Ever wanted to play a part in another story about the Mafia in the 1940-50s, watching plenty of well animated cutscenes and shooting lots of people? Well if so, you’re in luck, because that’s exactly what you get with Mafia II. It was announced by 2K Games around August, 2007, but now – 3 years later – it was finally released for all the mobster fans out there to get their hands on and gawp at. It certainly looked set to bowl us all over with a realistic, beautiful, story driven, free-roaming gangster blast from the past. Has it attempted and pulled off everything we may have expected from it? Or did it flop beyond all reason and leave those of us waiting years for it utterly disappointed?
Mafia II begins with a fairly long introductory animation, with Vito Scaletta – the games protagonist and player’s character – telling the story of his life, and how he came to emigrate as a child with his family from the oppressive government of Italy, all the way across the ocean, to the grand American city of Empire Bay (New York…). He tells of how his dad was a drunk, his family were poor, his life was crap, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember, and then we’re told how he and his best friend Joe Barbaro – the lifetime fatty – became petty criminals in an effort to bring themselves out of poverty and into the good life. But then, during a botched jewelry store robbery, Vito is caught by the police and arrested. After that, our character has to decide whether to join the army or be incarcerated in prison. Fearing boredom and a pointless life in prison, our hero joins the army and ships out to Italy in order to help put a stop to Mussolini and his dastardly ways. After about 30 minutes of cutscenes and baby-step missions, you eventually get to play the game and go wherever you like, however you won’t be given any choices for people to go and see for missions, as the story is completely linear and is followed as and when you are told to go somewhere on your map.
The rest of the story, after the introductory gameplay and cutscenes, follows Vito and his best bud Joe and their journey to reach the top. There are family twists and turns that turn things on their head every now and then, and other more dramatic events that temporarily change parts of the game entirely. It’s an enjoyable enough story about the mob with a bunch of conspiracies, betrayals, mini-shocks, and generally lots of dead people, which meant as an entire story package, it was enough to keep me hooked from start to finish.
The controls in Mafia II are fairly solid. It’s your standard third-person-shooter controls, with a button for sprinting and hopping fences, a button for taking cover and hugging a wall, a car, or any other vertical surface. The cover system works very nicely in the sense that it’s simple to dive into and move around (holding a button while moving to a corner allows you to move around the cover safely), although one issue I have with it is how most of the time it doesn’t matter what surface you’re behind, even if you’re behind a brick wall and an enemy keeps shooting at you from the other side, since you can’t duck any further down behind cover, the enemy will still manage to kill you over and over again throughout the game. Toward the end in particular this was the most annoying thing, as the checkpoints are few and far between during missions, often setting you back much too far in comparison to the effort and time you just spent trying to defeat 10 guys who can shoot you through bad cover and often even kill you with only one shot, from a distance, with a shotgun.
Worse still, however, is being killed during a mission and then being transported to a checkpoint way back before you actually drove right across the city, instead of just dropping you at the point where you arrived at your destination. The level of irritation with the checkpoints varies throughout the game, as some aren’t too bad, whereas others are just horrendous, especially when you have to watch a scripted scene between other characters over and over again because you die right afterward.
Shooting and taking cover isn’t the only form of combat in Mafia II, and you’ll find out pretty early on in the game that fist fights and arse-kickings play a pretty huge part in the game, particularly around the middle when certain conditions in the story leave you without any weapons for a good hour or so of the game… It works quite well and it’s pretty darn fun, but have to be pretty quick with the buttons to land good punches in order to knock your opponent out, and avoiding being hit is as easy as holding down the dodge button and watching them flail their arms at you miserably.
As for the driving controls and mechanics, I couldn’t have been much happier with the way it all works. The controls are as intuitive as they get for a driving element in a game, and the cars feel great to drive and have a very realistic sort of ‘weight’ to them that makes it just feel right. The driving part of the game is made very interesting with something I haven’t personally seen in another game before, which that you run the risk of attracting police attention if you choose to run a red light or break the speed limit, in which case the police will chase you, attempt to pull you over, and then give you a speeding ticket, to which you can then either refuse to pay and resist arrest, or offer a bribe to the officer involved who will then let you off the hook. This is a very nice touch, since if you want to escape from the cops and engage in a car chase you are free to try and lose, but if you just can’t be arsed you can simply pay the fine and continue on your way (often quicker and easier).
You should be careful when driving too fast though, no matter what the situation is, because if you hit something head-on even slightly too hard with your car, you will die. Not good when combined with the bad checkpoint system. One of the cooler and more useful features of the driving parts of the game is the speed limiter you have in any vehicle, which automatically sets your vehicles maximum speed to the speed limit of the road you are on; an excellent tool if you want to avoid raising suspicion from the police, but a bit boring if you just drive everywhere with it on, meaning slower and less interesting drives from one mission to the next.
The most useful service you can take advantage of in the game – aside from the clothes shop that lets you lose your ‘Wanted’ status by merely changing the colour of your shirt – is the garage, which lets you repair your car, spray it any colour, change the wheel rims, and upgrade your engine to improve speed and performance. This is probably the best way to spend your hard earned cash, as the gun shops are almost pointless since you get a ton of weapons and ammunition during missions, and then even more useless again are the petrol stations and lock pick shop, two places you might need to visit once throughout the entire game, but that also don’t particularly need to exist any longer than the initial time you visit. I never once ran out of lock-picks, and nor did any of my cars run out of fuel during the 8-9 hours it took me to play through the whole game. Any other shops are most useful only for stealing from the cash register and making a neat little buck, though if you kill the shop owner the store will close for a while, with yellow police tape covering the area. It actually looks pretty cool, and the money can go toward your new car modifications, so I’d highly recommend it!
