It’s quite some time since the first Mafia title appeared on the PC. Aiming to take a piece of the action from rival GTA. It cut a niche in the market, taking place in the 1930s rather than the more contemporary GTA settings, and focused solely on classic Sicilian crime families and their typical wheeling and death dealing. The game did well enough, save a ton of dull driving between missions and the lack of any real open world.
Move on several years, and developer 2K Czech has resurrected the franchise, but can it stand the heat of an increasingly crowded genre, or will it end up at the bottom of the nearest river?
Mafia II this time takes place between 1943 and 1951 and players control protagonist Vito Scaletta, a Sicilian immigrant who, after a stint in the Army during WWII, ends up mixing with the wrong crowd and is drawn into the Mafioso lifestyle. After a series of initial training missions designed to teach you the basics, you end up mooching around the game’s setting, Empire Bay.
It all starts out pretty mundanely and you’ll begin your life of crime pinching cars, stealing and selling fuel ration stamps, and beating up the odd goon. But soon you’ll be indulging in more serious pursuits, and throughout the story there are some memorable sections and missions, with plenty of variety on offer.
Gameplay falls into the typical crime-sandbox category, although it does feature some subtle changes, not all for the better. The usual third person driving and shooting is about as by-the-numbers as it gets, but it’s all solid stuff. Vehicles handle well and behave as you’d expect 40s and 50s wheels to, and when on foot and under fire, there’s a simple but workable shoot and cover mechanic to work with.
Places to hide from flying lead are usually plentiful, and using the popup and fire we’ve become so familiar with is easy. Weapons aren’t all that inspired, including the usual pistol, shotgun, Tommy gun and so on, but you can’t complain as this is obviously limited by the setting. Still, weapons feel meaty enough, and fire fights are enjoyable.
Where Mafia II sets itself apart a little is with melee combat. When engaging in fisticuffs with a foe, the camera swings in to a closer combat view and you’re locked onto your opponents. Controls switch to allow easy close combat. This system is, admittedly, very basic, but it works. You can throw quick jabs, heavy swings and can use a simple counter system to catch foes off guard. There’s also a series of stylish finishing moves to execute once you wear down your foes enough.
All of this action is held together by the game’s story, which, although punctuated with almost every Godfather cliché you can think of, is conveyed pretty well, with decent performances from the cast. That is, aside from the truly awful Chinese stereotypes, which some may even find border on offensive.
Sadly, this decent story also harms Mafia II somewhat. Many will, no doubt, draw direct comparisons to GTA, and whilst this is understandable, it’s not entirely correct. Both games feature large, open cities, car stealing and criminal escapades, but that’s where the similarities end. Whereas GTA‘s story unfolds over masses of non-linear missions, leaving you to pick the order you proceed through the available jobs, as well as offering a multitude of side missions and mini game diversions, Mafia II is strictly linear.
There’s a single story thread that you’ll follow from one mission and chapter to the next. There are no side missions, and very few distractions. You can hunt around for collectables, buy clothes and mod cars, but that’s about it. You’ll always have one single mission to head to, and so, there’s very little reason to explore the city.
This is a shame, as 2K Czech has done a great job in creating a living, breathing metropolis. It’s no Liberty City, but driving through Empire Bay does soak you in the atmosphere, as citizens walk around, have conversations, and even slip on icy sidewalks. When you switch from run-down, war-troubled 40s America to the brighter, more optimistic 50s (complete with changes to the game’s themed music stations) it’s an impressive sight, if only an aesthetic one.
Some nice little touches also help build this immersion. Rules, for one, are enforced far more than most other similar titles. Speeding will bring the law down on you if spotted, so to help stop you getting too many speeding tickets, the game features a speed limiter, which, once activated, will only let you drive up to the speed limit. Oddly, though, you can run as many red lights as you like (a punishable offence in the original Mafia). Cars also use fuel, which can supposedly run out unless you refill at a gas station. However, I didn’t run out once in my play through, so don’t expect it to be a major pain.
Carrying weapons around will also attract the attention of the law, and if you’re seen stealing a car, you’ll not only become a wanted man, but the car you’ve stolen will be marked too. Even if you lose the police, you’ll be flagged again if you drive past another officer. To avoid this, you need to visit a garage where you can pay for some new plates (which can even be personalised). A simple re-spray won’t work here.
This added weight to the law helps to make Mafia II feel different enough to other, similar titles, and it’s strangely satisfying to keep your car in perfect nick for prolonged durations due to good, law-abiding driving. Quite the flipside from GTA and Saint’s Row‘s more disposable ride approach.
Sadly, the good job the devs have done with the vehicle side of things also goes to waste for the majority of the game and can even cause boredom-fuelled irritation.
Cars serve mainly to ferry you from point A to point B and little more, which is, of course, their function, but in an action game, you want more. There aren’t many car chases to speak about, and as immersive as it can be to scoot around the city, you’ll eventually start to miss the high speed chases and gay abandon for the rules of the road seen in other similar games.
However, when you are involved in a car chase with the police, Mafia II reveals one my most hated flaws: crappy car chase AI. As with so many similar games, police tactics revolve around one core value – ram the bejesus out of you.
Rather than real chasing, police cars will ram into you from any and all angles, even if it means killing innocent pedestrians or smashing into traffic. They’re totally brainless, and the end result is a car chase that degrades into bumper cars. It’s no game-breaker, and as long as you can avoid the cops, you’ll do fine, but it would have been nice to see some more effective AI.
Fortunately, though, when it comes to flaws and technical issues, Mafia II is fairly clean. Still, there’s no ignoring the lack of any additional content aside from the main story, which will last most around 10-12 hours.
Usually, this wouldn’t matter, and a good 12 hour long action title of this quality is nothing to sniff at but, with its open-world sandbox aspirations and a beautiful, inviting city that’s begging for more content, it’s a real shame, and I can’t help but feel the devs missed a trick or two. Some form of property acquisition, protection racketeering or heist side threads would have worked wonders. Ah, well.
Mafia II is a very enjoyable game, and as long as you’re happy with what is essentially a linear, chapter-based action title, and not a sprawling open world sandbox, then you’ll get along very well with Vito and Co. If you’ve exhausted your time with GTA and Saint’s Row, and are lusting for more of the same, though, then this probably won’t slake your thirst.
Mafia II is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.