Vito Scaletta, Mafia II's conflicted leading man, does not lead an easy life. War, murder, and betrayal are common themes in his complex existence--the prices paid for booze, money, status, and sex. Like most aspiring made men, Vito knows the risks of his lifestyle, but the lure of earthly pleasures is too great to ignore. Mafia II, the game he stars in, is also an earthly pleasure, as well as a cerebral delight that any fan of great storytelling will revel in. The twisting narrative is almost certain to draw you in, and superb dialogue spoken by a talented voice cast brings the characters they portray to life. It's easy to get engrossed in this world of tenuous allegiances and pompous personalities, though there are a few oddities scattered about that may occasionally yank you back to reality. Most notably, Mafia II's detailed open city is curiously underutilized, giving you few reasons to explore it and providing precious little to do outside of the main story. Yet while Mafia II is not the fully featured open-world game it seems to be at a glance, the tremendous story, the fantastic action, and the lovely city overflowing with striking visual touches make for an exciting mob drama.
The story kicks off in 1945, and you meet Vito Scaletta, the son of Italian immigrants who, along with his smart-mouthed best friend Joe, seeks out the fastest ticket to a big fortune. The duo starts small: a jewelry store heist, black-market sales of gas coupons, working over some uncooperative dockworkers, and so on. Eventually, the stakes are raised, and Vito and Joe prove they've got the guts to whack a guy just because a mafioso with the moola tells them to. Vito's occasionally stoic, occasionally fiery demeanor makes him an excellent leading man. He and his cohorts are not Italian caricatures, but are thoughtful and (yes) moral men who adhere to principles that may seem barbaric to most people but provide a strict ethical framework within "the family." Mafia II never holds back when depicting this world's everyday violence. Whether the murder is a cold-blooded, no-questions-asked assignment or a vicious execution driven by Vito's seething rage, the killing is typically accompanied by copious spurts of blood and profane deathbed curses. Vito and Joe are showered with hedonistic rewards--alcohol, women, even houses--and never delude themselves with a greater purpose. At one point, Vito reminds Joe why they do what they do: to have stuff. And you have to appreciate his honesty.
But of course, a life of crime has consequences, and a few plot twists ensure that Vito is intimately aware of them. Allegiances change, underhanded intentions are exposed, and eventually, the macho duo find themselves in over their heads. Vito asks his associate Henry if he has ever considered getting out of the business, and Henry responds that this life is a part of who he is. This excellent dialogue expresses Vito's dilemma in a nutshell; his moral compass demands he rise above his reckless behavior before it's too late to turn back, yet mob life is increasingly irresistible. Every line of dialogue sounds authentic while still always driving story and character, and there are even subtle and satisfying winks to the audience. (Joe's remark about how Vito's diet must help him heal so quickly is one such delightful reference.) The pressure builds in the final chapter, only for a somewhat unfulfilling conclusion to turn down the heat. The ending is thematically consistent in a game that depicts a difficult lifestyle that comes with cruel consequences. Yet too many story threads and emotional strands go unresolved for the finale to feel particularly satisfying.
Empire City plays a supporting role in Mafia II, rather than taking center stage. That isn't to say it isn't a beautiful place to roam, however. The game's initial chapters take place in the winter of 1945, when the streets are coated with snow, and ladies in overcoats stroll with gentlemen sporting fedoras and chain-smoking cigarettes. This first act seems as if it were lifted from a Norman Rockwell painting and represents an idealistic wartime America. The radio spouts gasoline conservation propaganda declaring that "when you ride alone, you ride with Hitler," while black-market ration coupons provide organized crime syndicates yet another source of income. As you drive a variety of old-timey vehicles about the town, it's hard not to notice all sorts of pitch-perfect visual details--the couple struggling to get their dead car started, the way the snow that accumulated on your vehicle's trunk slips away in the wind, the lamps hanging above the street in Chinatown. It's a United States as imagined through old Life magazine photos: a memory you don't have, but one that you wish you did.
The clock eventually ticks forward to 1951, and the visual touches transform but are no less impressive. Pink flamingos now bedazzle your pal Joe's apartment, and the bulbous vehicles get a little more streamlined. The radio announcers aren't concerned with carpooling but rather with recent scientific studies suggesting that smoking might be hazardous to your health. The music you hear on car radios changes as well, from Frank Loesser standards to hits from The Monotones and Rusty Draper. The music is evocative, but much of it is anachronistic; many of the tunes you hear didn't exist until six or seven years after the time period portrayed in the game, which is an odd blemish in a game so concerned with meticulous period detail. But Mafia II nevertheless layers on the fine points. Rain showers cast a gloomy pall over the later, more violent missions. Screeching to a halt in a speeding convertible produces a cloud of dark smoke. The creaking of bedsprings betrays a nearby couple's intimacy. There are some minor differences here and there, but the game looks and sounds fantastic regardless of which version you buy.
