The original Mafia was a fine example from the fledging days of the sandbox genre. Releasing on the PC in 2002 (just a short year after Grand Theft Auto III literally invented the genre as we know it today), Mafia was a pleasant surprise that took a fine concept and crafted a period accurate world of organized crime for players to sink their teeth into. However, a lot has changed in the eight years since Mafia first launched, and now we finally have a sequel on our hands to see if the franchise can still compete.
A sequel that hits roughly eight years after its predecessor first made waves on the PC, Mafia II updates the setting by a couple of decades, and adds in some new gameplay elements to make it feel largely improved from its predecessor. The game is a solid experience from start to finish, thanks to a great story and some solid missions littered throughout the campaign. However, it also has its fair share of troublesome issues that prevent running with the big dogs of the sandbox action genre. Still, if you can come into this experience without expecting the second coming of Niko Bellic, then you’re likely to have a good time with it.
The game puts you in control of Vito Scaletta, the son of Sicilian immigrants, as he works his way out of his poor upbringing into the world of organized crime via the Falcone crime family. You’ll deal with the politics of being in a mafia family, experience the loss of loved ones, and make a lot of friends and even more enemies.
Vito is a relatable protagonist, and the game’s story does a fine job of showing how he became involved in the world of organized crime. While you never feel the emotional connection with him that you would with Marston in Red Dead Redemption or with Niko in GTA IV, you do get a comprehensive rundown of his character and those close to him. You’ll follow Vito from World War II to crime and prison through to the 1950s. The game’s storyline stays compelling, made all the better with compelling dialogue and colorful supporting characters.
However, as engaging as your supporting crew members can be, Empire Bay just seems to feel hollow. In other sandbox games such as the aforementioned Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV, the environments were characters in and of itself, teeming with life and activity, and really setting the stage for the action. You never really get that sense from Empire Bay. Sure, there’s ample street traffic and people littering the city’s sidewalks, and when the game makes its transition from the ’40s to the ’50s you really do see substantial changes to the cityscape. However, the real sense of life and dynamic in other sandbox games is missing, and everything feels scripted and unnatural.
It’s a real shame that that has to be the case, since the crew at 2KCzech has created a truly polished city rife with detail. Everything from the radio stations to the heavy way the vehicles handle has been meticulously recreated (however, like a Merchant Ivory film, just because something is period accurate doesn’t make it fun). As in the original Mafia, you can employ a speed limiter, which keeps your car going at the legal speed limit, which will keep the cops off of you more often than not. The handling definitely takes quite a bit of getting used to, as these cars have the turning radius of a boat and are slow to hit top speed, but that’s a necessary evil when you’re going for period realism. The same goes for the game’s weaponry. These aren’t the most accurate guns ever constructed, but by employing cover and a little bit of strategy, you should do fine.
The game’s missions are diverse and many of them are a blast to play. There are shootouts to be had, dust-ups that show the game’s well done fighting system, and even the occasional stealth mission. There are some lulls to be found, and some sequences are simple “drive from point A to point B” affairs, but overall the missions are compelling enough to carry you through the campaign.
However, as solid as the campaign is, the story mode is extremely linear. Compared to other titles in the sandbox genre, Mafia II doesn’t feel like much of a sandbox. You’re only given one possible mission at a time, and the game’s chapters are divided in a way so that there is finiteness to the game’s structure. While you can still do side mission things such as steal, sell cars and rob stores, if you come in expecting something as open as Liberty City here in Empire Bay, you will be sorely disappointed.
The PS3 version has its fair share of technical issues, including framerates that take pretty big hits, some screen tearing, generally murky textures, and even some full-on crashes that happened a few times. The Xbox 360 and PC versions fare much better both in terms of polish and stability. However, PS3 owners do get some form of consolation, as they have a free DLC pack with exclusive content ready for them when they purchase the game.
Across the board, and regardless of which version you play, the game’s sound is fantastic. The game’s soundtrack features choice cuts from the time period and offers some inspired choices, like “Let It Snow” by Dean Martin that plays during the opening 1940’s winter scenes, and the voice acting is fantastic. Coupled with the well-written dialogue and a great script, the production values are top shelf here.
Mafia II hits a few snags, be it due to an overly linear campaign, a seemingly empty world, or a handful of technical issues. However, what it lacks in those areas, it almost makes up for in character and a great story that you’ll want to see through to the end.