I’m not sure if it’s catharsis or merely ‘Saying Something’. It seems that for every game I appreciate that involves an out-and-out Good Guy protagonist—a morally-upstanding freedom fighter, heroic can-do plumber, or other well-meaning do-gooder fighting The System—there are at least three more games out there that oblige the player to be a ruthless, brutal badass—a morally-dubious gunslinger, a thieving, opportunistic, piratical buccaneer, or an ambitious, brutal mobster.
It also Says Something that even a reviewer who was never particularly enamored with pop-cultural gangster/mobster lore in general can be so instantly, irretrievably drawn into a game utterly focused on the genre. Mafia II is the kind of game that can reach out beyond its genre fanbase to pull in those who simply appreciate an involving, cinematic experience no matter what the setting. And if there’s one thing that Mafia II has in greater abundance than bullets, beat-downs, fugheddaboudit, and F-bombs, it’s setting.
Follow-up (but not a true sequel) to 2K’s original Mafia, Mafia II is a third-person, free-roaming action game that takes place in post-WWII America and calls the curiously-evocative metropolis of Empire City its home. The environs of Empire City effectively and brilliantly bring to mind every mobster-crawling city that ever was, or wasn’t, or might have been. By turns, it’s got the broad-shouldered avenues and skyscrapers of New York, the seedy urban leer of Brooklyn, the scattered sprawl and topography of Los Angeles, and the wintry desolation of Chicago.
The game follows the life and rise to made-man status, thoughout the 1940s and early 1950s, of Vito Scaletta. He’s returned home from the WWII battlefields of Europe to find his mother and sister under the thumb of a ruthless loanshark. It’s a no-brainer that Vito wants to put a full-stop on that shit, but he wants more, too. He wants the life the American Dream has promised him, he wants to put poverty and the War behind him, he wants the tempting life of brutal glamour that being a made man entails.
Against the dramatic backdrop of ongoing clashes between Empire Bay’s key crime families, players take the role of Vito and shape his destiny through fist-fights, car chases, and some truly great, dramatic gun-battles. The first thing you need to know about Mafia II is that, despite its eye-dazzlingly gorgeous, ostensibly open environments—that change through seasons and eras, from sunny afternoons to oppressive grey, snow-shrouded days, from clumsy, bulbous automobiles to faster, slicker, more muscular cars—Mafia II is no nigh-endless sandbox experience like Grand Theft Auto. In fact, you can put any notions of freewheeling side-quests right out of your mind.
Instead, Mafia II offers a very linear, meticulously-crafted experience. Despite all those mapped icons representing payphones, garages, drinking establishments, clothing stores, or what have you—to which you can travel to if you want—Mafia II is all about carefully-strung-together scripted experiences that give the convincing illusion of total freedom, while hitting the player with constant, dramatic challenges. Can you jump into your car and careen through the streets, getting your comrade to medical treatment before he bleeds to death? What happens when the already-blistering, scenery-destroying gun battle sets off a blast that begins to fill the scenery with fire, the air with smoke?
The overarching narrative is divided into missions and chapters, organically allowing whatever environmental changes are needed to best set the tone. As the years march on into the early ’50s, everything from the clothing styles to the cars on the street to the songs and patter on the radio changes to follow suit. As the mood becomes even heavier, the formerly-sunny skies will cloud over and darken, making for the perfect rainstorm counterpart to a violent encounter. Some missions will take the option of direct, obvious violence away, and oblige you to resort to evasion, stealth, and puzzle-solving. One of the more interesting sidetrips from the main narrative path is when Vito gets popped and has a do a (naturally, playable) stint in the slammer.
All the while, Mafia II pulls no punches, literally or figuratively. Every rough, tough, touchy subject, stereotype and epithet is thrown out there like a right cross—extortion, prostitution, sexual assault, every racial prejudice you can think of it’s all there—and you can deal with it or you can, you know, blow it out your ass. Whatever works. In another game, it might be mere potty-mouthery—but the fact that the dialogue is by turns very good, quite chilling, and even very, very funny makes all the difference.
Beyond the fact that the gorgeously-presented city isn’t as fleshed out as it seems, there are occasional bumps in the road. While the enemy AI is generally up to the challenge, particularly in the carefully-designed battles, the game can still throw you a mission-killing glitch every now and then—if they guy you’re supposed to tail gets pulled over by the cops himself, you’re looking a revert-to-save situation. Not a game-killer by any means, but not your first choice, either. Also, you’ll spend more time than you might like doing what amounts to narrative busywork—driving all the way back across town just to enter your apartment and go to sleep to drive the story along. Again, not a big deal—and even the floatiest cars are fun to drive—but the point must be noted.
Flaws and linear nature taken into account, Mafia II is a beautiful, gripping, engaging game—and where it doesn’t allow you to go is more than made up for by where it does. This is a game where I considered the toughest, most frustrating battle but due penance, for the privilege of seeing what would happen next to these characters I had come to know, occasionally fear—and yes, even Respect. What more does a made man want from life.