It's with this explorable world that Mafia II commits its most egregious crime, however: Empire City goes largely underutilized. As with almost any open-world game, you can make your own fun (get the cops on your tail and then engage in a shoot-out) and pursue a few side activities (collect Playboy magazines and view the centerfolds in all their naked glory). Otherwise, you simply move from one story mission to the next without following any tangents along the way. There are no side missions to take. You can sell vehicles, but there isn't much to do with the funds you earn. You can buy new clothing from the freaky-looking, unblinking shopkeeper, but there aren't a lot of outfits to pick up. You can buy guns, but because your enemies drop ammo and a healthy variety of weaponry, there's no reason to ever visit the weapon shop. You can pick up one of the pay phones marked on your minimap, but unless the mission demands it, there is never anyone to call. This is essentially a linear, story-focused game that happens to take place in a big, beautiful city that incessantly teases you with potential never brought to fruition. If you're a PlayStation 3 owner, you'll be glad for the free day-one downloadable content (The Betrayal of Jimmy) that puts you into the shoes of another character and sends you off on a series of timed side missions. It's excellent, action-packed stuff, but it also underlines how limited Mafia II feels in the company of games like Just Cause 2, Red Dead Redemption, and Grand Theft Auto IV, which put their big worlds to good use.
The good news is that the missions are generally excellent and emphasize Mafia II's three pillars of gameplay: shooting, hand-to-hand combat, and stealth. The shooting is similar to what you would find in a third-person cover shooter. Most encounters are best tackled by sliding into cover behind a wall or under a window and popping out to blast away at your potty-mouthed enemies with a tommy gun, or peeking out long enough to lodge a bullet in your foe's brain with a Magnum. A great sense of weight, powerful sound effects, and convincing animations make shoot-outs incredibly satisfying, and your enemies put up a tough fight. Memorable shoot-outs occur in a Chinese restaurant, in a hotel bar and hallways, and in a meat-packing plant. These are thrilling sequences made even more exciting by the destructible environments; glass flies everywhere, boxes providing cover may splinter, and vehicles explode, which gives the action just the right amount of chaos. Outstanding orchestral swells in the soundtrack, and scripted events like sprinklers going off and fires spreading through the building, contribute to the tension. The only downside to the gunplay is the need to press a button to extricate yourself from cover. This is the most minor of quibbles in standard gunfights, but it's a bigger nuisance in a boss fight of sorts in a dock warehouse, during which you may wish you could move out of cover with greater ease.
Your fists also do some damage in Mafia II. Hand-to-hand combat is simple, but as with the shooting, great animations and potent sound effects give one-on-one brawls a great sense of impact. You land light and strong jabs, block incoming strikes, and finish off your opponent with a ferocious series of slow-motion punches. Smartly, the missions requiring you to flex your muscles in this manner are those in which Vito has a particularly personal stake, such as in a confrontation with an unfaithful husband. The camera pulls in close and might obscure your view during some of these encounters, but the outcome of your fight won't likely be affected by this bit of clumsiness. Not every mission requires brute force, however: you get a few chances to sneak your way to success, using the cover system to your advantage and choking unsuspecting victims from behind. You can even drag bodies and hide them where you hope they won't be seen. It's too bad there are so few opportunities to put your stealth techniques to good use, but it's hard not to appreciate how fully fleshed out this element is. In fact, it's a wonder that all three of these ingredients--the shooting, the melee action, and the stealth--feel absolutely complete and never half-baked.
It's unfortunate that you don't do more of those things in Mafia II. You spend more time driving from one place to the next, often only to trigger a cutscene, rather than to engage in some of these action-packed activities. Luckily, the vehicles strike a good balance between feeling authentic and being fun to drive. The driving in the original Mafia often felt like a chore rather than a pleasure. Fortunately, the sequel's vehicles are speedier and handle better (it's a few decades later, after all), and the police no longer pull you over for running a red light. They will, however, be none too pleased if you roar past the speed limit. You can lose them, pay a fine or bribe them, or resist arrest. If you've run over a pedestrian, robbed a jewelry store, or committed some other serious offense, the cops even set up blockades, though if you're chased down, it's not usually too difficult to shoot your way out of a bind. Or for the easy way out, lose the cops and change clothes, or steal a new vehicle.
If you aren't driving to and fro, you may instead be loading some crates, selling contraband smokes, cleaning a men's room urinal, or mopping up a puddle. The story offers good reasons for these tasks, but they're as thrilling as they sound. Yet while some undertakings might have you longing for Mafia II to deliver more action, the context granted by the story gives some of these mundane jobs an intriguing sense of urgency. A drive to the doctor's house may not seem all that interesting, but it is when you believe someone's life is on the line. Cleaning a window with a squeegee isn't all that electrifying, but it feels a lot more tense when you know an explosive turn of events is imminent. A few car chases with Joe hanging out the window taking shots at your target help speed up the pace. You might run into some weird annoyances during these vehicle-focused sections, however; the cops could arrest the driver you're discreetly following if he collides with a police car, for example, which ends the mission through no fault of your own.
Mafia II is an excellent return of a franchise with great promise. Vito and his associates are memorable characters in a city bursting with subtle visual details and violent undertones. The story pulls no punches, neither glorifying nor demeaning the difficult lives its protagonists lead--just presenting them with brutal honesty and letting you reach your own conclusions. After the 15-or-so hours it might take you to gun through Vito's story, it's hard not to come away with the sense that there should have been more to do in this beautiful city. Yet while you might be disappointed with what Mafia II doesn't do, it's hard to be disappointed by what this excellent game does do: deliver fun shoot-outs and pockets of shocking brutality in a world you're delighted to be a part of.