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There is a product being sold right now called Mafia II. You will need a gaming machine and familiarity with playing games in order to enjoy it. While it is on your television or computer monitor, passersby may believe you are playing a game – and so might you – but you will not be, because Mafia II is not a game. Mafia II is interactive theater.

Mafia II has just enough “game” for you to grab a hold of and feel secure about. The game-like parts of the experience are enjoyable and exhilarating, and you will have fun playing them, but there is far more to Mafia II that the parts where you get to control a car driving around town, or a guy who shoots things.

While playing Mafia II, you will experience many of the same thrills induced by other games, but by the time the credits roll, you will feel less that you have played Mafia II than that it has been played in front of you. Some players may feel as if their time has been wasted by this experience. Others will feel as if they have had their minds blown wide open. What you take out of the experience will depend, in large part, (to paraphrase Yoda) on what you take with you.

Mafia II is rich with the kinds of attributes that we rarely see in entertainment anymore, and which may be unfamiliar to modern audiences. It has a meaningful story, well-paced plot, mood, a living setting and carefully crafted performances from artists, actors, writers and directors. It is, in other words, the evolution of the art of storytelling. It is to videogames what Hamlet was to theater, an introspective tale of the burden of human existence wrapped in a layer of easily-digestible entertainment. And just as Shakespeare’s play transcended the medium of theater to now be considered art, so too, I would argue, has the work of Daniel Vavra and the rest of the team at 2K Czech.

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The story begins with Vito’s adventures in the armed forces, serving as part of the US Army during the invasion of Sicily. This serves as both your introduction to Vito and the time period, but also to the notoriously brutal combat of the Mafia series. In Mafia II you cannot get shot ten times and survive. You cannot storm the enemy alone and live. You cannot count on the game to aim for you. You will need to make use of cover. You will need to move carefully, and you will need to learn how to shoot. Expect to die a lot, if you do not learn quickly.

The army level ends, not by the actions of the American forces, but when the local Sicilian Mafia don encourages the Italian forces to surrender to the Americans. You, defeated and disarmed by the Italian Army, lie on the floor waiting to be executed when your would-be executioner lays down his arms. You are then shipped home on leave, where your childhood friend, Joey, arranges (again thanks to the Mafia) for your de-enlistment.

These scenes, in addition to setting the stage for Vito’s belief that organized crime is where real power lies, show Mafia II is not your ordinary shooter. “Forget that you are a soldier,” it is saying. “You will not single-handedly take on an entire army. You will not win the war. You are not a hero.”

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It’s supposed to be a jarring experience. It is supposed to shake you out of your expectation that every game in which you hold a gun is about using it and nothing more. This alone will easily turn off half the people who play Mafia II, but if you allow it to speak to you instead of tuning it out (and returning the game), you’ll have taken the first step toward enjoying what is one of the most introspective and elevating gaming experiences ever created.

The fact is, Mafia II is the kind of game that developers have been threatening us with for years, and which is finally starting to become a reality: a game in which fun is not the entire point. Mafia II is not about fun. It is fun to play. There are even moments that are insane amounts of fun, but those moments are flashes in an otherwise deeply engaging experience that, while intensely entertaining, is not always “fun.”

Yes, you can treat Mafia II like an amusement vending machine and ignore the story (at times) in favor of wringing as much mayhem-fueled entertainment out of it as you can, but to do so would be to ignore some of the best writing, voice acting, design and production (that is to say, the art of the industry) ever put into a game. Whereas, with a game like Grand Theft Auto IV, or Red Dear Redemption, you can be excused for avoiding the game’s narrative in favor of simply riding around being a badass, but to do so with Mafia II would be like using a Picasso for wallpaper. In Mafia II, the story and setting and characters and mood and tone are not just polish or window dressing, they are the entire point of the game.

Mafia II is an open world game only in so far as it has created an seemingly open world, but that world is not sandbox so much as it is a stage set. It’s entirely possible to bang on it until fun pops out, but the use for which it is intended is as an immersive environment in which the story plays out. As interactive as its systems may be, they are not games in and of themselves, but components of the larger experience of enjoying the story of Vito Scaletti and his two families; the Mafia crime family that serves as the backbone of the narrative and the family into which he was born.

At the beginning of the game, when Vito is returning home form the war, it’s unclear which family will ultimately claim him. His mother and sister welcome him home with a hot meal and a place to sleep, but his friend Joey, a member of the local Mafia, welcomes him home with a drink, a pretty girl and false discharge papers, allowing Vito to avoid returning to the war. Comparing the two offers, one can hardly fault Vito for the choice he ultimately makes, but for a time, it seems he may not have to choose at all so long as he can keep his two lives separate.

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At a certain point in the game, however, Vito’s sister discovers his true nature; that he is an unrepentantly violent man. Francine does not recognize this Vito, and she shuns him, telling him over the phone that she never wants to see him again. As a player, I was stunned by this turn of events. I had just finished a mission to protect Francine’s honor, had watched Francine visiting Vito in prison, had worked hard to find the money to give to Francine to pay off our father’s debts. I had believed I was building the basis for the reconciliation of Vito’s birth family, while simultaneously working my way up in his crime family. I thought I was hitting home runs. Life was good. I had a beautiful house, a garage full of cars and all the money I could spend, and yet, in that moment, when Francine, in tears, asked that she never see me again, it seemed as if it had all been for nothing.

After this exchange, I walked to the garage, got in the fastest car I owned and drove across town to the clothing store, where I bought everything they had. Yet the extravagance didn’t fill the empty hole left by Francine’s admonishment, and the game, for better or worse, had left me to my own devices. I could return home to sleep and advance the story to the next chapter, or I could while away the hours in the game world, pursuing my own ends. The choice was up to me.

At that moment, I recognized the brilliance of Mafia II. It had carried me along on Vito’s journey, giving me just enough control to be entertained, lowering my defenses while it reared back for a sucker punch to my emotional core. I realized then I was feeling exactly what the developers wanted me to feel – some portion of what Vito must feel. I had believed I had earned some measure of control over my life, my world and my destiny, but the game informed me otherwise.

As a player, I felt as lost as the character whose story I was playing out. I chose a fast car from Vito’s garage and drove it as fast as I could down the longest stretch of straight road in the game: the bridge between Hunter’s Point and Empire Bay. I managed to push my little coupe up to 125 MPH, and I earned an Xbox Live achievement, but none of this distracted me from the troubling turn of events in the story. I was still bothered that I had failed my sister at the height of my career in the Mafia. I had to come to terms with the fact that I could not have it all. I had lost my birth family. So I returned to Vito’s home, went to sleep and started the next chapter of the story, at which point the game took away everything else.

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So what kind of game is Mafia II? I honestly don’t know. At times, while playing it, I was disappointed that the action wasn’t action-y enough. I wished the open world was even more open, and I wanted the story to end in an entirely different way. As a long-time game player and reviewer, I also noticed various odd weaknesses in the game’s design or execution, and I regretted that they had marred an otherwise excellent game.

Yet for all of its shortcomings, Mafia II affected me. It made me feel. It reached into my heart and squeezed until I genuinely cared about a character in a videogame. What kind of game does that? An excellent one.

Whatever else Mafia II may be called, it is a truly excellent game. It deserves to be played, and I’m thankful it was created.

Russ Pitts’ review of Mafia II can be found here.

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