The sandbox style of games is a rather recent genre when compared to many of the old standbys. We could argue that the idea started as far back as Metroid or Legend of Zelda from the mid 1980’s. However, it was not popularized as a grand concept until the birth of Grand Theft Auto III. Since then, it seems that every time you turn around, you are presented with a new game in the open world. Enter Mafia II, a gritty game set in the 1940’s showing the ugly side of the mafia underworld. Can Vito and Joe set their sandbox apart?
The video for this game is widescreen and capable of 1080p resolution. Empire Bay is a dark place reminiscent of major cities in the time period. It is alive and full of people and there is much to see. Many of the buildings appear to be in bad shape and you can see details of the decomposition. You recognize life is brutal every which way you turn as the snow covers the landscape. The landscape is truly gorgeous and feels authentic.
However, there are issues to be had here. The first is that the camera that constantly follows Vito can be a hassle to work with properly. This is most evident when walking up and down stairs as Vito’s body gets way too close to the screen. This can lead to walking in circles just to get the camera straight. Another issue is the portrayal of females in this game. For some reason, most of the guys look anatomically correct. But the girls often have the same facial complexion as a scary ghost with lipstick.
The audio in this experience is 5.1 English Dolby Digital Sound. Since this game relies heavily on story, the dialog is perhaps the most important factor of audio. It is beautifully clear even with all of the wiseguys speaking in some rather thick Italian and New York dialects. Since this game has a great ability to draw you in, you won’t find yourself missing too many words. The only negative is that if you turn on subtitles, they are rather hard to read on large display HDTV’s.
Sound effects and environmental sounds are rendered rather well. A player will become quite familiar with gunfire and crashing cars early on as he will be shot from all sides and have to contend all sorts of classics cars. There is some issue occasionally with figuring out where gun shots are coming from but the game often gives you time to figure that out. Music must also be mentioned as it is ripped from the same era to create a realistic feel. Enjoy tunes from Little Richard and Louis Prima as well as a beautiful orchestral score.
You start the story as Vito (pronounced “Veeto”, if you have no Italian blood in your tree, simply grab your cajones and pretend), a poor immigrant to the fictional city of Empire Bay (a cross between New York City and San Francisco). His family do the best they can in America but fall on hard times and daddy’s boozing don’t help the situation either. Vito eventually finds a friend and his name is Joe Barbaro.
Vito and Joe aren’t exactly altar boys and find themselves in all sorts of mayhem and trouble. One day, Vito and Joe are robbing a jewelry store. The police catch them in the act and are able to apprehend Vito (Joe is able to get away). Vito is essentially given two choices, one to go to jail and the other to enlist in the army. It is the Second World War and the USA needs some Italian interpreters to go to Sicily. Vito chooses the later and is thrust head first into the front line.
Operation Husky gets the help of Don Calo, the resident Mob boss to free Sicily. Later, Vito gets injured and is able to get back to his home in Empire Bay. He sees his old friend Joe again who asks what he has been through. Joe is able to use his “friends” to get Vito the correct papers so that he can stay in Empire Bay for good. However, just because Vito is back at home doesn’t mean that things are going to be easy.
Vito finds out that his sister is having trouble with a loan shark. The amount of money is stiff but Joe knows of ways that Vito can make a little money. It starts off simple as Vito steals a few cars and a few other assorted odd jobs. But when he comes into contact with Henry Tommasino, part of the Clemente family, his life changes forever. Can Vito ever adapt to the harsh life of the criminal underworld?
As mentioned in the opening, Mafia II is a sandbox open world game. Think Grand Theft Auto and set the landscape in the 1940’s and you have the sequel to Mafia. Many of the same buttons (especially when it comes to moving around and driving) are used. However, there are several main differences that are worth discussing. The first situation is the melee or straight-up fighting. Here you have movement for hard and light hits as well as a dodge and taunt system. Finishing blows are present and the player should try to master them.
Naturally, not everything is going to be settled with your fists. A gun will become involved very quickly (actually the prologue has you shooting a bunch of soldiers). There are many different types of classic weapons included from a submachine gun to a pump action shotgun. Also included are several military weapons from the era like the MP 40 and Beretta Model 38.
