in chapters spanning almost a decade – time passes disconcertingly fast; so fast that sometimes characters I met early on were re-introduced to my befuddlement, since their screentime was so brief I couldn’t remember who they were or whether they were friend or foe. Though that doesn’t particularly matter, as many betrayals and treacherous acts will be committed to said characters, either by your hand or another’s.
Your control over these acts are split into three areas: guns, cars and fists. Driving in Mafia II is generally a fine experience. Cars can be upgraded, repainted, re-rimed and re-plated. A nifty power slide button (handbrake) is always ready for you to press, letting your 1940’s era behemoth drift uncharacteristically around corners. Using your fists in Mafia II is also competent; the game has a very simple light/heavy attack style with a block and, later on, counter. On the other hand, using a gun – which seems like the modus operandi for any mobster – can be really frustrating. Despite Vito’s military history, he seems to have a hard time making his target. Of course, it would help if the reticule were indicative and not just four bouncing lines on the screen. Couple that with the antiquated cover mechanic (having to press a button to not only attach to cover, but to detach from it) and some gunfights can be especially difficult.
That’s not to say gunplay will ruin the experience in Mafia II, but it certainly hampers a lot of the fun that being a gun-toting mobster can elicit. If you enjoy stories about the Mob or Mafioso-types, Mafia II may be what you’re looking for. The great characters and dialogue help to pep up the rather bland narrative. But, if it’s an open, GTA style game you’re after, you should probably look elsewhere for your free-roaming entertainment.