Republished on Tuesday, 19th May, 2020: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of Mafia II: Definitive Edition. The original text follows.
Protagonist Vito Scaletta is a typical mobster: he's a criminal, a low-life, and a murderer -- but you can't help but fall in love with him. Despite being a complete scumbag, he's also an honourable, dependable man caught up in a seedy underworld. Brought to Empire Bay -- a culmination of numerous classic American hot-spots -- as a boy, Vito grows up watching his family struggle to make ends-meet, and his father's subsequent turn to alcoholism. As a young man he's sent off to fight in World War II, but with the help of his friend -- Ed Baines look-alike Joe Barbaro -- he's freed from his military services, and sets up a new life as part of the mafia.
Mafia II's campaign is approximately 10 hours long, with a slice of free exclusive DLC included in new copies of the PlayStation 3 game.
The very first walk through Mafia II's open-world setting, Empire Bay, is magical. It comes about 20 minutes into the game's campaign. Vito's just been released by the American army, and is returning to his family home to meet with his mother and sister. Snow is falling in the streets of Empire Bay, and Joe informs us "it's the coldest winter in 20 years". As Let It Snow blasts out of the radio, we set walk down some smokey alleyways. Two men scream at the window of two broads: "Just one drink," they insist to the girlish giggles of their conquests. Further up the pathway, an arguing couple take their disagreement a step further as a piece of pottery comes flying out of the upstairs window and onto the pathway below. It's a taste of Mafia II's stunning sense of atmosphere. Historically it might not always be entirely accurate, but if you squint it fits within the lines; and it's magical.
Empire Bay might not be the most interactive open-world game ever crafted, but it makes up for a lot in atmosphere. It's a startlingly well-realised world, brimming with activity that gives it a life-like vibe. Cars break down and pull over, people slip in the snow, and arguments break out in bars. It all adds to the illusion of being a part of a living city -- but it is let down by the one dimensional nature of its design. While the world is packed with personality, there's very little to do within it. It all becomes a case of expectation management: if you go in to Mafia II expecting a linear game, you'll find it remarkably open -- but as an open-world game, it feels notably sparse.
You could hardly call Mafia II original. The entirety of its narrative plays upon the rules defined by the likes of Martin Scorsese. Still, while wholly familiar, Mafia II does a great job of characterisation and narrative development. While it sags a little in the middle and end, it does tell an interesting tale which pushes you through some of the game's more frustrating moments.
Mafia II's licensed music may not always be historically accurate, but it fits the mood perfectly, and that's probably the most important thing. The game excels with its song selection, placement, and even its own unique score. In a particularly solid release, Mafia II's soundtrack is probably its strongest element. It is sensational.
There's a lot of driving in Mafia II. A lot. It's this driving which justifies the game's open-world, as the mission design is crafted in a way that lets you see all of Empire Bay's sights. Thankfully, the vehicles are a particular treat to drive in Mafia II. They feel tight and responsive, and have a satisfying swagger as they shuffle around corners. They also look fantastic, and add more to the atmosphere than you'd imagine.
Very few of Mafia II's missions are actually memorable. They are usually constructed around long sequences of driving, cut-scenes, and small levels of interaction. It certainly helps the narrative to take centre-stage, but there were moments later in the game when we wished we could simply sit back and watch the story's conclusion. The further into the game you get, the more the actual gameplay becomes a stop-gap to the story-telling.
Mafia II is technically an open world game. But it's also not. It's a linear game set in an open world. With the world so limited, you've very little to do but follow the main story-missions. While this is fine, it does make you wonder why 2K didn't opt for a linear game in the first-place. At times it feels like the game's engine is taking concessions due to the product's scope, when it actually could have been more focused. While it's enjoyable cruising through Empire Bay, the game could have delivered a much greater level of detail if it stuck strictly to its linear game design -- it's almost like 2K was caught between two separate ideas, and executed neither.
As Mafia II's story draws to a conclusion, it begins to get a little bit shooty. The guns in Mafia II are loose and unresponsive. As such, firefights are tolerable in short sequences only. Which to be fair, Mafia II balances perfectly for the most part of its campaign. But at its conclusion, it begins to rely a little too much on gunplay, and it becomes frustrating.
Mafia II doesn't make the best use of its open-world environment. While the game's fictional setting is brimming with personality, there's very little interaction within it. Instead, the game opts to lean on atmosphere and characterisation. And while it's enough to leave some stunning first-impressions, the charm does begin to wane as the campaign nears its conclusion, making Mafia II a bit of a missed opportunity.