Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, developed by Illusion Softworks and published by Gathering of Developers, debuted eight years ago for the PC, and two years later made its way onto the Xbox and PlayStation 2. The PC version was praised as a gorgeous, atmospheric adventure with great writing and voice work; the console versions, the less said, the better. Illusion Softworks got acquired by 2K Games and became 2K Czech, and after eight years, have released Mafia II for the PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
Like it’s predecessor, Mafia II is a delight to cinephiles.Taking place in Empire Bay, like Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City before it, is an analog of New York City. A great bulk of the action takes place in the early 1950’s. The 1940’s, which encompasses the first five chapters, serves as both a tutorial and a prologue, showing protagnoist Vito Scaletta, who emigrated from Sicily when he was a child, getting caught up in criminal life, with a detour in Italy as a soldier for the US Army as a way of commuting his jail sentence.
Like Mass Effect 2, Mafia II more or less railroads the player down the main plot, with very little time for side activities – not that the player will mind, since the main story is completely engrossing, full of rich characters and engaging chapters. One of the standout characters is Joe Barbaro, who is generally a good-natured goomba who is slow to anger but will dispense violent justice when pushed too far. He’s best described as a cross between Ed Norton, Fred Flintstone, and Tony Soprano. It’s telling that the game makes the gamer invest so much emotion in Vito and Joe, as things – as they always do in mob stories – go from rags to riches to desperation. There’s even a nod to the ending of Mafia – a clever wink to fans of the previous game, who will undoubtedly find it both chuckle-worthy and poignant.
The graphics are lush, giving a real sense of being in 1950’s New York; native New Yorkers will smile at some of the attention to detail to some of the lesser known landmarks, such as the Bethesda Fountain of Central Park, and the surrounding brick plaza and stairways. The music, as with the first game, is rich with period music, such as The Champs’ “Tequila”, Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick In the Head” , Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally”, Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy”, Doris Day’s version of “Makin’ Whoopee”, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You”, among other classics. There are also Playgirl centerfolds to be found as collectible objects; it’s interesting to see how the definition of pornography has changed, as many of the models actually show nothing that your average soap and perfume print ad won’t show these days. Some sticklers for history may smirk at finding Playboys in the 40’s and early 50’s, since the first issue of Playboy was released December 1953.
The missions themselves are also engaging, with plenty of humorous moments and quips (usually supplied by Joe, whose gunfight taunts are funny as well.) While there are the usual staples of open world games like timed missions, none of them ever seem gratuitous, unlike Grand Theft Auto III’s remote control helicopter missions, for example.
That’s not to say Mafia II is flawless – far from it. For one, like the first game, there’s no way to quick travel – everything must be driven to. There’s no cab rides, for instance, despite the presence of cabs in the game. Even worse, the game has a tremendously bad checkpoint system, which becomes extremely annoying late in the game, where gamers will find themselves being forced to replay 20-30 minutes of a mission should they perish. The stealth mechanic is kept to a minimum, which is good because it’s clumsily handled. Hand-to-hand combat is oversimplified to the point some may get bored.
There is also no multiplayer in the game, which some may find a dealbreaker, but others may applaud as the right move by 2K Czech, for focusing on making the best possible single player experience. It’s the same debate that raged over BioShock; people felt it was better for not having it, and history proved 2K Boston/Irrational right on that point.
In short, if you’re looking for a cinematic open world experience with evocative graphics and a compelling story with memorable characters, Mafia II is right up your alley, if you can forgive the howlingly annoying late game checkpoint system and the lack of any sort of multiplayer. Maybe when Mafia III arrives, it’ll tell a Goodfellas story of the 1970’s through the 1980’s.
[Note: The version reviewed was the Xbox 360 version. PlayStation 3 owners may have to do some research on possible problems with the PS3 version.]
Jonah Falcon is a blogger for TMRzoo and GameStooge.com and covers all gaming consoles and platforms including Sony Playstation 3, Microsoft XBOX 360, Nintendo Wii, Sony PSP and computer games designed for Mac OS, Microsoft Windows and Linux operating systems. Jonah provides his readers with reviews, previews and up to date gaming industry news and rumors.