The mob is as American as cowboys and apple pie. Some of the 20th centuries finest movies have dramatised the life of mafiosos; they’re the subject of songs and TV shows. Naturally, the stories of gangsters have also been interpreted in video games. One of, if not the finest examples of this niche corner of gaming is 2K’s Mafia II. I hold a special place in my heart for this game, and I’d like to share with you why I consider the series and this game in particular to be one of the best games of the 7th generation.
The gaming landscape exploded with the release of Grand Theft Auto 3, leading to many developers to embrace open-world games, though many of them paled in comparison to Rockstar’. A small studio out of the Czechia called Illusion Softworks gave the Scottish based developer a run for their money when they released Mafia in 2002. Though set in a fictional city (Lost Haven), Mafia dealt with the very real period of prohibition in 1930s America. Unlike GTA 3, which parodies modern life and delivers a generalist portrayal of ethnic gang life, Mafia offered a far more mature tale.
Despite releasing a year after Grand Theft Auto 3, Mafia had been in development since 1998 and was geared initially towards a vehicular combat-focused game like Driver, with influence from The Godfather and Goodfellas. The game was received well by critics who praised its blockbuster feel and impressively designed period vehicles and interiors. You play Tommy Angelo, a taxi driver struggling through depression-era America who finds himself thrust into the underworld. Inducted into the Salieri family, Tommy rises through the ranks before becoming disillusioned by the ‘family’ aspect of organised crime.
It isn’t a pretty game, but it is choke full of charm and a terrific story to boot. The game’s ending takes place many years after having left “the life” and left room for a sequel, perhaps detailing the fight-back against the mob, but it would take eight years and a new console generation to find out what its sequel would be.
Keep Your Friends Close…
Mafia II transports us back to 1940s Empire Bay (based on New York City). War rages in Europe and the far east, but for our protagonist, Vito Scaletta, it’s time to return home. All Vito finds upon returning home is crippling debt that his recently deceased father accrued. He finds a job at the docks, where he first sees the influence the mob, who run the unions, yield. Desperate for money, Vito turns to his connected friend, Joe, for help. It is here that both of them start working for members of the Clemente family.
The story spans a decade and does a far better job of charting the rise of a mafioso than any Grand Theft Auto. 2k took building the narrative seriously. There’s no gimmicky stuff here. The developer does as good a job of showing how real mobsters found themselves in the mob during that period, as well as how those very people can lose favour with their supposed family. The game doesn’t look to demonise mobsters; they are people who make a living through crime and as such, can’t work within the normal confines of the law. The family aspect of the mob works because people were often brought into the ‘family’ through relatives.
Vito Scaletta is a likeable character. His life choices may be flawed but you can empathise with his predicament. If I had a family to support and was living through a time of little economic prosperity, I couldn’t say I wouldn’t do the same. Still, Vito is forced to deal with the effects of success in that world; violence, greed and the constant fear of imprisonment or death. The game also deals with the social and racial problems of the time. Empire Bay is split along racial lines -- Italian, African American, Irish and Chinese. None of these groups is fond of each other and racial slurs are common throughout the game. The game also set a world record in 2010 for being the most profane laden game ever.
Ain’t That A Kick In The Head
Much like its predecessor, Mafia II splits itself between two gameplay types -- On foot and vehicle. If I could describe the on-foot gameplay in one word, it would be ‘clunky’. It’s not bad, and there is a nice amount of weight to the movement, perfect for walking around the city. Still, this weight isn’t great for heated gunfights which can be quite unforgiving. Thankfully, there is a perfectly functional crouch and cover system that makes the clunkiness manageable.
Empire Bay is relatively large, but not very open in terms of side content. Regardless, the feeling of driving a gorgeously designed 1950s roadster at night, while listening to the soothing tones of Dean Martin, is one of those moments I remember to this day. Speaking of music, the soundtrack is stellar if you love that era of music, even if much of it is anachronistic. There are roughly forty vehicles in the game, ranging from trucks to sports cars. One thing that Mafia has, that many games of its type don’t, is a speed limit. If you go above 40mph, the police will pull you over. This feature doesn’t affect the flow of gameplay, but I like having it there as it all helps to build the world.
In terms of graphics, Mafia II was one of the more impressive looking games of the time. Locations are well detailed, and facial animations were ahead of their time. Cutscenes are so well directed, it can be disappointing to return to gameplay. Even after almost a decade of technological improvement, the game still impresses.
Mafia II is a game made up of little moments that linger in the mind long after the credits roll. Much like Goodfellas or The Godfather; Mafia II stands out from any other game of its genre. I also feel that it’s a game that hasn’t received the critical acclaim that lesser games have. With a story to rival that of any gangster movie, Mafia II is as close to the perfect mob game we’re likely to get any time soon.