It's been nearly eight years since 2K Czech, then known as Digital Illusions, released Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven for PC. It was released at a time when Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto III had turned the industry on its head, and it was similar enough to garner the attention of gamers because of it.
But it made a name for itself by carving its own niche -- a more realistic portrayal of a criminal lifestyle, a more streamlined narrative experience. All of this was set in a beautiful and impressive open world that was different enough from Rockstar's hit to turn heads.
Well over three years in development, Mafia II is hitting store shelves, and much has changed about about this particular genre over the past decade. Does 2K Czech prove itself as a contender once again, or does Mafia II fall short of gamers' expectations?
Mafia II (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC)
The son of an Italian immigrant, Vito Scaletta lives in Empire City among the poor, his family struggling to make ends meet. What’s an Italian living in America during the 40s and 50s to do besides turn to a life of crime? More specifically, Vito hooks up with the Italian American mafia, working to make a name for himself and a few dollars in the process. But Mafia II is far form a rags to riches story, instead the tale of a young criminal whose ties to the underworld never really advance past that of mobster middle management. In many ways, the entire game mirrors this narrative, just good enough to get by, yet never truly shining bright enough to quite be called "Don."
Melee combat doesn’t fare so well, however, a three button, mash-a-combo system that seems shoehorned into the game simply to move along narrative in a few instances. Outside of these forced melee sections, you’ll almost never find yourself using it, and that’s fortunate -- it’s not a particularly fun or interesting diversion
It needs to be made clear that despite taking place mostly in the open world of Empire City, Mafia II is not a sandbox game. Its linearity is intentional on the part of the developer, the story unfolding in a very specific manner from chapter to chapter. In a way, this is beneficial for folks who prefer to have the narrative fed to them deliberately, and it allows for the story to move at the pace in which the developer intended with no (arguably unnecessary) diversions. For some, Mafia II’s linearity may come as a welcome reprieve from the never-ending activity black holes of games like Saint’s Row 2 or Red Dead Redemption. But even given the intentions behind the game’s formal structure, it’s shockingly noticeable how little there is to do in Empire City.
For all of its disappointments, Mafia II isn’t a completely throwaway experience by any means. The story is well told, oftentimes even gripping and strikingly emotional, despite being a pastiche of mafia tales you’re likely already familiar with from other media. The game’s dialogue is also surprisingly well-delivered, with impactful and fitting voice work throughout. 2K Czech’s Illusion Engine is also the catalyst for some gorgeous environments, notably the beautiful 1940s snowfall seen in the first half of the game. The licensed soundtrack is also a rare gem, with classic tunes evocative of the era and characters; it definitely makes all of the time you’ll be spending driving cars noticeably more bearable, sometimes even enjoyable.
The PlayStation 3 Advantage
While for this review I played the game to its completion on the PlayStation 3, I spent some time with both the Xbox 360 and PC versions for comparison. It needs to be said up front that the PS3 version of Mafia II is the least visually impressive of the bunch, missing a number of subtle game effects that were pulled from the game, reportedly due to performance issues. With the right rig, you’ll get the best visual fidelity on the PC (the “PhysX” stuff, as usual, looks great), with the Xbox 360 version trailing slightly behind.
Score (Xbox 360, PC): 6.5 -- Alright (6s may be slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy them a bit, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.)
Score (PlayStation 3): 7.5 -- Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)
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