At first impressions, Mafia II is a game that knows what it wants to be. A period appropriate game inspired those classic movies, Goodfellas, The Godfather, Casino, and so on. A story of desperation, of extreme measures with no other options, of loyalty, of ever corrupting power, of revenge and tragedy. Fittingly though, like the real Mafia, beneath the attractive exterior lurks a reality which is quite unsavoury.
Vito Scaletta is the player character, and there’s no time wasted establishing him as a kind of pinball character, thrown this way and that by the external forces of his situation. Right at the beginning, Vito gets nabbed in his first little foray into the world of crime, and due to the war going on, drafted to fight Mussolini’s forces in Italy, causing the introduction/tutorial to actually take place not in the street of Empire Bay with the petty criminals, but right on the front line fighting of WWII. It’s not an unintelligent idea, painting the character as someone pushed into action by circumstances, since it’s a natural fit with how a game is played. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of depth to be found. Outside of the Mafioso’s, Vito has his sister, Francesca, who appears in a meaningful capacity in the game about twice; and the second time, it was a weird reminder that she exists, and serves as an underlining to the fact that without the mob, Vito as a character barely exists at all. The only properly meaningful character in the game is Vito’s childhood friend, Joe, a lovable oaf who stands out from all the other unlikable, untrustworthy, or unremarkable cast.
The aesthetic of Mafia II is quite pleasing, from the dreariness of the winter to the bright colours of the summer after a stint in the joint, there are some technical accomplishments in this product which make it enjoyable to look at, at least for a while. There’s also a dense level of functional fidelity present; lights and faucets operate, cars can have their hoods popped to do basic engine repairs… but unfortunately that doesn’t supply anything new and interesting, and in fact adds contextual noise. When you’re looking to see if a prompt to press X to pick up a new weapon or collectable, it’s annoying to be bombarded with prompts for you to turn on or off a light bulb or tap. Speaking of collectables, there’s some magazines and wanted posters scattered around the city and missions. The magazines are all Playboy, and unlock a period-appropriate centrefold that you can access from the main menu. That’s all very well, but there’s something severely disjointed about picking up an adult magazine in the middle of a firefight. I dunno, maybe that’s just what Vito needs to do in order to feel alive.
Actually playing through the game will span the better part of a decade in the game world, but large portions of it is taken up in montages of Joe and Vito doing gangster things, doing deals, and hurting people generally. While the world is indeed open, there’s always a constant single objective active at any one time, and there’s very little impetus to actually get out and explore the city, and really nothing else to do except for the objectives. You can earn money by stealing cars and taking them to the wreckers or docks, but money basically equals guns and outfits, neither of which I found necessary to deal with outside of being explicitly instructed, and I played it through on hard. There’s also several points in the story where all your money (and at one time, weapons and clothes!) will be lost, so it’s almost active discouragement against doing anything but what you’re told. If you don’t need incentive to go exploring gamespaces, you might find Empire Bay an interesting place to look around; the police respond to seeing you speed, and will attempt to fine you, and more serious offences will escalate their responses. In a twist from the typical, police will continue to recognise you until you bribe them even after they’ve given up actively chasing you, and cars you’ve been seen driving will also alert them. It’s a rather smart design, though maybe a little bit of a hassle, since bribing the cops means finding a phone, and I got tied up in a couple of situations where a phone booth would be in use, and when I found a free one, the cops had found me (which amusingly resulted in the destruction of the phone booth anyway!)
The iconic barrel-loading tommy gun of the prohibition and post-prohibition eras are in full effect and joined by a bevy of (again, period appropriate) weaponry, and firing them all results in some quite nice and satisfying destruction of cover and assorted ornamentation. There’s a snap-on targeting system whenever you go to aim with the left trigger, ala Modern Warfare, but it feels a little inconsistent. It could just be the difficulty of aiming with a third person view, or trying to cheat the recoil of a weapon by messing with the trigger, but sometimes I felt like I was snapping to an enemies face (it does seem to favour headshots) when I was nowhere near, and other times aiming a centimetre or two out when it felt like I was about as well aimed as possible with the camera given. There also feels to be a bit of a spray-and-pray feel to some of the guns, causing it to lose some impact and fun, and the giant targeting reticule isn’t doing anyone any favours.
Everything Mafia II does well is tempered by a significant flaw. The attention to detail is significant, but there’s nothing interesting in any of the details. The main characters are well-realised, but they have next to no meaningful relationships. The open world is there but the game structure is obscenely linear, with very little to do or see in the world otherwise. The set pieces are interesting, but the shooting lacks the feeling of impact. From the outside, Mafia II looks like a game that knows what it wants to be. From the inside, it’s a mess of confused ideals which sabotage the attempts to do any good.