Mafia is something of an institution for PC gamers. When the original came out in the early 2000s, it proved to be the best “GTA clone” on the market; not only that, but many considered it flat-out better than its contemporary crime adventure. The main thing that separated the two was attitude: Grand Theft Auto had always taken a satirical, irreverent approach to its world building, while Mafia was completely straight-faced. Both games involve guns, mobsters, and a heaping helping of swear words, but Mafia’s attention to detail and fairly maudlin atmosphere made many feel it was the more mature game.
Now Mafia II is here, and once again, it has arrived in the middle of an open-world-crime renaissance. Mafia II has a few heavy-hitter peers to contend with, and unfortunately it loses on a feature-to-feature basis to nearly every other game worth comparing it to. Its map is fairly small, its activities are limited, and it doesn’t feature multiplayer of any sort. However, for those with an interest in the setting, Mafia II is a dream come true.
Stepping into the boots of Vito Scaletta, a young Italian immigrant turned hooligan on the streets of Empire Bay, the game is about as perfect a window into America’s history as anyone could hope for. Like Mafia’s Lost Heaven, Empire Bay is something of a pastiche of American cities; hints of New York, New Jersey, and other Eastern burbs are dotted throughout the map for players to explore. It’s not particularly huge, but it’s dense, and richly detailed. There is also a clear distinction between the parts of the game that take place in the ’40s and those that take place in the ’50s; lots of subtle changes in the atmosphere add up to make each time period feel radically different.
Vito’s stay in Empire Bay is short, sharp, and violent. He’s no reluctant fighter, either; Vito knows what he is getting into, and it’s refreshing to see game writers try something other than the now-tired “why must I fight?” routine. At one point early on, Vito is handed a .45 handgun after a job is vaguely described to him. “Nice,” is his only response. Rejecting the industrial working life, Vito is a career criminal who is ready to kill.
That attitude will come in handy, since shooting and punching people to death is half of what Vito will be doing in Mafia II. The action stages play out like a well-dressed version of Gears of War; lots of yelling, loud gunfire, and ducking in and out of cover. There are plenty of weapons to choose from, and most of the missions feature exciting set pieces to tear to shreds with bullets. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the unarmed combat; hand-to-hand combat is extremely well animated, but it’s more fun to watch than it is to play.
The other half of the game is driving, which is well designed. Still, it can often feel shoe-horned into whatever mission Vito is helping the Family with: too many characters make you drive places for the sake of making the player do something, and to create time for exposition. If a mission is to whack someone at a bar, it’s not uncommon for the game to make you go meet the person giving you the mission, watch a cutscene about why you’re whacking someone at a bar, then driving to the bar while he explains the job some more, whacking the guy, and then driving back. Driving bookends most missions, and while the cars look great and handle well, it sometimes feels like the game is just making you chauffeur everyone around for the sake of it, even when characters bring their own car. Vito is apparently the only person in the mob who can drive.
Still, the shooting is the biggest focus, and it works like a dream on PC. Provided your rig is up to it, Mafia II’s action experience has to be seen to be believed. Using nVidia PhysX and Apex Cloth Physics, the game turns completely average shootouts into heart-stopping scenes of mayhem. It mostly has to do with the way the world breaks up: Walls, windows, bottles, you name it - everything in Mafia II reacts to gunfire, and the debris stays around for the duration of the action. Tommy guns will tear building interiors to shreds, and it’s impressive to see all of the drywall, wood, glass, and who knows what else littering the floor after a battle. These subtle effects go a long way - without them, the experience would probably be far less visceral and interesting.
For fans of mobster movies, Mafia II is the ultimate toybox. It has period clothes, music, and architecture that perfectly evoke pre and post-war Americana, and a gritty script to boot. It’s loaded with colorful characters, and it has a few genuinely shocking moments; still, for people who don’t care as much about atmosphere and just want a long list of features, the game is going to come up short. It’s rich and full of detail, but players will have to go looking for it - otherwise, it’s just another action game.
Eight out of ten