Classic car enthusiasts and mob movie lovers have a lot to enjoy in Mafia II. The game puts players in the role of Vito Scaletta, an American immigrant aiming to become a "Made Man" in the fictional city of Empire Bay, which draws heavy inspiration from New York City. The game covers a time span between the 1940s and 1950s, and players watch the world change over from a WWII-era look to a brighter and livelier post-war attitude. Gameplay has a lot in common with Grand Theft Auto IV, which includes the option to steal a variety of cars, outrun the police, and shoot up everything that gets in the way. However, dwelling on those similarities does Mafia II a great injustice. If you look past the often-done gameplay and seemingly cliche plot, there's a very enjoyable action game to be found beneath it.
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Although the game focuses on the life of Vita Scaletta, his friends, and his rise in ranks within the Italian organized crime families, the real star of the game is Empire Bay. The city goes through a major shift when the time period changes from wintertime in the 40s to summer in the 50s. The most prominent signs of this change are the car models, which are recreated in wonderful detail, and the period specific music. The music leaves behind wartime inspired tunes to make way for the rise of rock n' roll. One minor oversight is that Vito's fashion choices don't grow all that much despite the changing times.
The story itself is about what you would expect. Vito sets out to make a name for himself, gets into trouble, gets out of trouble with some help from the mob, then ends up in worse trouble than before. Players encounter a decent cast of characters, the most memorable being your longtime friend Joe, along with plenty of gunfights (complete with destructible cover) and explosions along the way. It hits the right notes for an action game based on the Italian mob in the 1950s.
If there's a glaring fault, it's in how Mafia II feels like a scaled back game. It's like there were a bunch of ambitious plans that got chopped out. There are a few characters who are never fully fleshed out, with Vito's mother and sister being the best examples. There aren't any side missions outside of stealing cars for extra cash and rescuing the occasional damsel in distress, although it's clear that there were supposed to be. We were told to check in with different characters to pick up jobs, but they never had anything for us. Similarly, it looks like the architecture is present for multiple branching storylines, depending on how you solve different missions, but that doesn't prove to be the case. It doesn't matter if you do a job perfectly or make a bad choice somewhere in the middle, the outcome is essentially the same, and the player is put on a fixed track toward a single ending. This is disappointing on a number of levels. It makes the overall experience feel a little short, and it also would have been nice to have more incentive to replay the game besides of collectibles and achievements. Mafia II doesn't even allow players to continue exploring the world once it's been completed like most other open world games do.
While we enjoyed ourselves, there are other issues worth mentioning. Minor nuisances include having to obey the speed limit, with passengers complaining whenever you drive too fast or run a red light. While we appreciate how there should be risk associated with suspicious activity, this seems a little excessive. The game basically wants you to feel like a big bad mobster who is afraid of getting speeding tickets. Cops don't bust you for running lights, so what's the point in making a big deal out of it? Players can customize cars with new paint jobs and license plates, and the engine can be tuned up to evade the police. However, none of it is worthwhile. There's no sense in getting attached to any of the cars, since new ones are easy enough to steal and some of the missions cause you to lose your vehicle without warning. Plus, a lot of these cars aren't designed for high speed driving, much less on icy winter streets. So it's usually in the player's best interest to keep a low profile unless a mission forces you to stick your neck out.
There are a handful of ways to make a quick buck, but only two are worthwhile. Players can earn easy money by stealing cars for a junk yard crusher or stealing expensive cars for illegal export. The latter brings in a ton of money, but it doesn't become available until midway through the game, and gets removed shortly thereafter. That's OK, because there isn't much to spend your money on. You can pick up all the outfits you need with a couple hundred dollars. Meanwhile, guns and ammunition are plentiful during most shootouts (you can start with a pistol and end up with a Tommy gun in under five minutes), and as we stated earlier, there's no point in upgrading cars. That leaves things like sticking up local shops for quick cash a well meaning but pointless addition, since stores are generally spread far apart and it's a lot of trouble for a small payout. Plus, this is supposed to be the mob. Where are all the racketeering jobs? The closest we get is a throwaway job where we had to lean on a handful of dock workers.
Mafia II has its fair share of faults, and it's clear that it should have been much more, but we still had a great time in spite of that. The story has a good pace and the gameplay is solid. We also loved exploring Empire Bay, and the cars and music really bring the game together. The finale ends on a strong note, even if it does cry out "to be concluded in future DLC." We generally recommend waiting for a sale, since there's not much more to the game once the campaign is completed, but the experience is good enough to pick up as is if you're willing to overlook its missed potential.