Mafia II is one of the most immersive, rewarding videogame experiences you will ever play – if you have the patience for it.

The game is set in the city of Empire Bay, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. You play as Vito Scaletti, son of an Italian immigrant, war hero and mafia kingpin in training. As Vito you will drive, shoot and watch cutscenes through about 12 or 15 hours of main story mission as you experience what it is like to rise through the ranks of the Italian American mafia.

As with the first game, 2002’s Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, much of the joy to be had is in simply experiencing this artfully re-created period from our past, riding around in period vehicles and listening to period music on the radio. Mafia II, builds on the original game’s setting in the 1920s and 30s, updating the experience for a new era.

Graphically, Mafia II is a beautiful game with a boatload of style. Just watching the scenery roll by can be hypnotic, and every detail, whether it’s the sound of the guns, the handling of the cars or the look of the clothes, cars and the radio announcements following the progress of the Allied army across Europe, or the advertisements telling you to prepare to harness “the power of Hiroshima in your kitchen” when the new nuclear power plants come online, is suggestive of the time period, and works to create the illusion of a living, breathing city in which you can play.

The main story will take you along for a ride on Vito’s journey from juvenile delinquent to “made man.” It’s a familiar story, told time and again in every medium imaginable, but in Mafia II it’s told so well, the game will likely haunt you for days after it’s over. Mafia II delivers an emotional punch equivalent to the firepower you will wield. It’s to videogames what HBO is to television, and embodies what I believe to be the best examples of art, design, writing, voice acting, and production (that is to say, the art of making videogames) available today. If you’re a mature gamer looking for a taste of the future of videogaming, you could do far worse than play it.

Outside of the story missions, you will collect cars that you can use to terrorize the local populace and run from the cops. There is an achievement, for example, for getting one of your cars up to 125 MPH, and another for managing to catch 20 seconds of air and being able to drive away afterward. The rigid story structure makes it hard to jump in and play in the sandbox, but it is there, and the graphical details and superb recreation of the vehicle’s handling and performance make it a fun place to play.

You can, for example, hop in a fast car (I recommend the Smith Thunderbolt), drive to the bridge between Empire Bay and Hunter’s Point and gun the accelerator until you are peeling the asphalt off the roadway, flying across the breathtaking span of scenery over an eerily-perfect representation of a true architectural marvel, accelerator creeping slowly in excess of 125 MPH as your vehicle’s mighty American-made engine echoes the battle cry of a defiant and victorious nation at the height of its power. You will have fun doing this. You will have fun doing it ten times in a row. Especially if you don’t get caught by the police and if you nail the landing, so to speak, by slamming on the brakes just in time to make the turn at the T-intersection on the other side of the bridge. You will also probably have fun even if you don’t make that turn, as the crash physics in Mafia II are nothing short of spectacular. If, by chance, you fail to hit the brakes in time, you will find that you’ve lost all control of your vehicle, the tires have lost their grip on the asphalt, and you will, perhaps, heave the wheel over, attempting to defer the momentum of the half-ton piece of steel and glass which is currently propelling you toward an immovable object, but you will not succeed. You will slam into the concrete barrier, the windows of your car will shatter in a fusillade of glass, the hood will pop open, the rear end, yet to shed its momentum, will lift off the roadway and the car, being made of steel (and lacking modern “crumple zones”) will translate all of the energy of this impact to you and you will die. And somehow this will be enough fun that you will want to try it again and again in every vehicle the game offers.

As brilliant an experience as it is, however, Mafia II deserves a couple of knocks for failing to bring its immersive experience up to modern standards. Take, for example, the combat. While difficult combat is an accepted Mafia trademark, certain concessions are expected in a modern shooter, and Mafia II makes none. The camera will, at times, leave you in the lurch, and the cover system, while generally well-implemented, can prove frustrating in combination with the game’s sludgy camera and brutal difficulty. This sometimes makes the reward of finishing a tough fight not quite worth the effort it takes to get there.

Also lacking is a bit of common sense as to how the world treats your infractions. The police will, for example, hunt you down like a rabid dog the second you drive a notch over the speed limit, but blowing right through a red light in front of a cop doesn’t seem to bother them. You can even swipe a few cars on your way through the intersection if you want – they just don’t care. Similarly, if you’re picking the lock on a car within a city block of a cop, the entire force comes down on you, but if you choose to break the window instead, unless the cop is standing right next to you – and facing you – you’ll get away with it nine times out of ten. Granted, one must come to accept a certain amount of illogic in any game, but these skew the fun of interacting with an otherwise lovingly-crafted world.

Mafia II‘s wall of shame would not be complete without singling out the collectible Playboy Playmate photos scattered throughout the world. This is the kind of thing that probably seemed like a good idea at some point, but it ultimately fails. The ladies are pleasant to look at, to be sure, but stopping in the middle of a tense in-game moment, searching the office of a guy you’ve just whacked while police sirens wail outside and more of his henchmen are riding down the elevator to take revenge, on the off chance you’ll find Miss November on his desk, breaks the carefully-constructed mood of an otherwise near flawless experience. Worse, there’s no way to view the photos you’ve collected in-game. So while you will inhabit a variety of different living spaces as Vito, all of which have some form of bookshelf or table cluttered with magazines, you can’t actually relax a bit between adventures and peruse your dirty magazines. You have to quit the game and exit to the main menu to see them. This is the kind of niggling detail that continually drags an experience like Mafia II down from the clouds, and it may seem petty, but in a game where you can open your refrigerator to consume specific brands of beer, not being able to also open your magazine rack to view the items you’ve painstakingly collected feels broken.

None of these negatives, ultimately, detract from the narrative experience; if you’re skipping the sandbox play entirely you may never notice them, but they prevent Mafia II, easily one of the best games made this year, from being perfect.

Bottom Line: Mafia II is the videogame equivalent of sitting on the couch, clutching a gallon bottle of wine and watching an entire season of Mad Men on DVD. It is not for the casual player, or those who prefer their story left in the manual. Fans of the original game will enjoy the updates and modernizations to the sequel, as will mature gamers looking for a taste of something more compelling than your average shooter.

Recommendation: This is The Catcher in the Rye, of videogames. Buy it. Even if you don’t ever play it, having it on your shelf will someday get you laid.

[rating=4]

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Russ Pitts is Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist.

Game: Mafia II
Genre: Action
Developer: 2K Czech
Publisher: 2K Games
Release Date: August 24th, 2010
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Available from: Amazon

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