For a lot of people, few things are as intriguing as the Mafia. From classic movies like The Godfather, to the incredibly popular television series The Sopranos, people are simply fascinated with the lifestyle that organized crime seems to offer. Of course, for the average law-abiding citizen, being a mobster is nothing more than a childish dream. But what better way is there to live out one's gangster-fantasy than through a video game, right? Developed by 2K Czech, Mafia 2 is the long awaited sequel to the 2002 cult classic Mafia, and it certainly scratches that itch of curiosity that a life of crime and violence seems to invoke.
Mafia 2 takes place in Empire Bay a New York inspired metropolis during the late 1940s and early 1950s. You play as Vito Scaletta, the son of Sicillian immigrants who moved to America. With the outbreak of World War II, and Vito on the wrong side of the law, our young protagonist found himself shipped to Europe to help with the war against Mussolini. After narrowly escaping death, Vito returned home to find his mother and sister in debt to a loan shark, and his only friend, Joe, engaged in some pretty shady activities. Thus begins Vito's descent into a life of organized crime.
The story of Mafia 2 is told very cinematically, with a liberal amount of cut scenes placed throughout the game. Thanks to some incredible voice acting and an interesting cast of characters, this story telling approach works wonderfully. Over the course of the game, you'll start caring about Vito and Joe more and more, even though they are certainly flawed characters. The story does feel rushed at times however, which really detracts from the overall experience. Vito's sister, for example, only shows up two or three times in the entire story, yet whenever she does, it's made quite clear that the player is supposed to feel some intense family bond between them but it's just not there. Similarly, the relationship between Vito and the final boss isn't explored enough to account for the burning desire for vengeance that Vito seems to have. Also, the game's ending is frustratingly unsatisfying, and doesn't conclude much of anything.
When not watching cut scenes, you'll often be doing one of three things in Mafia 2 driving, shooting, or fist fighting. There are some exceptions to this, such as a few missions that require stealth, but generally these are the three pillars of gameplay that Mafia 2 relies most heavily on. The driving is fairly well done, with vehicles handling nicely, and a strong assortment of classic cars to choose from. However, it's way too easy to get Vito killed when driving crashing at a speed of over 70 kilometers per hour almost always spells certain death, which gets old real fast. The melee combat system in Mafia 2 is extremely basic. You have a fast attack, and strong attack, and can dodge, as well as the ability to perform a combo and a finishing move by mashing the same button over and over. The camera can get kind of iffy while fist fighting and the entire system feels slightly unnecessary. I would've preferred just watching these fights in cut scenes, to be honest.
Of course, the majority of your time spent fighting is with a gun, and not your fists. The gunplay in Mafia 2 is pretty generic, offering a cover system that works well enough, and an assortment of WW2 era weaponry. The aiming could certainly be tightened up, and is particularly bad in close quarters combat. The AI also leaves an awful lot to be desired. Enemies will just sit behind cover periodically popping out to fire off a few bullets, and then duck back down. And your AI companions don't always make the smartest of decisions in the heat of battle. Altogether, combat is Mafia 2 isn't anything special.
In fact, certain annoyances in the combat make it seem worse than it actually is. For example, when Vito takes damage, the screen starts to go blurry, and a loud heartbeat can be heard. This is a pretty standard effect in games nowadays. The problem in Mafia 2, however, is that the slightest amount of damage causes this to happen. And in the last few chapters when Vito is fighting more and more enemies at once, you'll be getting shot quite a bit, causing the loud throb of a heartbeat to sound every few seconds while you hide behind cover regenerating your health. Also, checkpoints are few and far in between, meaning that getting surprised by a enemy-thrown grenade can result in the same fight being played over and over again.
And although Mafia 2 might look like a GTA-clone at first glance, it's really not. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, which provides an open world for the player to explore, Mafia 2 is very focused and linear. It's not a bad thing 2K Czech obviously wanted people to experience the story as they envisioned it, and it works well. There are hardly any side missions to complete in the game, and aside from a few clothing stores and garages, it is usually just you and your main objective.
While I'm all for a focused, cinematic gaming experience, I can't help but feel Mafia 2 would have benefitted from being more sandbox-styled, simply because Empire Bay is such a great city. The attention to detail really is staggering, from the classic cars to the authentic music, and even the way everyone is dressed. 2K Czech did an excellent job of making me believe I was in 1940s America, and I was a little disappointed that I couldn't explore that world further.
Even though you don't get to explore Empire Bay like you would Liberty City, it is still a gorgeous place. The architecture is true to the time period, and the impressive draw distances really help nail the scope of the city. Unfortunately, not all of the graphics in Mafia 2 live up to that standard. For the most part, character models look pretty good, however a lot of the game's animations look stiff and unnatural. And on the PlayStation 3, certain textures like grass were removed completely in order to boost the frame rate, which results in some downright ugly environments.
And the frame rate still does slow at times, although not very often. Much more prevalent, however, are random glitches and bugs. From people getting stuck in walls, to having Vito perform a choke animation only to have the enemy die a few moments later, the glitches found in Mafia 2 are minor, but shouldn't have made it into the final version of the game.
All things considered, Mafia 2 is a good game. The problem is, it only takes a little over ten hours to complete the story, and once you're done that... that's it. With no multiplayer or compelling side missions and mediocre gameplay mechanics, there is little reason if any to play through again after completing the story, save for downloadable content. Still, the story is one worth experiencing, especially if you are a fan of the Mafia in general. If you're looking for a narrative-fueled game to occupy a weekend, then Mafia 2 is just what the mob-doctor ordered.