Mafia II, as the name would imply, is the sequel to the original title Mafia that was released for the PC, PlayStation 2 and Xbox in 2002. Where the original was set in the 1930's and based around the exploits of protagonist Tommy Angelo, this time around things have moved forward to the 40's and you now play as Vito Scavelli. Together with his buddy Joe he falls in with the Mafia within the fictional city of Empire Bay, and gets into a whole heap of trouble along the way. Things very rarely go smoothly for him. If you've seen the classic movie Goodfellas, Mafia II has a very similar vibe and the story takes place over quite a large period of time, much like the film. While it is tempting to compare the game to the Grand Theft Auto series, to do so would really be doing it a disservice because while the game does take place in a vividly realised city, it is a much more linear and cinematic experience. Those expecting to be able to roam around and find lots of activities to distract them from the main plot will be disappointed - knowing what you're getting here before you go in will help you appreciate what you do get that much more. So, let's break it down and see what's what...
Graphics: 9 out of 10
Mafia II looks absolutely fantastic. The earlier chapters of the game take place in the winter, so the city is blanketed in snow, the ice on the road shines in the sun, and white flakes are falling all around you. There is a great amount of attention to detail too, with dozens of citizens going about their daily lives realistically. When things heat up and the bullets start flying the game does a good job of keeping up with the action, with no noticeable slow down or tearing, and the same can also be said about the driving. The cars, while not licensed on any real life vehicles, do look like they could belong within the time period quite easily.
During cut scenes where you get a close up view of the various characters the game looks equally good, and while you can still tell it's a game you are looking at and not real life the lip syncing is a good deal better than many games out there. While these days a good looking game on the current generation on consoles is pretty easy to find, Mafia II does a very good job of keeping up with the competition and you will definitely not be disappointed in this regard.
Sound and Music: 10 out of 10
Mafia II performs outstandingly well on all fronts in the audio department. The voice actors all do an extremely good job of reading their lines, and those who are supposed to have authentic Italian-American accents do so. The various, pistols, shotguns and the fantastic period Tommy guns also sound like their real life counterparts (or at least, their heightened reality movie versions).
Where Mafia II is really remarkable though is in its use of music. Just like the two most recent Fallout games, it gathers a collection of genuine classics from the era it is based in, from war time songs during first third in the game, to tunes that exemplify the birth of rock and roll like Rock Around the Clock in the latter stages. I was initially concerned that there was only a small selection of songs and they would soon start getting repetitive, but once the story moves in to the 50's, there is a much great range of music to listen to, and three different radio stations to switch between when driving around. The original score, composed by Matus Siroky and performed by the Prague FILMharmonic Orchestra is used fairly minimally, mostly to add drama to the cut scenes, but it is of an equally high standard.
Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
I was slightly tempted to drop the score in the category down to 7 out of 10 because Mafia II doesn't really give you any opportunities to explore the wonderfully realised city of Empire Bay, but like I said in my intro this isn't really trying to be a competitor to Grand Theft Auto and neither was its predecessor, so to penalise it for that would be a little unfair. No, in reality it is more comparable to other 3rd person action games, and in that regard it stacks up very favourably.
Firstly, lets take a look at the combat. While you are often over run by dozens of enemies at a time, you never feel like the game or the controls let you down. The camera angle is good, aiming is easy enough and the action is smooth and fast. More often than not, if you find yourself dead it was because you rush in to quickly and were overrun. It's much better to stay in cover, line your shot up and wait for your enemies to expose themselves than to blunder in and end up with a shotgun in the back. Usually you will go into battle with others fighting by your side (usually your buddy Joe), and the AI does a good job of covering you and genuinely helping you out. Don't think you can rely on these characters to do all the hard work for you though, you will still have to pull your weight in these shootouts.
Driving around the city is comparable to other games of this ilk, but Mafa II lets you switch on a speed limiter which is handy when your trying to keep your car in one piece or you'd rather just casually cruise around the city and soak in the sights. Should the rozzers chase you, you have a few options to aid your escape - you can take your car to a garage and pay to have the plates changed, have it resprayed a different colour or have the engine upgraded so you can leave them in your dust. Going to a clothing store and changing your outfit can also help you lose your wanted level. A good deal of the game will see you behind the wheel of a car, most missions involve you driving somewhere specific, before fighting your way through a scripted shooting sequence on foot.
Early in the game you will get into a fist fight, which basically serves as a tutorial for hand to hand combat. From then on you will have to fight people sporadically throughout the story, and like the other aspects of the game it is well implemented. You can dodge and block enemy attacks, strike back with light or hard punches, and execute finishing moves once you have worn down your opponent sufficiently.
As for the storyline of the game, it's pretty good stuff, full of betrayal, criminal escapades which more often than not go horribly wrong, sprinkled with plenty of foul language and violent scenes. All of this takes place over a decade or so, and as previously mentioned there is more than a hint of Goodfellas in the style and tone of the game, so those who love their classic gangster films or a TV series such as The Sopranos should find plenty to like here.
Innovation and Cleverness: 5 out of 10
There is nothing especially innovative about Mafia II, but what is present is high polished and well implemented. You always feel like you're in control, whether in a shoot out, in hand to hand combat or driving, which is extremely important in an action game like this but overlooked surprisingly often.
Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
Mafia II took me around 15 hours to complete, which is a pretty decent amount for an action game. The story and gameplay is good enough that I may go back and play through again on hard sometime, but it is a bit of shame in the way that 2K Czech didn't put a few more side missions or distractions around Empire Bay, because the city is beautifully realised and deserves to to be explored more thoroughly. They did address this in the first DLC that was released (which I will review at a later date) but it would be nice to have a bit more here. It's by no means a deal breaker though, and now that the game can be picked up for around £20 it should not adversely influence your decision to purchase the game.
Overall: 8 out of 10
Mafa II is an incredibly solid action game - well written, mechanically sound, and most importantly good fun. If you enjoy the gangster genre then you should definitely track down a copy.