Shooting and reloading these guns will seem second nature after a while and multiple weapons are handled with your left directional pad. Also of note is the cover system which is a feature I didn’t expect to find in a typical open world game. Sure, many shooters support this feature but it was very welcome here. It is fairly easy to learn but requires some practice before you can actually master it.
As with shooting guns, you can also take damage to yourself from enemy gunfire. However, the player does have the advantage of a regenerating health system. Simply find someplace to temporarily hide from the action while you build back up your precious health. Love it or hate it, it can become very useful in tight situations. Just don’t expect it to save you in the middle of a war.
Perhaps my favorite part of the gameplay was how one took on the familiar activity of breaking into cars. I think most of us can gripe about the GTA method of simply opening the door and starting the car. Mafia deviates by giving you an option of breaking the glass (and usually causing a good deal of unwanted attention) or carefully picking the lock. Lock picking is fairly easy to master but will take longer than breaking a window. Your course of action will be dictated by the situation but there will be room for both styles of play.
Speaking of unwanted attention, I found the police wanted system to be relatively inconsistent. Sometimes the smallest infraction like accidentally hitting a car head on (which is very easy to do) would cause the police to be on you in a second and it would take a while before you could shake them off. On the other hand, various missions could have you shooting down a dozen cops and you walk away like nothing happened.
The game has multiple difficulties: easy, normal, and hard. The levels are pretty close to their namesake. I started my initial game on Normal and have had my share of problems but there isn’t anything that I could figure my way out of on a couple of tries. Missions often will have multiple ways to complete them to a successful (or at least not disastrous) result. Most gamers will have little trouble with the game on the default setting.
The main story is divided into chapters. Completing a chapter will obviously take you to the next one. It won’t take too long for most players to finish the game. There are side quests such as stealing cars and other odd jobs that will net you additional money and certain achievements. One also has the option to replay chapters to get a favorable result or a mission specific achievement. However, a player could easily finish the main story, maybe replay a few of the harder chapters and never give a game another thought.
But if a player does that, they do miss some collectibles. In the game, there are wanted posters and Playboy magazines to find. The Playboy magazines are of particular interest and feature pictures of girls posing as women of the forties. Yes, there is nudity involved, but this game is rated M for Mature and shouldn’t be played by any kids to begin with. (There is a ton of violence and cursing all over the place, classy Playboy pictures can almost be considered mild in comparison).
There are plenty of achievements, forty seven in fact for the standard one thousand points. Most of the achievements are story related where you complete a specific chapter for twenty up to fifty points. Many of the missions will have additional achievements which require you to complete it in a specific fashion. For example, to get: “The Professional”, you must make sure you don’t raise the alarm when you try to steal the gas tickets.
Other achievements require some tricks with your car like “Get Rich or Die Flyin” or “Pedal to the Medal”. Then there is a rapid succession of achievements that all seem to involve the number 5 such as “Proper Scrapper” (Sell 5 vehicles to Mike Bruski) or “Hairdresser” (Kill 5 enemies in rapid succession with a headshot).
Finally, we should mention that along with finding the various collectibles in the game there are achievements such as “Ladies’ Man” (All of the Playboys) and “Card Sharp” (All of the Wanted Posters). None of these are what I would call tricky achievements, just ones that will require work on the players end to complete them all.
My trip through Empire Bay would seem oddly familiar to my previous experiences with the library of Grand Theft Auto games if it didn’t have something to set it completely apart. An engaging story. The game of Mafia II has a great story with a huge amount of dialog (supposedly a 700 page script was written) and it is woven through some interesting cut scenes that give the game life and color.
However, the one thing that makes the game unique is also part of its downfall. Too many things tie into the story and you can easily spend the entire game attached to one story objective after another. This is an open world game but it is framed in a very specific fashion. One could go through an insane story mission where you completely screw up but once you go to sleep, a new chapter starts and puts you right back into place as if nothing happened.
The video and audio in this game is top notch, I have no complaints outside of anything involved with stairs. I actually feel like I’m invading my character’s space at that point. The game does also feature some replay value and any game that has me collect Playboy pictures is alright in my book. I do give the game a solid recommendation and think that anybody who enjoys Grand Theft Auto should find a way to experience this one. One just might want to wait until it comes down in price a bit before doing so.