Mafia was an ambitious game, there is no doubt about that, but it had limited appeal because it was seen as a clunky GTA knock-off. It would take 8 years before we’d see a sequel, which came to us in 2010 for consoles and PC. Can the same tricks make a franchise feel innovative twice? Shockingly… yes.
Thomas, meet Vito
Thomas’ story is over, and replacing him as the anti-hero of Mafia II is Vito Scaletta, a Sicilian immigrant to the United States. While robbing a store in the early 40s, Vito ends up being arrested while his best friend, Joe Barbaro, escapes the scene unscathed. The game then jumps to a tutorial segment in fascist Italy, where Vito is helping the allied forces push into Sicily instead of serving a prison sentence. When he then returns to the States on temporary leave, old Joe is there to greet him and knows just who to call to get Vito’s “leave” extended indefinitely.
Right off the bat, there are some improvements over Mafia that go much appreciated. The first game had an enjoyable story, but characters never interacted with each other outside of cutscenes or instructions. Here you got a lot of banter going on as you drive friends and colleagues around Empire Bay. Especially Joe ends up being a truly endearing sidekick to Vito; he is a lovable, slightly-overweight doofus who always seems to know how to get any job done and make good money. You really get to know the guy and, over the course of the game, cherish his bond with Vito as they face shared hardships.
The story is once again the focus of the game, as missions follow each other up quickly with little opportunity to freeroam between them. Vito works his way around the various mafia families, VIPs, and dons that rule in Empire Bay, and there are many twists to the story that went much-appreciated. It can be kind of hard to keep track of characters, however, and I think the story is paced too quickly. You hardly get two hours of gameplay before the game kicks off its major plot twist and sends the story into a time skip to the 50s, which felt like it would have been more impactful if we had gotten some more missions under our belt by then.
The pacing as a whole is kind of weird, which makes Vito difficult to relate to. Remember, it took several missions before Thomas ever even pulled a weapon, but Vito scarcely moves 5 boxes at the dock before deciding that killing people is the better way of life. Mafia was also about Thomas’ rise to power and how he eventually comes to face the consequences of his actions, but in Mafia II they don’t let this sink in quite as well. Almost everything Vito does backfires on him immediately and none of it gets a reaction or sparks any kind of doubt in him. It feels unnatural, and in a game that prides itself on its narrative, that is a problem I can’t let slide.
Story score: 7/10
Never been so happy with cover
So gameplay was the major problem that kept Mafia from shining bright and 2K took some serious measures to fix these problems while also amplifying what made the series special. There is still the sense of realism, as you drive around Empire Bay and can aggravate the cops for driving over the speed limit or carrying weapons. You still get fines for smaller crimes and can bribe cops to go away for the more serious problems. A new feature is that you can repair cars and they can break down if you get into collisions.
Missions still focus on doing various jobs, like one where you mostly just drive a truck around and sell people crates of stolen cigarettes, or another where you need to bury a dead body. The missions are quicker to get to the violence, however. You’ll get your hands on various weapons from the era, such as Tommy Guns, an MP40, various revolvers, and the ever-reliable M1 Garand. Aiming is easier than before and enemies are quicker to go down, though on the flipside they can still take you out with two well-placed shotgun blasts, even on the easiest of difficulties.
New is a cover mechanics and regenerating health, standard features for games from this era, yet new additions to the Mafia gameplay. It’s certainly a step up compared to old Thomas having to run & gun hour-long missions while on his last 10% of health. It does make the moment-to-moment gameplay generic, as you are effectively just driving Vito from location to location, whereupon you engage in the same cover-based shooter exchanges you find in every other game that uses a cover system. The lack of blind fire and the scarcity of throwing weapons also leaves it feeling barebones, but perfectly serviceable for a game that is more concerned with its story.
Mafia II also adds functional stealth mechanics, featuring your standard silent take-downs, as well as hand-to-hand boxing that offers light, heavy, and counter strikes. Again, these mechanics aren’t terribly defined or unique, they just exist to facilitate scenarios for the gameplay and beating up the occasional civilian that bumps into you.
That the mechanics aren’t too unique is really not a problem, because the missions as a whole are much easier to complete and more cinematic than before. In a game that is all about the story, I appreciate being able to continue that story without getting stuck on hard missions like in the first Mafia. Missions that feature stealth either have it as an option or aren’t too difficult, missions that have you chase people don’t have the rubber-banding issues of the last game, and thanks to the three difficulty settings, players can decide for themselves how spicy they want the shoot-outs to be.
Gameplay score: 7/10
Mafia II leaves behind the city of Lost Heaven in favor of Empire Bay, but used a similar design strategy for creating the city. In fact, some parts are lifted entirely, like the high-class mansions placed at the end of a perilous, swirling mountain road, or the Chinatown district. With the improved graphics tech available now, the city has been upgraded even further and, whilst driving, you get a lot of nice vistas of the skyline.
Mafia II maintains the attention to detail that made its predecessor so special. While you no longer have an odometer, you do still have cars that specifically fit the period, which get damaged in specific ways and all have their own stats. You can even go into the extras menu and read an encyclopedia on the vehicles in the game. While indoors you also get to enjoy detailed environments with a lot of clutter in them. Places like Joe’s apartment are a special treat that really highlights this.
An upgrade over the previous game is that we now get to experience two versions of the same city. We first arrive at the tail end of the war, while the city is experiencing a harsh winter. Then, at the midpoint of the story, we skip ahead to the 50s and see how much has changed. You have different cars, different NPCs, it’s all really neat to see. Mafia did do something similar, but it was smaller in scale.
Visually and in terms of voice acting, the game is on par with other games of this era. I did suffer some glitches, however, most prominently with the game’s skybox going wild from time to time and eventually crashing the game. Some actions, like picking up objects, also mess up the positioning. These are minor issues at best.
Presentation score: 8.5/10
Ain’t nothin’ to do around here
In the original game, the issue with the lack of free time was compounded by the lack of sandbox activities to do in Lost Heaven. While Mafia had nothing to do at all Mafia II at least has some side-activities. The problem is that there is little appeal in doing them. You can make extra money by robbing stores or crushing cars at the junkyard, but money only exists to buy equipment and clothes, both of which you can get for free. At set points in the story you also just lose all of it, so it’s all just kind of a waste.
The game does feature a collection of Playboy magazines from the 40s and 50s, which act as collectibles. You can also explore Empire Bay and rip up wanted posters, both of which serve more as contributions to the authenticity of the setting than as gameplay. There is no point in doing either of it, and some of these collectibles become lost forever if you don’t find them during the one mission where they are available.
When comparing Mafia and Mafia II, all I can really say is that the second game is the one I could bear to finish, but the original game is the one I wanted to finish. I powered through Vito’s story and found the gameplay entertaining enough to carry me through it, but Vito is just such an idiotic protagonist that I felt no click with him at all. Meanwhile Thomas’ game was rougher around the edges, but his story was the more engaging of the two. Mafia II is by no means a bad game, however, and allows players to explore a beautiful city and complete fantastic missions within it.