There is nothing shocking about Mafia II, the long-overdue sequel to the 2002 open-world crime simulator. Players know exactly what they're getting when they buy this game; it's not the kind of game will throw you for a loop. This is a by-the-numbers sandbox game that plays in exactly the same fashion one would expect, complete with stereotypical characters, a bittersweet ending and lots and lots of firefights. The only thing surprising about Mafia II is just how predictable the whole experience really is.
You play Vito Scarletta, a kid who gets mixed up with the wrong set of friends and is arrested for a botched robbery. He's given the choice to serve his time in jail or enlist in the Army. He chooses the military, where he finds himself overseas fighting a war he knows nothing about. Upon his return, Vito is shocked to learn that his childhood best friend has become a major player in the local mob scene. All of a sudden they are going out to lavish dinners, driving in expensive cars and living the high life in decked-out apartments. This is the life Vito has always wanted.
Unfortunately, things are not going as well for Vito's immediate family. His mother is in poor health, his sister has bad luck with men and his father left a $2,000 debt. Things couldn't get any worse. At least, that's what he thought before he went to the docks to do an honest day's work. Before long our hero realizes that it will take years to pay off his father's debts and that performing back-breaking manual labor for $10 a day isn't going to cut it. So he does the inevitable, he falls back into a life of crime.
It's here that Mafia II becomes every other Grand Theft Auto-style action game you've ever played. This is one of those games where you start with nothing and then become a major player, ultimately controlling your own destiny and settling old scores. There are a few twists and turns along the way, but this is a fairly straight-forward telling of a traditional mobster story.
Much like the 2002 original, Mafia II takes place in two different decades. This brand new game trades the swinging 20s and 30s for a slightly more modern 40s and 50s. Our adventure begins in 1945, where we spend a lot of time pulling off crimes for a number of low-life mob bosses, all while earning Vito some street cred. Before long the game fast-forwards to 1951, where the cars are shinier, the music is a more uplifting and the colors are more vibrant. 2K Games has done an excellent job capturing the different atmosphere from the two different decades.
At first glance this may look like any other Grand Theft Auto rip-off, but Mafia II is significantly more linear than Rockstar Games' popular franchise. This is not one of those open-world games where you choose which missions you want to go on and when, instead all of the levels are to be played in order. There are 15 chapters in all, each playing out exactly the same way no matter how many times they are played through. Players can still explore the Empire Bay (yet another fictional New York City), but I found the game was always pushing me complete the level and move on to the next chapter.Fans of other sandbox games will feel right at home with most of the game's missions. Players will constantly find themselves in the middle of a huge gun fight, where Vito will have to hide behind objects and wait for his opportunity to attack. The game has a strong duck and cover-style mechanic, ultimately making it feel more like a Gears of War than Grand Theft Auto. Other missions have you driving people around the city, running from the police and sneaking into government buildings. There's nothing especially original about what is being asked of the player, but the missions are usually exciting and I found myself constantly wanting to know what happens next.
The game spends a lot of time stressing the importance of abiding by the law, especially while driving on Empire Bay's many roads. Unfortunately, this doesn't play as big of a part as I would have liked. The idea that Vito must always drive the speed limit or stay on his side of the road is an interesting one, but it seems to have very little bearing on how the police react. Yes, the police will engage if a player exceeds the speed limit; however that seems to be the only thing they will do. I had a lot of fun driving on the sidewalk, circling them recklessly and even side-swiping them, and yet none of that bothered the EBPD.
While driving on the wrong side of the road may not be enough to alert the police, once Vito has them on his tail he'll need to do more than just drive faster. In an interesting twist, the police will radio in your license plate number and description. So in order to get clear of the police, players will need to ditch the car (or change the license plate) and put on a spare set of clothes. This is a good idea, but I wish 2K would have fleshed this out more.
Fans of mob movies will certainly be impressed with the strong voice acting and well-directed cinema sequences. From start to finish, the game's presentation is phenomenal. The character models are extremely lifelike, right down to their rough complexion. There is also a soundtrack full of dozens of authentic 40s and 50s bands. Despite the fertile subject matter, there aren't a lot of 1950s era mob games, so it's easy to be the best when your competition is EA's The Godfather.
Perhaps that might explain some of my disappointment with Mafia II. Yes, the game's presentation is first-rate and the story is compelling. But at the same time, it all feels so safe. The setting, the characters and even the beats of the story are far too typical, almost to the point of being cliche. There's nothing about this game that pushes the envelope, it's just a series of familiar mobster themes that hammer you over the head with the "crime doesn't pay" moral. If you've seen a mobster movie, then you already know what you're getting yourself into. Heck, it's even narrated by the protagonist, just like those Martin Scorsese gangster films.
I found myself constantly wanting to compare this game to Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption. Believe it or not, these two games aren't all that different. They are both long-overdue sequels to games set in eras all but forgotten by modern game developers. The big difference is that Red Dead Redemption took all of the elements of a typical western and turned it into something completely unexpected. Mafia II, on the other hand, is exactly what you expect.I was also disappointed by the lack of life to Empire Bay. Grand Theft Auto IV was such a revolution because it felt like you were just one person in a persistent world. You didn't have to go on missions; you could go to the movies, go out on a date, get drunk at the bar, go bowling or catch Ricky Gervais doing stand-up. And that's not all, you could stay home and watch TV or play the hottest new video games. You don't get any of that here. You can sell cars and rob local establishments, but that's the extent of activities in Empire Bay. Couple that with the fact that the people don't react in realistic ways and you have a world that isn't believable for a second.
2K Games has fallen into the trap that so many others have made, which is to underestimate how difficult it is to create a fully realized game world. Making an open-world action game is extremely difficult, just ask the developers of True Crime, NARC and Just Cause. Without the biting wit of Rockstar Games, Mafia II just feels like an exercise in the expected. That's not to say that there aren't some good lines here and there, but by and large I found most of the story was there only to get me to the next shootout.
Thankfully the action is strong enough to keep you going until the end. The game runs around ten hours, which is significantly shorter than other sandbox games. Outside of going through it again on a higher difficulty, there's little to no reason to play through the game again. And there's also no multiplayer mode, so what you're buying is a ten hour action game that plays out in the most predictable way possible. Whether or not that is worth the full price is up to you, but I certainly wouldn't buy this over Red Dead Redemption.
Even though it may not sound like it, I had a fun time with Mafia II. In a year that has brought us some of the most exciting period games ever made, I was a little letdown by the lack of ambition. There are some good ideas here, but they are handled in a way that makes it feel a little too safe. There's nothing here that will shock or surprise you, it's just ten hours of predictable fun.