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Overlooked Gem: Mafia II

Although I’ve been a fan of the Grand Theft Auto series since playing the original game on PlayStation, open-world crime title Mafia II wasn’t on my radar until the PlayStation 3 version appeared as a free title on Sony’s PlayStation Plus service. With no expectations, I downloaded the game and tried it, and ended up being hugely impressed with what I played, enough to delete the digital version and buy my own physical copy – because I prefer things you can see and fondle, dammit! Anyway, I was surprised that the game didn’t seem to have received much attention, hence to me its status as an overlooked gem.

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Developed by 2K Czech and published by 2K Games, Mafia II was released in 2010 and is the sequel to 2002’s Mafia. Taking place initially in the 1940s and then later the 1950s, the game is set in the fictional US city of Empire Bay and casts the player as Vito Scaletta, a young Italian-American and World War II veteran who ends up becoming a member of the Mafia. Unsurprisingly, Vito’s rise through the ranks ends up being a dangerous and turbulent one, making for an enjoyable and sometimes ambitious narrative that spans several years.

The game utilises a third-person camera and sees you controlling Vito both on-foot and behind the steering wheels of Empire Bay’s many automobiles. There is a melee combat system as well as plenty of cover-orientated gunplay – the weapons including semi-automatic pistols, submachine guns and shotguns – and everything works smoothly enough, the combat and general control of Vito feeling responsive. And while the driving feels a little heavier, getting around in vehicles is never a chore, and their generally slower pace compared to more modern vehicles makes sense given the time periods represented in the game.

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In fact, the attention to detail which has gone into bringing the game-world to life is one of my favourite things about Mafia II. The architecture, the clothing, the music – the soundtrack featuring licensed songs from Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Muddy Waters, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and plenty more – the vehicles: all of it helps to immerse you in Vito’s world.

What’s even more impressive is how the Empire Bay you experience during the early part of the game isn’t quite the same one you experience later on, after the story has skipped ahead a number of years: parts of the city have changed, as have fashion, music, the vehicles on the road, etc. A huge amount of work must have gone into this element of the game, and the developers should be applauded for it. They even went so far as to put a lot of effort into the playable scenes which take place between the game’s two main time periods – although this portion of the game is quite linear and not particularly long, the care which went into the rest of the game remains present throughout.

At the same time, however, although the quality of the finished game’s content is high, there are clear signs that Mafia II was unfinished to a degree, perhaps the most blatant being the fact that on the map included with the game, an icon representing side-missions is shown, but these side-missions don’t actually appear in the finished game.

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Another point which might hint at unfinished content is an element of the game which I’ve seen receive criticism from a number of critics and players: the fact that, side-missions or otherwise, Mafia II offers little to do in its open-world apart from the missions which propel the story forward.

While I understand this complaint, it’s not one that bothers me personally, as the fact is that the optional side-content provided by many open-world games is often basic and repetitive, acting as little more than filler. While I’m happy enough to experience such content if I’m having a really good time with an open-world game and simply want more of it, for me the game-world itself and how immersed I become in it play huge roles in how much I enjoy an open-world game. And Mafia II nailed this for me, so the fact that there weren’t many activities available in Empire Bay didn’t bother me: I was happy just exploring and spending time in that world, and moving the story forward when I felt like it.

So much of Mafia II acts in service to the game’s narrative that it would certainly be a shame if said narrative turned out to be a disappointment, but thankfully this isn’t the case. While Vito Scaletta’s tale isn’t some groundbreaking achievement in storytelling, it’s an entertaining – and occasionally ambitious, given the considerations which Mafia II must take into account as a videogame – mobster story which any fan of the genre should find some enjoyment in. The central plot features numerous twists and turns, with only a couple veering into melodrama, and the story moves at a good pace, although I thought the final act felt a little rushed.

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Alongside the blood, bullets and treachery which you’d expect from this kind of gangster story, there are plenty of little moments which help to lift the writing and overall experience. A couple of highlights for me include the moment when you first take control of Vito in Empire Bay, a Christmas scene which sees you walking streets of snow and colourful lights with “Let It Snow” playing in the background; and a darkly amusing scene in which you have to drive two friends home as they drunkenly sing together, stopping to take care of some Mafia-related business along the way.

Also, although I wasn’t aware of the significance of the scene until after I’d completed the game and then did some research on Mafia, there’s a vital way in which Mafia II directly ties into the characters and events of its predecessor, and this connection is brilliantly executed.

For such a narrative-driven game, Mafia II’s downloadable content is disappointingly light on the enjoyable writing and attention to detail present in the main game. The Betrayal of Jimmy and Jimmy’s Vendetta star a hitman named Jimmy, while Joe’s Adventures focuses on the life of Vito’s best friend during a time when Vito is absent from Empire Bay. While Joe’s Adventures offers more in the way of story and characterisation than the Jimmy content, all three pieces feel a little shallow and unsatisfying compared to the main game.

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For me, Mafia II is a game whose minor flaws – the pretty bad screen-tearing which occurs in certain locations, for example – are absolutely outnumbered by its strengths from large to small, with more examples of nice touches including the way in which you can bribe cops to let you off minor offences, and how you can steal a car either by breaking the window or picking the lock.

It’s a game into which a great deal of work has clearly gone, coming across as an experience created by people who really cared about bringing to life these characters and, even more so, the world they inhabit. While some high-budget, open-world videogames end up being bloated yet vacuous experiences packed with shallow content, Mafia II is a more focused title that does what it does very well, and it’s no worse off because of it, quality being far important than quantity.

Mafia II made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, one which led to me having a great time with the game, and one I’d like to see more people take it up on.

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Alex De-Gruchy

Alex De-Gruchy is a writer and editor of fiction and non-fiction whose work covers videogames, comic books and prose. His upcoming comic book work includes two graphic novels from Markosia Enterprises. In terms of videogames, he has worked as a writer on iOS action / strategy title Crystal Arena while his upcoming videogame projects include a shoot-‘em-up, an action-RPG, an interactive novel, and action-adventure Edelin Tales: Portals of Doom. Marvel at more wordy outpourings from his brain-meats on Twitter: @AlexDeGruchy.

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