Poor Vito Scarletta. Heâ€™s just got back to Little Italy, after a stint in World War II, where he fought Nazis in the motherland, took a bullet, and was awarded a Purple Heart. Vito thinks he can kick back and relax for a while, now heâ€™s home, but instead heâ€™s pushed and pulled in all directions â€“ by his mother, his sister, and his old childhood buddy. Mama wants Vito to get an honest job down at the docks â€“ only dockwork (and a steady date with the bottle) is what killed Vitoâ€™s father. Francesca, Vitoâ€™s sister, is in trouble with some roughs, who expect her to cover their fatherâ€™s loan shark debts, and thereâ€™s no way a dockworkerâ€™s salary could ever cover the amount he borrowed.
Then thereâ€™s Joe.
Joeâ€™s a wisecracking, Playboy-reading, ham-sandwich eating troublemaker. He and Vito have been friends since school, where they always got into trouble together. Joe has a few nice, respectable friends, looking for a couple of handy types to help with some odd jobs around the city. The payâ€™s real nice, too.
While most of us would end up doing what Mama told us to, Vitoâ€™s not as much of a mummyâ€™s boy, and so he throws in the towel after a few minutes of hauling crates, and opts instead for other ways of bringing home the bacon. And so begins Vitoâ€™s (and our) relationship with the mob.
The mob folks are pretty much what youâ€™d expect, especially if youâ€™ve seen any of Scorceseâ€™s back catalogue: there are more sharp suits and bad moustaches than you could shake a meatball at, and plenty of wiseguy dialogue. But while Mafia 2 doesnâ€™t really veer out of clichÃ©d character territory, thereâ€™s also a fair amount of chitchat and other little details that help to add some depth to the characters. (The fact that the voice acting is excellent only helps to seal the deal.)
Vito is an interesting character, himself: he doesnâ€™t have any delusions of grandeur at all. Heâ€™s happy to put himself to work for his new employers, and doesnâ€™t mind if they want him to off someone or just do the rounds at garages, selling petrol stamps. He also has some interesting notions of right and wrong. On one hand, heâ€™ll beat a man into the pavement because he swears at a hooker, but on the other, heâ€™s got no qualms about killing. There are a couple of small references to the war, that are probably quite telling: as Vito says to one of his new bosses, who asks him if heâ€™s able to kill a man just because someone points a finger at him, he spent the whole time during the war doing exactly that.
And so we follow Vito around Empire City, as he boosts cars, shoots who heâ€™s told to shoot, robs, bribes, and tries to keep one step ahead of the cops. The controls for all of this are pretty intuitive, and donâ€™t have any stand-out issues. Shooting, aiming, ducking for cover, and all the other fun that goes along with gunplay is pretty spot-on (no pun intended) and players shouldnâ€™t have any grizzles with the mechanics of taking someoneâ€™s head off. Bad-guy AI leaves a lot to be desired, but then again, itâ€™s reasonably par for the course.
The bulk of Vitoâ€™s time, once the game gets going, is spent driving (along with all the other fun that goes along with that: boosting cars, picking locks, and outrunning cops). Like GTA titles, Empire City has a few radio stations, and it was a pleasant surprise to find what other reviewers are calling â€˜licensed musicâ€™ â€“ i.e. authentic tunes from way back when. In 1945, the Andrews Sisters are there, as well as one of my favourite Django Reinhardt songs. I was well impressed.
The rest of Empire City impressed me as well. Thereâ€™s a massive amount of detail in the city streets, and variety in different neighbourhoods. Once I had the driving controls sorted (and wasnâ€™t threatening pedestrians with imminent death at every turn) it was actually a quite relaxing experience, cranking the radio and cruising around.
What I did find frustrating was the high rate of cop activity (though the mini map kindly marks them out for you), which meant that if they werenâ€™t after you, if you wanted to stay under the cop radar, youâ€™d have to drive with your speed limiter turned on, and even stop â€“ and wait â€“ at traffic lights! Waiting at traffic lights was the single most frustrating thing in my experience, and in the end, I chucked in any pretense of being a respectable citizen, and flew threw them all. (If you do find yourself wanted by the fuzz, a quick licence plate change, or even change of clothes for Vito, works wonders to shake them off your tail.)
Another odd aspect about Mafia 2 is that while it appears to slate itself as a sandbox-style game, thereâ€™s really not much opportunity for open-world exploring. There really arenâ€™t any side quests to speak of, and the standard shops (tailors, gun stores, gas stations) are all incredibly similar. For all the appearance of breadth in the game world, you as a player get very little opportunity to explore it â€“ a design decision I find quite odd, considering the work that must have gone into the worldbuilding.
Even the collection aspect of the game is odd â€“ collect all the Playboy centerfolds hidden around the place. Thereâ€™s little payoff aside from having a good gawk, which meant most went uncollected in my runthrough â€“ though Iâ€™m sure some NZGamer.com readers will display far more dedication than I in collecting the lot. Aside from this, thereâ€™s little by way of replayability â€“ unless you count future DLC releases, which are on the horizon.
But while the bulk of the game consists of going where youâ€™re told to go and shooting who youâ€™re told to shoot, Mafia 2â€™s setting and immersiveness really do work a bit of pretty magic over these rougher areas. Even though I was aware of the gameâ€™s faults while I was playing it â€“ I was also aware that I really didnâ€™t care. Mafia 2 is a fun game, with a stellar environment. Play it and be a wiseguy for a while.