The city itself certainly is a remarkable place to drive around and look at, with all its authentic looking, old fashioned citizens, vehicles, and buildings to admire and, well… crash your new car into. The graphics and visuals throughout the entire game are truly something beautiful to see in a video game. The shine on the cars, the lights effects across the entire city, the detail on the characters and their actions – it’s all something you can’t help look at and be quite breath-taken by. The effort the developers have put into making Empire Bay a living, breathing city is truly impressive, and during the course of my play through I spotted a number of intriguing scenes going on that had nothing to do with the story of Vito and his life. One of the first random events I witnessed, for example, was when I was driving down a road, minding my own business, when I saw the flashing lights of two police cars heading toward me; worried they might see me speeding, I slowed my car down in order to drive past without any bother.
What I saw made me stop and watch in amazement as a random scene unfolded before me. The two police vehicles pulled over a taxi, stopping in front and behind it, after which a bunch of officers climbed out of their cars, pistols drawn, and headed toward the driver side door. The taxi driver was ordered to step out of the car and kneel on the ground with his hands behind his head, and so he did. After a few seconds of gun-pointing action, the driver of the cab reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a wad of money, which he proceeded to hand over to the cop standing behind him, who then took and pocketed the cash. After this shady transaction was over, the police holstered their weapons and drove off in their cars. The taxi driver returned to his vehicle and continued on his way. I’ll admit, I was expecting to see the cops beat the crap out of the cab driver, but I was still impressed to see such a complex scene take place in the middle of the city, completely AI driven, when I could have simply driven past and not even witnessed it had I not been interested.
A few more random events I saw were just as impressive, if a little less long-winded. I saw a man walking along the icy path of the street, who then slipped on the ice and fell onto his arse, and another man walking past at the same time who lost his footing and slipped a little, but managed to keep his balance and then angrily gave the slippery floor the middle finger. On two or three occasions, I witnessed people parked over at the side of the road, attempting to repair their cars with the bonnet up and everything: something that the player can also do, should your car’s engine become too badly damaged.
The action of the game can be really great when the circumstances of the story throw you into the middle of a huge firefight between members of different families and gangs, with people shooting from all over the place, bullets flying everywhere, and hand grenades and petrol bombs exploding all around you; yet quite sadly the larger combat sections, when you get a ton of people to shoot, are few and far between compared to the amount of cut-scenes and driving missions you end up grinding through constantly. It certainly makes you appreciate the action more when it comes along, but sometimes it really falls short when you think you’re about to get involved an action packed mission, but then perhaps only shoot a handful of people, and then low and behold, you have to watch a cut-scene or drive for miles again.
There are two or three decent stealth-based missions that involve sneaking around undetected in a building for whatever reason. As fun as it was the first time round to try and stay hidden and stealth kill an enemy from behind, the moments were actually really short-lived and didn’t last anywhere near as long as they could or should have, and because it doesn’t have enough to it to make it more fun, it only really adds to the feeling that there isn’t enough action or people-shooting to be getting on with.
One of the sort of stealthy aspects of the game that I actually enjoyed quite a lot though was the lock-picking mini-game. Unlike most free-roam drivey/shooty games, breaking into and stealing a car stealthily requires the use of your lock-picks, and you get a cut-away of the lock, the pins, and your pick. It’s very easy to get the hang of, and in certain situations it can be very fun trying to steal a car without attracting any attention. At one point, I was trying to steal a very flash car from the side of the street, but when a policeman walked round the corner toward me, with only two pins left to unlock, the panic set in and I started making mistakes. Somehow, I managed to get the lock open in time, climb into the car, and drive off without raising any suspicion at all. The clever thing too, is that if you are witnessed stealing a car and reported, or if the police themselves catch you doing it, your car will be reported as wanted, and you will need to either ditch the car and find a new one, or simply drive to one of the aforementioned garages and change your license plates (you can even write whatever you want on it – rude words are absolutely essential!).
The cash system in the game is fairly odd. It’s very satisfying earning your money from a job, or by stealing from the local burger joint, or from taking cars to the junkyard to be crushed and making a neat profit, but the storyline of the game dictates whether or not you are going to have a ton of money or no money at all due to occasional unforeseen events, and so it makes your money in the game very much a throwaway object, and you might as well just buy whatever you want as soon as you can afford it. The only benefit to hanging on to it is that certain missions require you to raise a certain amount of money to continue onward to the next objective or chapter.
Reading back through this, it certainly sounds like I didn’t like this game and that I’ve been slating it the whole time, but in all honesty I actually really liked it when I played it through. Apart from each of the things that irritated me a lot, particularly the checkpoints and being killed all the time even while in cover, the game itself is really a solid third-person-shooter, with a good story, a good feel to it, and an all-round good time. All I think is that you shouldn’t come to this game thinking that it’s another GTA style game with a ton of stuff to do and loads of varying missions to get your hands on. The action, driving, and shooting is all good, enjoyable, and makes you want to play more, but I haven’t been able to decide if it only makes you want more because of the action sequences aren’t as common as they should be.
In a nutshell, I really enjoyed Mafia II, and I’m certainly glad I bought and played it. However, after playing it on the hardest difficulty and seeing all that it has to offer within one 8-9 hour play-through, I don’t have any reason to go back to it – apart from perhaps the free DLC that came with the game – and I’ll likely be trading it in as soon as possible for some store credit toward my next game. Mafia II is definitely worth a try; it’s easy to pick up, easy to get hooked on the story, and a lot of fun to play, but if you want something that is pure action then it may not be for you, as the prolonged driving sequences and constant cut-scene interruptions to the game could be enough to get you bored. However, if you want to play it more for the fairly engaging story and characters, then it may well be just for you.