This medium is still in narrative infancy, but Mafia II goes a long to proving that it's not merely literature and film that can tell a tale, but videogames too.
Two things about Mafia II you can be absolutely sure. It's not Grand Theft Auto (GTA) in frilly 1950s frock, and it has fifty Playboy centerfolds to find: the best incentive for hunting down collectibles ever. Vito Scaletta takes centre stage in a story of bloodshed and the bonds of the mafia, a narrative that begins in the winter of 1945 and concludes in the summer of '51. This six year jump takes place midway through the game, and it allows the developers a perfect excuse for variety. While 1945 is snow-capped and wintry, the second half of the story takes place in a transformed world, replete with faster cars and a glow to the weather. It seems a fairly superficial difference and something that in most traditional sandbox games you wouldn't even notice. But the shift in seasons illustrates one key point about Mafia II: the developers control everything. This is not a game of exploration and freedom, but a tightly weaved narrative. What you see is not by accident. It is, in some respects, as far removed from traditional sandbox games as you can get.
The original Mafia was mistaken as a GTA clone when in reality it was a plot-driven game that planted you in the middle of a big city and then led you down a predefined path. The formula hasn't been changed in the sequel. While Empire Bay (New York City, one would presume) is large and capable of being explored, you gain nothing from doing so. There aren't side-quests to complete, and barring the Playboy centerfolds, there's nothing much on offer besides the main story. That's not to say you don't spend a great deal of time driving about the city, but it's always tied in to the main plot. Thus, the scope of the game, despite appearances, is limited. Is this a bad thing? No.
Mafia II was never intended as a pretender to the GTA crown. Just because there's a big city on hand doesn't mean it has to be crammed with nonessential oddities. Empire Bay acts as a playground for the story, rather than a playground where half-baked missions reside alongside pointless side-missions and activities you'll undertake once and then forget about. The crux of Mafia II then lies in the narrative, an engrossing tale that sees Vito rise from down-and-out Sicilian immigrant to a veritable member of the mafioisi, suit-clad with machine gun in hand. The cast is of the [clas]sic mobster variety. We have the main hero himself, who's been to war and knows how to handle a gun. Then there's Joe the longtime best friend, charming and good with the ladies. The characters all have a penchant for swearing and speak in gruff tones, but this makes them all the more likeable. The dialogue is harsh and uncompromising, but laced with witticisms.
For a game so heavy on story, good characterization is a must. As much as you drive around the city undertaking missions, you also watch numerous cutscenes. Were 2K Czech inept at such an art, the game would sink. But as it stands, the bits where you simply sit back and absorb the story are often the most enjoyable aspects of the experience. A poignant moment comes in the final third of the game as you desperately rush to save an old friend from an associate, and its moments like these that are brought to life by incredible voice-acting and lifelike looking characters. The cutscenes can also be paused which means that an unceremonious return to the real world does not mean you have to miss what's going on.
At risk of spoiling the story, it's safe to say that the game draws from the innumerable literature and celluloid covering the subject of the mafia. Vito doesn't simply shoot bad guys; he also sells off stolen cigarettes, makes deliveries and roughs people into paying cash. The fact that you're not always unloading a shotgun shell into someone's gut means that when moments of action do flare up, they're that much more effective. And of course, this is an action game through and through. Mafia II is best when it plants a gun in your hand, gives you cover and presents you with an obstacle course of bad guys to navigate.
Early on Vito has to make do with a simple pistol, but in the time-honored tradition, progress grants excess. Before long he's wielding bulky Tommy guns, shotguns and even Molotov cocktails. The AI is smart and uncompromising, making cover a must. You can't simply venture into the open and blast away with abandon. A shot or two is often fatal for Vito. It ensures that you have to be prudent in the heat of battle, making use of cover ala Gears of War. The cover system works well and is infused with small touches that really help. Taking shelter next to an ally, for instance, can often be problematic in other games. Your friend gets in your way and presents you from taking the shot. Yet, in Mafia II, as soon as you get behind a crate or car that a friend is already frequenting, he'll immediately leave and find cover elsewhere, ensuring that you can shoot freely. Enemies are smart too. They tend to hide away for an annoying stretch of time, but they do ensure that no victory feels easy, and that progress in Mafia II is rewarding and tense throughout.
It's not only firefights that take up your time. One chapter of the game centers solely on hand-to-hand combat. You concern yourself with three buttons: one for dodging, one for a fast punch and one for a harder, slower blow. By holding down the "A" key on the Xbox 360 version, you duck as soon as an enemy takes a swing, but it's in timing your own punch that's key. Be too aggressive and you open yourself up to retaliation. Like the firefights, prudence is key. Wait for an opening and strike seems to be the motif at work. Prudence extends itself elsewhere too, with Vito employing stealth in surprisingly fleshed out sections of sneaking. The game allows for silent takedowns and there's even the option of hiding the body. At times, these events do feel a bit too scripted, yet the variation on the traditional gunfight is welcome nonetheless.
Should Vito need a car, he can steal one using a simple lock-pick minigame. 2K Czech has spent a considerable amount of time on the vehicles, which is good considering the amount of time you'll spend driving. Ignore the speed limit and you'll run the risk of incurring the wrath of the law. You can settle your score with the cops by paying a fine, or, alternatively, evade capture. But chances are, if you're in the middle of the mission and have painstakingly reached the final stretch, you'll stick below the 40 MPH speed-limit. The cars become considerably faster in the second half of the game, but Ferrari aficionados will be disappointed. There's nothing post the '50s on offer – hardly a surprise considering the era the game is set in, though errors of anachronism in regards to the music and the occasional slip in dialogue (like Joe using a word that had no place in the 1950s) betrays the game's 21st century roots.
Still, mistakes aside, there's clearly been a lot of effort put into Mafia II's production. Visually the game shines. Rain slashes the roads, snow covers cars and as the game progresses, sun bathes the city in yellow splendor. Despite the limit placed on what you can do in Empire Bay, you always feel a part of the city. Pedestrians sidle along the sidewalk, cars honk if you stray into their path and the police keep a beady eye on proceedings. The audio is even better, with the game boasting some of the best voice-acting you'll hear in videogames today, while frenetic music accompanies Vito's more hairy moments, and soothing tunes courtesy of the radio aid in a leisurely drive home.
While traditional sandbox games are a jack of all trades and, ultimately, a master of none, Mafia II nails the art of driving, shooting, and even hand-to-hand combat and stealth. Yes, there could be more to do outside the main story, but you'll appreciate the attention paid to the heft of a shotgun blast, or the fun to be had in a good old fistfight, elements that might have gone half-baked had the developers focused more on subsidiary activities. Ultimately thought it's really Vito's story that sticks with you most. Everything about Mafia II seems geared towards telling a strong tale. In the main menu, you begin the game by selecting "The Story" and each new mission is entitled as a new "chapter". There are strong literary sentiments at work here and 2K Czech proves that strong characterization, brilliant dialogue and slick cutscenes are just the ingredients needed for a thrilling plot. This medium is still in narrative infancy, but Mafia II goes a long to proving that it's not merely literature and film that can tell a tale, but videogames too. Along with it, you get a damn fine game to boot.