Mafia II is the long-awaited follow-up to the 2002 cult-classic Mafia. Though it's not necessarily a direct sequel, the game does make the occasional nod to the original as well as iconic films like "Goodfellas."
Mafia II will be available Tuesday for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC.
Make no mistake; Mafia II is not Grand Theft Auto in 1951. For starters, Mafia II is not an open-world sandbox game. That said, a quick glance at some gameplay footage would have you thinking otherwise. No, Mafia II is as linear as titles come, and though the city map of Empire Bay is littered with gun shops, clothing stores, and auto repair stations, that is just about all you can do in town.
Instead of choosing which mission to take part in, Mafia II instead threads the player along a collection of chapters that ultimately tell an engaging and highly entertaining story of the title character, Vito Scaletta. The narrative is some of the best we've seen in a game, and we were equally impressed with how well the characters were voice acted. From a strictly storytelling standpoint, we don't think any of the GTA games can touch what Mafia II has been able to convey.
Every cut scene beautifully sets up the proceeding action, which really compels the player to see things through. By the game's end, we found ourselves quite attached to Vito and his best friend Joe--regardless of the nefarious scenarios they continually find themselves in. Anyone who has ever felt remorse for a character like Tony Soprano will have an eerie dose of deja vu in Mafia II.
Beyond the stunning visuals, iconic soundtrack, and attention to detail of American city life in the late '40s and early '50s, most of the gameplay feels a bit stale. Though we enjoy a good firefight, the gunplay in Mafia II is just mediocre, composed of a cover and auto-aim system. Sure, destructible environments and realistic bullet damage keep things feeling authentic, but nothing in terms of actual gameplay stands out as being unique.
A lot of your time in the game is spent driving to and from various locations and drop-offs, and there doesn't seem to be any memorable chase scenes we'd want to go back and play again. The cops don't really make things difficult until the much-later chapters, and by then we had figured out all the ways to lose them.
Between Mafia II's fantastic script, convincing actors, and nostalgic atmosphere, there's definitely a lot to love. We'd warn against expecting something refreshing in terms of gameplay, but the title's excellent production value makes up for the lack thereof.
Immersive, real-time sandbox games have become a genre unto themselves, mostly thanks to 2K Games and Rockstar. Combining a little of every genre into one open adventure, the format is a perfect fit for the capabilities of current-gen consoles. The only question is, with each commanding at least 40 hours of gameplay, are there too many on the market?
Not if they're as good as Mafia II. I was admittedly skeptical of yet another mafia-themed crime game set in yet another sprawling fictitious city, but the attention to detail and pace of storytelling in Mafia II can't help but lure in even the most jaded gamer. As opposed to the satirical vibe of a Grand Theft Auto, Mafia II prefers a straight-up cinematic immersion that almost feels like time travel. From the vehicles and dialogue patterns to the 1940s radio stations and billboards, this sequel to a game many may never have played unfolds with an atmosphere more reminiscent of BioShock in terms of its sobriety.
There may not be many surprises in its structure or interface, but the current trend of immersive historical games such as this and Red Dead Redemption opens up possibilities for other games in other time periods, tackling politics, society, and grander themes than can normally be contained in a shooter or a standard level-based game. I actually want to head home and play more, in the same way I'd be compelled to watch the next episode in a TV series. Even though Mafia II has a free-form feel, its chapter-based storytelling gives a refreshingly more linear approach that's able to feel more like long-form drama.
Standing as an excellent example of the style in an admittedly overworked genre, Mafia II shows us that even a decade after Grand Theft Auto III, there's still life to be found in open cityscapes filled with easily burgled cars and urban shootouts.
Perhaps what makes this game feel especially fresh is its earnestness. Unlike the tongue-in-cheek in-jokes of the GTA series, Scott points out that Mafia II plays it almost entirely straight, with the characters as sharply focused as the fedora brims--an apt reflection of what we think of as the pre-irony era of the 1940s and 1950s.
It's all the more interesting because what we're seeing is not our own projection of the post-war era, but instead an Eastern European impression of midcentury America, filtered through generations of Cold War propaganda and stolen glimpses of Western popular culture.
The team of Czech developers responsible for Mafia II largely came of age in the final hours of the Cold War, and their perceptions of American culture were shaped by our most iconic cultural exports--the brutal urban crime syndicates of the "Godfather," the suburban muscle car angst of James Dean, and, of course, the music--caught in the transition from swing to rock and roll, and literally broadcast to an entire nation through the car radios popularized by the post-war explosion of America's automobile culture.
This is a '40s/'50s America as imagined through the bars of the Iron Curtain. All the big beats are there, from the corrupt police to the black market economy, as well as the story of first-generation immigrants struggling, but also thriving by creating their own destiny--a key part of America's mystique for those who had lived through Czechoslovakia's Prague Spring movement.
Fortunately, you don't need a degree in political philosophy to enjoy the game. What struck me most was the preponderance of tiny details--the little sketches of city life missing from many other urban open-world games. Conversations are overheard on the street, homes and offices are full of meaningless tchotchkes, and--a personal favorite--a cat encountered on a tenement stairwell hisses at the player, then leaps through a nearby window, crashing down onto the garbage cans below. Brilliant.