You’d be a fool to doubt 2K Czech’s intentions coming into Mafia II; as if they weren’t going to deliver a wholly entertaining, bloody and brutal experience as the one that expounds from this, the follow up to Illusion Software’s 2002 original. So forward have 2K been in promoting their game from way back at E3 2007 that it was looking like the game would be hard pressed to live up to the lofty expectations that were unsurprisingly accrued. Thankfully, this gangster flick is never short of brilliant, from some remarkable and daring heist missions, to powerful character types and the beautifully realised setting.
In fact, everything that is used to convey Mafia II’s story of Vito Scaletta and wise-guy pal Joe Barbaro’s rise through the ranks of crime to become made men; dealing in betrayal, killings, and dodgy dealings (the staples of some of our favoured crime flicks), 2K Czech have ensured in bringing top quality to the table. Cut scenes are superbly directed, engaging and well acted, (even though Vito needs a good kick up the backside to get some life out of him!), and character models are well detailed, the animation meticulous. Fold in some references from some of the best gangster movies out there, most notably in the number of references to Scorcese’s Goodfellas (a comedic drunken night that turns into digging up the dirt) and you have one of the best crime games yet. And although 2K Czech were perhaps a little reticent to go the whole nine yards in delivering an open approach to the setting and the set piece extravaganza that could have been given, the extreme linearity and slower pacing of the game (Mafia II sometimes settles for too many driving sections) cannot be considered dramatic missteps, as what results is a means for the player to remain captivated and immersed in everything the story has to give, whilst making the more action-orientated missions stand-out all the more.
And with 2K Czech basing the fictional city of Empire Bay on the cities of San Francisco and New York City, they manage to infuse the lofty buildings, narrow alleyways, bright shop signs, colourful billboards and cobbled roads with enough charm and character that this truly feels like a living and breathing city of its own. It might have a number of references in its structure to the aforementioned cities (such as the use of the Brooklyn Bridge) but Empire Bay never feels any less of Mafia II’s own. Indeed, so delicately balanced is 2K Czech’s introduction into the city (a car journey that slowly reveals the gleaming lights of city high-risers from afar, contrasting with the crispness of the snow) that its introduction is as well handled as any sandbox environment we’ve yet to see.
The soundtrack is also superb, a dazzling array of licensed tracks from the era that manages to spring life, glamour and rock n’ roll free spirit into the city of Empire Bay through any of the three radio stations that can be tuned into (there are sadly no more). There’re rarely better moments in gaming than what can be experienced here, cruising through gloriously detailed streets in your gleaming red Shubert Frigate (read-, ‘Chevrolet Corvette’), top-down, past the weight of towering apartments, colourful billboards, sexy cars, and unrivalled fashions, whether in the game’s output of the city in the 40’s or 50’s (and a fantastic interlude between).
The major differences between this and its precursor is the introduction of the cover system that is pretty much the go-to control method for triple-A games at the moment. Perfectly acceptable and workable, the cover system ensures the regular bouts of gunfire between you and opposing gang members is always kept in your hands, while the touches of environmental destruction keeps action feeling ferocious, unsettling and unnerving. It’s not an easy game, trust us, but never do you feel let down by the mechanics that 2K lay down, instead finding some neat little touches that add to the staples of cover movement (using ‘Square’ to move around corners while remaining behind the object). The weight and power of each of the arsenal is also considerable, in which the Revolver is perhaps the go-to choice for picking off enemies in the distance with a handy little headshot and the Shotgun is, as ever, pertinent in close-quarters. The shortage of grenades and Molotovs cannot be mistaken however, and are only ever handy after a recent visit to any of Empire Bay’s gun shops. Just stay away from the dodgy fighting mechanic that uses a simple two-button hit method and you’ll be fine. Otherwise heralding solid AI who react well to oncoming attacks by tipping over furniture and flanking your moves and you have a well crafted action game that stands head over heels above GTA IV’s clunky crisis.
As we move into talking about distinct moments of the game, it’s worth pointing out that the sublime tenth chapter encapsulates perfectly all there is to love about Mafia II as a game. A quality-laden cut scene opens proceedings- a whisper-quiet meeting between Vito, Tom and their new, unnerving bosses- as they are instructed to head to the Empire Arms hotel in which heads of a rival family (Clemente) meet, only to go about posing as cleaning staff and rigging the conference room to blow. Only then, when the dramatic tension rises and the initial explosion goes off does the action really get underway, as you sweep the rest of the hotel floor with bullets in ensuring each gang member is unequivocally- and brutally- butchered, before exiting the hotel and speeding away for a hasty exit through the West Side of Empire Bay.
The final chapter also weighs heavily on our mind as demonstrating how well 2K Czech have approached the second game in the series, raising expectations toward a powerful climax that truly delivers on the promise. Running and gunning through the cold, hard interior of the Planetarium inter cut with a remarkable- and unsuspecting- conclusion to the unflinching drama of Vito’s rise to the head of the family. Otherwise, 2K Czech seem insistent on settling for cheap escort missions where the perilous journey from A-to-B must be driven (speed limits and all) in any of the weighty motors that Mafia II’s Empire Bay holds. It’s where the game falls down the most, the early portion of the game particularly dry and virtually null and void.
It’s barely the open-ended Mafia game that many were expecting, or indeed hoping for, but then it needn’t be: Mafia II is of a quality that matches that of GTA and its rivals without the need for illogical side-missions. Each element of the game works well and, surprisingly, the whole product fails to falter profoundly in any portion of its design. The game is too short however, and while we don’t want to decry every game for failing to attach multiplayer (far from it), Mafia II would be ripe for an expansion at some point with competitive multiplayer.
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