Mafia II tries really hard to be a 1940s Grand Theft Auto. End of review. Not really, obviously, but that does summarize it quite well. There is a great deal of common ground between these two series, in terms of overarching gameplay elements, and even a seriously strong similarity between the stories of the titles. Many people are going to immediately dismiss Mafia II as a knock off of GTA IV…and I can’t honestly say that they’re off base. However, something to remember is that GTA IV is a really good game…and Mafia II takes just enough from it that it ends up as potentially being worth the money.
The story revolves around the young thug Vito Scaletta. At a very young age, Vito came to America from Sicily. America, to his family’s surprise, was not what they expected it to be and, naturally, Vito falls into a rough crowd (sound familiar yet?). After being caught for some petty larceny, Vito is given the option of serving time in prison, or joining the Army, which was in need of Italian-born soldiers for overthrowing Mussolini. Naturally, he opts for joining the military. Vito eventually returns home on leave, and is confronted with looming debts and an imminent return to Europe to push through Germany. However, his childhood friend and fellow punk Joe Barbaro gives him a helping hand in the form of forged discharge papers…and some “odd jobs.” Naturally, Vito falls deeper and deeper into the mob, starting out by shaking down chumps for protection money and working his way up to being a made man.
Mafia II’s gameplay uses a familiar blend of car-driving and on-foot combat. Driving handles exactly as you would expect, with acceleration on the right trigger and brakes on the left. Something of note is that all these 1940s cars handle painfully realistically. And let me tell you, cars back then did not handle well. Driving is difficult, as you struggle to reach 40 miles per hour, and grind almost to a halt to bear right. Shooting controls are equally clunky, with frustrating camera angles and a complete lack of a lock-on function. The melee combat is also painful. There are organized fights, where Vito basically engages somebody in a rock-paper-scissors game…but worse is the actual meleeing in the heat of combat, which will regularly leave you either punching through somebody, or going “boop” on their nose as a melee attack whiffs. There are also some insanely-difficult-because-of-poor-level-design moments…but not too many. These flaws aren’t enough to completely destroy the game, but this is the primary reason the game is definitively below some of its Rockstar-made competitors.
More noteworthy, however, is how the gameplay takes a definitive backseat to the story. While Mafia II takes place in a sizable city, you have very few opportunities to navigate it, courtesy of an on-rails narrative that doesn’t afford much room for exploration. You literally go from mission to bed to mission to bed, which simply doesn’t allow for the freedom found in GTA IV and, by extension, removes a lot of the fun that could have been had just exploring and testing the limits of the Mafia II world. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the characters end up better-developed than they would be in a game that revolved moreso around freedom, but this is still an important tidbit of information for people expecting a GTA recreation.
The graphics are a bit hit-or-miss. The game suffers a bit from Mass Effect 1-syndrome, where human females (not that there are alien females in Mafia II) were noticeably not crafted as carefully as their male counterparts. Vito, Joe, the mob bosses and so on all look quite nice, but the women of the game, primarily made up of bar skanks, prostitutes and Vito’s well-behaved sister, just don’t look “human”. A problem that all the characters suffer from, though, is a lack of emotion. A mob-centered story is naturally full of anger, betrayal and tragedy, but you will never see Vito and company looking anything but stoic.
The game takes place in the 1940s and 1950s, and the sound is what ends up really driving this feeling home. The game features goofy radio news broadcasts and old, horrible music every time you hop in a car (though, just as a note, the game takes place from 1943 to 1951 and they have numerous songs that came out after this) that really reinforces the “1950s” vibe. The biggest thing, however, is the excellent voice acting, which adds in a huge way to the story-telling.
The $60 question will determine whether or not you should buy this. It really depends on how desperate you are for this type of game. I can’t really stress this enough…GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption are much, much better. If you’ve already played those and are looking for another crime-themed game, then this is worth checking out. But, to reiterate it one more time, GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption are much, much better.