The first Mafia game, developed by Illusion Softworks, was favorably received during its 2002 release. This first game had gathered many fans in its success, and here we are with its long-awaited sequel Mafia II. Thankfully enough, Mafia II was still developed by the same Illusion team which has since been renamed to 2K Czech. With no knowledge on the previous title, and only hearing the odd mumble about this newest release, I went into Mafia II blind.
Going by the title, I was only expecting some gang related shooting kind of gameplay. While the opening scene threw me off, I quickly realized how it integrated into the overall story. Noting the importance of the story gave me a different perspective of the game. My first impression past the short pseudo-tutorial stages was that Mafia II borrows heavily from the Grand Theft Auto series, but does not provide much in the sense of a sandbox mode. But having seen how much the story drives the game, I started to realize that the similarities are used in different manners. In GTA the open world adopts an addictive sandbox style of game. While fun, it does have the consequence that most players never complete the story. On the other hand, Mafia II plays like a single player game and uses the open city as a compliment to the gameplay. This distinction is essential because it immediately changed my perspective of what was an empty sandbox into an immersive single player game.
Establishing that while similar, Mafia II and GTA are actually quite different is fairly key. But you may ask how this association formed from the start. Let me explain the gameplay basics if your unfamiliar with the GTA series. Mafia II plays in an over-the-head, third-person view. Shooting will pull in the camera into an over-the-shoulder view, and aiming will get you some extra zoom for those extra quick and accurate shots. Like the shooting, the cover system also takes a simple but effective approach. A press of a button will toggle you in and out of cover, and a secondary control allows you to move from cover to cover. Of course walking to your objectives will take quite some time, so using vehicles is inevitable. Breaking out the window will quickly get you in the car, at the cost of attracting the attention of the police. Lock picking a car will take more time, but if you want to conserve your newly-acquired possession you typically want to avoid a police chase. Like any other game, there are the obligatory hand to hand fighting scenes. As expected fighting is also quite simple, you strategically combine light and heavy attacks, while dodging and counter-attacking in between.
As mentioned at the beginning, Mafia II does not rely on sandbox fun. This means it should provide a solid story to bolster its single player experience. Throughout the game you assume the role of Vito, who was forced to serve in the war instead of sitting in jail after a failed robbery. You start off the game with your final moments in the war before returning home for a month break. Upon getting back you meet up with your old friend Joe who manages to get you discharged from your military service. You now owe Joe something, and upon learning your family’s situation with a loan shark you also have to support them. Having done crime with Joe in the past, you go back to the old habits to quickly remedy the situation you were left in. Similar to the stereotypical Mafia movies, the story quickly ramps up from there as you get into more serious organized crime.
While there is a low point around the middle of the game where the story almost grinds to a halt, everything else was so well performed that I forged on. The interactions, voice acting and overall chemistry between the characters are performed very well. Often while Vito talked with other characters, I would fall into his role and really feel the situations he would be placed into. Working with this interaction is the separation of the story into short, hour-long chapters. Each day or chapter in the story would be composed of a mission or two where you would finish up by returning home and going to sleep. This style of pacing made it very easy to jump in and out of the game. Each of these chapters has their own memorable short story that would contribute to the overall storyline.
Working hand in hand with the story, the cut-scenes provided the majority of the characters interaction. To keep a consistent experience throughout, all the cut-scenes are performed in-game. The voices and camera work are quite good, but what shines the most is the great atmosphere. As powerful as the game engine is, it does suffer some shortcomings in the cut-scenes. Most of the facial animations are quite simple and needed an extra level of complexity to better show the characters emotions. Considering you spend a significant amount of time in these cut-scenes, some of the characters could have used better facial textures. In some of these scenes you would have characters like Vito with a very crisp and detailed face texture who is talking to somebody with blocky and lower resolution texture. While it was not terrible, it was distracting at times seeing the difference between the characters.
On the graphics side, the engine provided a surprisingly good overall picture. The combination of good lighting and the gritty art style creates a nice and unique picture. The first part of the game happens during winter, and this gives off a drab and glum feel when outside. In the latter half of the game, the city has sprung to life during the summer giving a colorful and energetic feel. Having the luxury of running the PC version, we have much more graphical power available compared to the consoles. The much higher resolution with the higher lighting and shadow quality are noticeable and worth it. The addition of PhysX also gave the game some nice touches. The tires on cars deform under their weight, the clothes move and behave quite realistically and gunfights fill the surrounding with debris, giving a much more action packed feel. The downside is that my single graphic card system pushed me into taking off the subtle anti-aliasing in order to keep my smooth 60fps.
Starting off with little expectations and overall having not heard too much about the game is quite surprising. The game-play is simple and quite fun as you always feel in control of the situation. The separation of the story into short chapters really brought out the key elements which really came together as I neared the end of the game. Despite the odd scuff here and there, the overall look and atmosphere remains quite impressive. Most importantly was the amazing chemistry and interaction between the characters. Personally sharing an identical reaction with Vito towards the ending sequence has sealed what I consider a truly good game.