Vito Scaletta, Mafia II's conflicted leading man, does not lead an easy life. War, murder, and betrayal are common themes in his complex existence--the prices paid for booze, money, status, and sex. Like most aspiring made men, Vito knows the risks of his lifestyle, but the lure of earthly pleasures is too great to ignore. Mafia II, the game he stars in, is also an earthly pleasure, as well as a cerebral delight that any fan of great storytelling will revel in. The twisting narrative is almost certain to draw you in, and superb dialogue spoken by a talented voice cast brings the characters they portray to life. It's easy to get engrossed in this world of tenuous allegiances and pompous personalities, though there are a few oddities scattered about that may occasionally yank you back to reality. Most notably, Mafia II's detailed open city is curiously underutilized, giving you few reasons to explore it and providing precious little to do outside of the main story. Yet while Mafia II is not the fully featured open-world game it seems to be at a glance, the tremendous story, the fantastic action, and the lovely city overflowing with striking visual touches make for an exciting mob drama.
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The story kicks off in 1945, and you meet Vito Scaletta, the son of Italian immigrants who, along with his smart-mouthed best friend Joe, seeks out the fastest ticket to a big fortune. The duo starts small: a jewelry store heist, black-market sales of gas coupons, working over some uncooperative dockworkers, and so on. Eventually, the stakes are raised, and Vito and Joe prove they've got the guts to whack a guy just because a mafioso with the moola tells them to. Vito's occasionally stoic, occasionally fiery demeanor makes him an excellent leading man. He and his cohorts are not Italian caricatures, but are thoughtful and (yes) moral men who adhere to principles that may seem barbaric to most people but provide a strict ethical framework within "the family." Mafia II never holds back when depicting this world's everyday violence. Whether the murder is a cold-blooded, no-questions-asked assignment or a vicious execution driven by Vito's seething rage, the killing is typically accompanied by copious spurts of blood and profane deathbed curses. Vito and Joe are showered with hedonistic rewards--alcohol, women, even houses--and never delude themselves with a greater purpose. At one point, Vito reminds Joe why they do what they do: to have stuff. And you have to appreciate his honesty.
But of course, a life of crime has consequences, and a few plot twists ensure that Vito is intimately aware of them. Allegiances change, underhanded intentions are exposed, and eventually, the macho duo find themselves in over their heads. Vito asks his associate Henry if he has ever considered getting out of the business, and Henry responds that this life is a part of who he is. This excellent dialogue expresses Vito's dilemma in a nutshell; his moral compass demands he rise above his reckless behavior before it's too late to turn back, yet mob life is increasingly irresistible. Every line of dialogue sounds authentic while still always driving story and character, and there are even subtle and satisfying winks to the audience. (Joe's remark about how Vito's diet must help him heal so quickly is one such delightful reference.) The pressure builds in the final chapter, only for a somewhat unfulfilling conclusion to turn down the heat. The ending is thematically consistent in a game that depicts a difficult lifestyle that comes with cruel consequences. Yet too many story threads and emotional strands go unresolved for the finale to feel particularly satisfying.
Three-piece suit? Fuzzy lighting? Must be a mobster.
Empire City plays a supporting role in Mafia II, rather than taking center stage. That isn't to say it isn't a beautiful place to roam, however. The game's initial chapters take place in the winter of 1945, when the streets are coated with snow, and ladies in overcoats stroll with gentlemen sporting fedoras and chain-smoking cigarettes. This first act seems as if it were lifted from a Norman Rockwell painting and represents an idealistic wartime America. The radio spouts gasoline conservation propaganda declaring that "when you ride alone, you ride with Hitler," while black-market ration coupons provide organized crime syndicates yet another source of income. As you drive a variety of old-timey vehicles about the town, it's hard not to notice all sorts of pitch-perfect visual details--the couple struggling to get their dead car started, the way the snow that accumulated on your vehicle's trunk slips away in the wind, the lamps hanging above the street in Chinatown. It's a United States as imagined through old Life magazine photos: a memory you don't have, but one that you wish you did.
The clock eventually ticks forward to 1951, and the visual touches transform but are no less impressive. Pink flamingos now bedazzle your pal Joe's apartment, and the bulbous vehicles get a little more streamlined. The radio announcers aren't concerned with carpooling but rather with recent scientific studies suggesting that smoking might be hazardous to your health. The music you hear on car radios changes as well, from Frank Loesser standards to hits from The Monotones and Rusty Draper. The music is evocative, but much of it is anachronistic; many of the tunes you hear didn't exist until six or seven years after the time period portrayed in the game, which is an odd blemish in a game so concerned with meticulous period detail. But Mafia II nevertheless layers on the fine points. Rain showers cast a gloomy pall over the later, more violent missions. Screeching to a halt in a speeding convertible produces a cloud of dark smoke. The creaking of bedsprings betrays a nearby couple's intimacy. There are some minor differences here and there, but the game looks and sounds fantastic regardless of which version you buy.
Think twice before grabbing Chinese takeout in Empire City.
It's with this explorable world that Mafia II commits its most egregious crime, however: Empire City goes largely underutilized. As with almost any open-world game, you can make your own fun (get the cops on your tail and then engage in a shoot-out) and pursue a few side activities (collect Playboy magazines and view the centerfolds in all their naked glory). Otherwise, you simply move from one story mission to the next without following any tangents along the way. There are no side missions to take. You can sell vehicles, but there isn't much to do with the funds you earn. You can buy new clothing from the freaky-looking, unblinking shopkeeper, but there aren't a lot of outfits to pick up. You can buy guns, but because your enemies drop ammo and a healthy variety of weaponry, there's no reason to ever visit the weapon shop. You can pick up one of the pay phones marked on your minimap, but unless the mission demands it, there is never anyone to call. This is essentially a linear, story-focused game that happens to take place in a big, beautiful city that incessantly teases you with potential never brought to fruition. If you're a PlayStation 3 owner, you'll be glad for the free day-one downloadable content (The Betrayal of Jimmy) that puts you into the shoes of another character and sends you off on a series of timed side missions. It's excellent, action-packed stuff, but it also underlines how limited Mafia II feels in the company of games like Just Cause 2, Red Dead Redemption, and Grand Theft Auto IV, which put their big worlds to good use.