I’ve spent plenty of time with Grand Theft Auto, inFAMOUS, and other similar excursions — except I’ve done nothing but harm innocent pedestrians, wreck countless cars, while racking up an indeterminable amount of property damage. As a result, I didn’t bother to finish them.The reason Mafia II works for me was because it was nothing like the go-anywhere-and-do-anything romp I assumed it would be. Like its predecessor, Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven (one of the few similar games I did complete and a fantastic play), it’s a scathing, disturbing, and at times decidedly stereotypical look at the lengths one man will go to make money, a better life, and most importantly, a name for himself.
It’s not perfect – many may call its refusal to stray from its central narrative a weak point. But it spins one of the most gripping dramas I’ve seen in quite a while.
Vito Scaletta’s story spans eight years, starting from his time as a low-life thug to shipping off to Italy to fight Mussolini, his descent into moral decay and finally becoming a made man. It’s a frightening process, but one that begins with a touch of innocence.
When he returns home from war for a brief time, Vito intends to stay on the honest path to make money (with a little nudging from his mother). One thing leads to another, and eventually this once stand-up ex-soldier has no qualms about leaving an entire room of men dead to earn a few thousand bucks. Before you know it, Vito is hobnobbing with all of the Mafia bigwigs. He’s finally becoming somebody. But at what cost?
In between all of the debauchery, you find a sinfully decadent tale of friendship, betrayal, and honor among men. But you’ll also find that the actual gameplay falls into a pattern that can become stale if you want variety in your sandbox games.
You get into a predictable groove when playing: wake up, answer your phone, and take on a job. Usually, jobs entail picking Joe Barbaro (his best friend) up from his apartment, driving to a set location, and leaving a room full of dead men in your wake. Sometimes it’s just one dead man. You get the idea.
There’s nothing complicated or particularly engaging about using your mini-map to follow a path, reach a destination, carry out a stealth mission or straight-up “kill-everything-that-moves” mission, and return to your employer for pay. To be honest, if I hadn’t become so infatuated with Vito’s tale, I wouldn’t have found much to enjoy here. This is an exemplary case of an outstanding story carrying what would otherwise be a mediocre experience.
While the entire city is unlocked at the onset of the game, there isn’t much to do between story missions. You can rob stores, steal and sell cars, and complete some odd jobs while cruising around in your sweet upgraded ride … and that’s about it. This is an open-world game, but technically, it’s no sandbox game.
Interaction with citizens of the city is limited unless you want the cops on your tail the entire time, and with these police, you want to stay on the straight and narrow. You may be able to lose them by speeding up and leaving town in some cases, but when they want you dead, you usually end up dead. So it’s best to stay at an acceptable rate of speed, and keep your guns to yourself.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that you can bribe a cop or simply tell them you’re broke to avoid paying a fine. It works in such a hilarious way that you sometimes cease to take the idea of a police force chasing after you seriously.
The game wouldn’t work without its memorable characters and competent mechanics, along with music, decor, and clothing from the period. Classics such as “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “Tequila,” and even “Let It Snow” blare from the radio as you’re on your way to your next target. Retro advertisements play between songs. Classic car beauties pepper the streets. And there’s nothing snappier than dressing up like a real, honest-to-goodness member of the Mafia by purchasing some of the most dapper suits seen in a video game since Hitman.
There’s plenty to love about the game if you’re a fan of crime dramas. It doesn’t set out to redefine the genre and it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is. What it is, however, is done right. I’m actually quite grateful this isn’t another GTA with too many bells and whistles. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, it can hit home (with personal relationships), and it can be absolutely haunting at times. You owe it to yourself to experience what it means to be a Scaletta, even if that means sacrificing the guns, the money, and the freedom you get with the Bellics and the Vercettis.