Much like the armed forces, it would seem that life in the mob is dictated by rigid protocol. Beyond a unmistakable hierarchy and expectation of self-discipline, both agencies are governed by an inflexible code of rules- like when lethal force can be applied. With such an unyielding structure, it seems unlikely that games which center on organized crime would allow vocational flexibility. Yet, that’s precisely the type of diversion offered by syndicate-themed titles such as Grand Theft Auto 4, Yukuza 3, and the Godfather series.
Despite the game’s open-world setting, Mafia II presents players with a decidedly linear storyline. Although the game’s fifteen missions task players with driving across the game’s urban sprawl, there’s a surprisingly small amount of extra-curricular activity to be found, save for the purchase of a dapper trench coat or the upgrade of a stylish sedan. Gamers expecting a sandbox which can accommodate their aspirations of becoming a family don might be disappointed. Mafia II‘s devotion to plot restricts the scope of the game- you’ll be regulated to a middle-management position throughout the title’s trajectory. However, this dedication to a central narrative also means players are rewarded with rich characterizations and an opulent cinematic enticement absent from many open-world titles.
Arguably, Mafia II presents players with one of the most skillful mise-en-scene since The Saboteur‘s Parisian playground. Early in the game, players steer through the snowy boulevards of Empire Bay, a stand-in for New York City in the mid 1940’s, complete with lofty skyscrapers and a sweeping suspension bridge. On the in-game radio, Dinah Shore and Dean Martin croon, sporadically interrupted by news reports from the European theatre. As time passes, the snow surrenders to Spring, and players are jettisoned into the 50’s, where rock and roll riffs fill the air, cars drop their excess steel, and fashion evolves realistically. On some of the more brutal missions, the skies swell with ominous storm clouds, evoking a somber tone to foreshadow the imminent bloodshed.
Although driving seems to take up an inappropriate amount of protagonist’sVito Scaletta waking hours, his exploits also include a robust amount of third-person shootouts, fisticuffs, and the occasional stealth-based heist. Of these three illicit activities, ballistic exchanges are the most gratifying, due to a largely competent cover system and brawny arsenal. Unfortunately, Mafia II‘s fights are both simplistic and repetitive; players will likely find themselves dispatching successions of foes in similar ways. Although the game does present a three button system with a smattering of combos, brawls are never as gratifying as Yakuza 3‘s fisticuffs. Although Mafia II’s clandestine segments deliver a modicum of tension, they seem underdeveloped due to the game’s simple mechanics. Like so many other action titles, Mafia II‘s stealth engines seem shoehorned in just to add a bit of diversity to the game.
While some might find that the title’s narrative borrows a bit too freely from the Coppola/Scorsese Cosa Nostra canon, I would myself enjoying the cinematic references. Unlike the cascade of characters thrown at players in most open-world games, Mafia II‘s cast is gradually introduced and are allowed to develop- as such, characters are undeniably intriguing. Part of this charm emanates from the game’s convincing voice acting, the other from the construction of Scaletta’s character. Having the protagonist move from the dangers of combat in war-torn Sicily to an equally dangerous domestic setting could have been a clichéd concept. Here, the battle experience of the main character helps forge a sympathetic anti-hero, even when Scaletta is committing some heinous acts.
2K Czech’s decision to abandon the fashionable open world, emergent gameplay motif is certainly commendable. It’s hard not to admire a developer who forgoes the near-requisite multiplayer competition and supplementary material to focus on a well-crafted single player game. Yet, beyond Mafia II‘s deftly developed characters and settings, many of the game’s other components feel uninspired. Ultimately, Empire Bay and a handful of its maligned inhabitants are worthy of a rental, but only diehard fans of the genre will want to commit themselves to the brotherhood.