Illusion Softworks (now known as 2K Czech) returns with a follow up to their last Mafia game simply titled Mafia II. If youve never played their first in the series, its a game based on genre classics such as The Sopranos, The Godfather, and Goodfellas that deals with the Mafia in the 40s and 50s era set in Empire Bay (a fictional city mostly based on New York).
Thomas Angelo from the first game is not returning (for obvious reasons if you finished the first Mafia) and the new protagonist in Mafia II is Vito Scaletta. Vito and his buddy Joe Barbaro are slowly starting to make names for themselves by proving they can get the job done, thus moving up the family ladder as time goes on.
I need to be honest, I was a bit apprehensive reviewing Mafia II because Im generally not a fan of the whole Mafia scene nor the era it takes place in. Luckily, I was surprised with a streamlined and focused story with some exceptional voice acting by the whole cast which made the 10 to 20 hour jaunt more than just bearable; it was quite enjoyable.
Like any good gangster movie, the story is full of Italians with thick accents, nudity, swearing, killing, get-aways, hits, rounded off with an engrossing story. Vito is the son of immigrants from Sicily and begins with Joe and himself robbing a jewelry store at the age of seventeen. Vito gets caught and the only way to avoid jail time is to enlist in the army.
When Vito eventually returns home due to a medical leave from being shot he learns that his father has passed and has left quite a hefty debt that the family owns to a notorious loan shark. This sets in the motion for Vito wanting to earn some real cash instead of a lowly paying 9-5 job like everyone else. Joe has connections and eventually they are doing tasks for some higher made-men as they progressively become more and more reliable eventually becoming made-men themselves.
I dont want to give much more away, but the story itself moves along nicely and isnt too difficult to follow as each character truly is their own personality. The qualities from mafia movies are also played into the story here as well with tales of friendship, loyalty, betrayal, and revenge.
Its going to be impossible to describe parts of Mafia II without comparing it to Grand Theft Auto and other open sandbox style games. The biggest thing to know about Mafia II though is that this is strictly a single player affair with very little side stuff to do. There is an open world that you are able to drive around and do what you want, but its very limited in the sense that theres nothing to do in Empire Bay in the means of side quests and what not., so it feels very empty in substance. What I do prefer about this setup though is that the story is much more streamlined and Im not becoming distracted for hours on end doing nothing like in GTA.
The main plot takes place between 1945 and 1951 which means the firearms from that era is also intact; Tommy guns, MG 42, MP 40, Colt 1991 and more make their appearance. Unfortunately, the crosshairs for aiming are quite large and it makes the guns feel incredibly inaccurate because of it. I dont expect every weapon to have precision aiming, but when I have to use a full clip just to hit someone, thats not right.
New to Mafia II is now a full-fledged cover system rather than simply ducking behind boxes and such like in the first game. It will somewhat remind you of Gears of War of how Vito will stick to the walls, but it is nowhere near as refined or easy to maneuver (especially around corners). Its a shame that the enemy AI is usually not even bright enough to change their game-plan and will simply find a spot to hide behind and constantly poke their head in and out of cover like a whack-a-mole.
For most interactions like doors and cars, you are given two different options; standard and aggressive. Doors can be opened normally like any civilized person, or booted and smashed in for a more dramatic entrance. The same goes for stealing cars; either lock-pick them (which gives you a simply mini game to complete to succeed) for a silent heist, or save time by smashing the window and opening the door.
When you arent driving around town from one objective to the next, or in a brutal shootout, youll be fighting the old fashioned way; youll let your fists do the talking. Hand-to-hand combat is quite simple with a button for light and quick hits, another for slower heavy hits, and a block button. Once you learn how to counter punch though, combat becomes trivial to the point where you wont even get hit once for the rest of the game in a fist fight.
As the story progresses, youll essentially be doing one of three different tasks in your current mission; chauffeuring someone, fist fighting someone, or in an intense shootout against rivals. There is the odd mission that does change the variety slightly, but for the most part, get used to drivinga lot.
Since youll be in your car for the majority of the game just getting from one place to another, the pacing for the story is thrown off and some missions seems to really drag on in a simple attempt to try and add more gameplay hours into the title. This can obviously become very dull at times and you may struggle to keep your attention with your current objectives because of it. Theres a large city of Empire Bay, but you cant do anything in it which makes it feel simply empty and lifeless. The missions themselves can be entertaining, but half way through when you have to do another car mission, youre going to let out a sigh.
On the bright side of being in a vehicle for so long, there is licensed music from the 40s and 50s on the radio and I was quite surprised how many songs from the eras I recognized and knew. Theres also an optional button to toggle the automatic speed limiter on and off. This comes in handy when you are speeding along and see a cop car ahead on your radar and need to slow down in a hurry and dont want to speed past them. This toggle will set your speed to an even 40MPH and you wont get pulled over unless you run a red light or stop sign (yes, you do need to obey street laws when cops are around, though oddly they dont care if you are on the wrong side of the road).
Splurge for the Collectors Edition and you gain access to two different luxury cars and two spectacular suits (including a tuxedo), a 100-page photo album style making-of art book, Orchestral Score, Map of the Empire Bay; all enclosed in a steelbook casing. Not one of the most extravagant or interesting Collector Editions, but I am a sucker for those steelbooks.
If theres one thing Mafia II does absolutely perfect is the voice acting. Every character is completely unique and believable and if I wasnt watching the screen, I would assume someone was watching one of the classic movies. Kudos for getting this right 2K, as a great game can be extremely faltered by horrible voice acting.
The downfalls are few, but they are gaping holes in an otherwise enjoyable title. Empire Bay feels completely boxed in for being an open world sandbox game. With it being such a large city and nothing to do in it, youll become quickly bored doing mundane tasks and driving if you want to take a break from the narrative. The only other knock I need to mention is the poor excuse for an instruction manual. Sure, theres a map included, but the book is literally 2 pages of the controls and that is it. For an era that has so much history and a subject matter thats had endless movies made about it, it was a little disappointing no effort at all was included here.
I truly loved the story and the characters even though Im not the biggest fan of the era and whole mafia setting (yet Ive somehow watched all of The Sopranos). People are going to fault it for not being as diverse or truly open world as GTA, but I really enjoyed the stream lined approach to telling the narrative and the characters and voice acting has so much strength that it can hold the rest of the games faults up on its shoulders.