Not so much an offer you can’t refuse as an open world you can’t abuse, Mafia II’s city, Empire Bay, is the backdrop for 2K Czech’s tale, not a living, breathing ecology to accommodate your whims and wants. It would be wrong to denigrate Mafia II for the linearity of its structure; it’s design rather than a cop out, a straightforward series of missions tied by the thread of an anti-hero’s journey through the ’40s and ’50s, in the shadow of WWII and economic uncertainty (the New York inspiration extends to direct lifts of the Empire State and Chrysler buildings). In its opening act, some three hours of driving to and from shootouts, Mafia II conjures an evocative sense of place that supports and layers a story that, while familiar, is involving and driven.
Vito Scaletta is the returning soldier who drifts into a life of crime when times are hard. After a prologue set in Italy during WWII – a military skirmish that openly pays homage to 2K Czech’s past life as Illusion Softworks, of Hidden & Dangerous fame – it’s back to the big city and the desperate struggle. Your first moments in Empire Bay are your most memorable: the radio whispers wintry songs as you take your first steps towards the family abode, suitcase in hand, and you’re met by welcoming faces and expositional soundbites.
Manufactured as it may be, it’s atmospheric and well-realised. There’s a fine attention to detail: from the weathered, weary faces to the soft lighting and palette, 2K Czech’s proprietary Illusion engine is capable of both scale and minutiae. It’s a shame such nuanced visual direction doesn’t last longer, as all too soon it’s down to gun-toting business. Though Scaletta’s greed for easy money is regularly expounded, it’s not a motivation that’s fleshed out enough to invite pathos and propel you through the game’s ten hours. There are other gaping holes, too, such as Scaletta’s religious household and upbringing, contrasted with his passivity around acts of moral depravity.
The runtime is divided between action set-pieces and travelling to and from mission markers, with the occasional street chase and bar-room detour. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before in any number of sandbox titles or derivative movies featuring masculine posturing, bullying and slicked hair. Fortunately, the funnelling of the developer’s resources into the core gameplay, rather than anything more ambitious or sprawling, results in a level of polish to proceedings that dazzles like a fake Rolex. Underneath, it’s a thirdperson shooter in the mould of Kane & Lynch – sticking to cover and popping out to rattle off a burst from your Tommy-gun is your rinse-and-repeat mandate.
Though the duck-and-cover shootouts are, at times, fantastic (thanks to perfect hit detection and animations), it’s a shame the hand-to-hand combat doesn’t quite measure up. Taking its cues from the likes of Sega’s Yakuza, fisticuffs are enclosed encounters, a case of holding block and countering with a jab until your foe is out cold. Vehicles bounce and bump around the bustling city convincingly, with the returning speed-limiter a valuable asset in preventing a fine or arrest (the press of a button caps your speed). The police, rather than a polarity of stringent and forgiving, are incompetent. Running red lights and driving towards oncoming traffic are apparently forgivable offences, while gunning down bystanders can be shaken off within seconds by a leap of a fence or a change of clothes.
It’s in Mafia II’s second act that it takes a real dive, and familiarity plunges into cliché. When the writers run out of literary coal, there’s little to keep you on the rails, and nowhere to take a time-out. It descends into a festival of stereotypes and expletives, laying waste to the hints of narrative depth proffered earlier and offending beyond justification as it ticks the down-and-dirty genre boxes. An assault on a Chinese restaurant, fronting an opium den, is so ridiculously over-the-top you expect Stranglehold’s Tequila to dive past in slow motion at any moment. It’s a shame because for every minus there’s a plus on Mafia II’s books: a fleeting taste of crime’s consequences, a series of thrilling car chases and an inviting, nurturing learning curve.
There is, perhaps, a metagame moral in Mafia II’s open-world teasing. It reminds us that the best sandbox stories are still within the reach of good writers rather than frivolous player-agency. Though 2K Czech’s operation doesn’t run entirely smoothly, there’s a definite spark of potential and the roots of an abandoned attempt to engineer something more than throwaway entertainment. Like the characters it portrays, Mafia II expects loyalty to its blinkered cause but unfortunately, in a more fatal parallel, it also falls prey to the offer of easy money and some cheap thrills.