It’s 1945. Returning home on leave from a tour of duty, pretty-boy Vito Scaletta steps from a cab onto the snow-dusted streets of Empire City. Dressed in full uniform and lugging a suitcase with all his earthly possessions, Vito strolls through Empire’s alleys towards his Mama’s apartment as snowflakes flutter gently around him. It’s busy back here. People stop Vito to welcome him home. How wonderful it is to have him back! One shopkeeper hammers wooden boards across his store front, having to close it down. Others mind their own business, chatting about the war, or more trivial things, sweeping their stoop or emptying buckets of water to thaw the ice. Street vents belch great wafts of steam that spiral towards the night sky pinpricked with glittering stars. All the while, Vaughn Monroe’s smooth baritone blankets the scene: Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
As scene-setters go, Vito’s walk back to his old life is a belter. Mafia II thrives on its atmosphere; its construction of a 1940s US city in the shadow of the last moments of World War II. The game is unquestionably Vito’s tale –well his and his chubby mate Joe’s– but Empire Bay’s great stage comes close to stealing the show.
It’s important to realise Empire Bay is just that: a stage. This isn’t the open-world of GTA, stuffed with frivolous distraction: bowling alleys, street races and manky bars in which you can play darts, watch Ricky Gervais or get banjoed with your cousin. Mafia II just isn’t that game, not least because I’m pretty sure Gervais wasn’t around in the 1940s. You can cruise the streets in a chunky Cadillac if you feel like it, but outside of selling a few cars and buying a natty new fedora, Empire is just the backdrop for a tale of blood and money. A beautifully manufactured backdrop, but a backdrop nonetheless.
It’s an interesting conceit. This open-world as setting rather than genre may lead you to want things that just aren’t there, but there’s a trade-off that’s wholly worth it. Mafia II’s linearity gives you focus but, coupled with the sprawling map of Empire Bay, still provides an evocative sense of place. 2K Czech could have easily just plonked Vito down in a succession of missions, but the game would have suffered for it. As would its story.
Mafia II’s central narrative is simple enough. Vito returns from war to find his mother and sister in serious debt, fallout from his late father’s questionable habits. So Vito turns to his old pal Joe who has been running with the local mafia. After discovering that pulling off a couple of low-level mob jobs can net Vito a hefty slice of wonga, he ignores his mother’s wishes for him to haul crates down at the docks and falls into a life of crime. Hilarity inevitably ensues.
Well, OK, not really. Mafia II is awfully bleak for the most part. Vito is a sombre fellow; handsome, charming, with a strong sense of honour and friendship. He’s a complete son-of-a-bitch, of course, not afraid to pop a guy in the head for a handful of cash. There’s a hollowness to him though, haunted by war and angry at the world for dealing him such a shitty hand in life. He joins the mob because he feels he has to, because he wants to belong. Unlike his friend Joe, a chubby hedonist who seemingly does the job for a laugh, Vito takes no pleasure in it and his empty, disinterested demeanour betrays that. As they are often fond of saying in the Mafia “hey, ya gotta do what ya gotta do.”
Mafia II is undoubtedly a character piece, with Vito and Joe’s –often strained, often hilarious but always compelling– relationship the central cog that keeps the tale turning. And despite the big old explosions in the trailer, it’s very, very slow for a video game. Mafia II’s rhythm is in tune with its story, and it isn’t afraid to take its time about it. But everything is in service to that tale. So the first few hours are fascinating in their own way, but I’d be lying if I said they were exciting. There’s a lot of driving around town, delivering stolen cigarettes or hocking the gas ration vouchers you snuck into city hall to steal.
Personally, I love cars from the 40s and 50s. Great chunky things with real style. Driving around in them has a real heft too, with bouncy, satisfying handling. They’re terribly slow of course, if you compare them to modern cars anyway, and if you do find yourself breaking the speed limit then you’ll find the police chasing you down to give you a ticket. Although running red lights and driving on the wrong side of the road seems to be OK … as long as you don’t hit anyone. Driving can be a pleasure if you let it, and you’re not in any rush. Switch on the radio to tune into the fantastic soundtrack, soak in the city and enjoy the ride.
You really do have to make the decision on whether this is the game for you. I can’t reiterate enough that this isn’t GTA 1945, and many will certainly find the slow-burn a bit of a chore. It’s the kind of game that you will need to let wash over you if you are to get the most out of it, especially at the beginning, as it’s a few hours into a 12 hour running time before the action starts to heat up.
When the bullets do start to fly, however, it can be thrilling stuff. The gunplay isn’t the most spectacular example of cover-based blasting you’ll ever see, with daft AI opponents playing jack-in-the-box, but it’s deliberately frantic and messy. After all, the shoot-outs that take place are violent exchanges, without the bother of combat honour or worrying about collateral damage. You are playing thug, not soldier. It’s tricky too, your cover crumbles and splinters convincingly under a hail of bullets and if even your knee is poking out, expect it to get shot off. And wandering around out of cover is a one-way ticket to sleeping with the fishes. With erratic checkpointing that occasionally borders on the ludicrous, that’s not something you’ll want to be doing too often. Flawed, sure, but simple, solid and uncompromising.
The same applies to the hand-to-hand brawling which crops up on occasion. It’s basic, but brutal. Punching goons in the face comes with a satisfying thwack, with a simple three-button system allowing you to chain combos together, counterpunch and pull off some nasty finishing moves. It’s fun enough, if hardly Street Fighter IV, but it’s spoiled slightly by a schizophrenic camera that spirals around the action, forcing you to constantly readjust it while you’re trying to give someone a good shoeing. There’s even some stealth sections, but these have the sense to be quick and easy, rather than drawn out and frustrating. And more importantly, as with everything else in the game, they make sense within the context of the story.
That is Mafia II’s guiding light. The tale it weaves is interesting because it doesn’t cling to a desire for relentless escalation, this is Vito’s life. Moments –mundane, exciting or horrifying, they’re all here– linked by a thread that’s just waiting to be pulled. At its core may lie the cliched tale of a rags to riches mobster, but the nuances are far more subtle. Overgrown boys playing mobster, when they’re really little more than foul-mouthed thugs, ending lives and dealing drugs. A sense of needing to belong. And Empire, a city you see in the depression of war, before it blooms into the colourful euphoria of the 1950s, even if some –darker– things never change. There are occasions where the game pulls its punches a touch, falling back onto basic gameplay tropes. But these are only noteworthy because they’re so rare. Other moments are deeply affecting, including one sickening scene dealt with such brutal brevity it sticks in your mind, long after the consequences of it have played out.
If you allow it, this is the lasting impression Mafia II will leave. It’s not a game that revels in bombast (though it certainly has its explosive moments) and can often slip into mundanity. But it’s a fascinating tale of a city coping with change and Vito, a troubled man living through that change and, well, doing what he’s gotta do.