Avoiding speeding tickets is one of many things I don’t want to do in a video game. Yet 2K Games apparently thought I’d feel differently when designing Mafia II, since going over the speed limit in the presence of police officers (40mph on regular roads, 60mph on bridges and highways) will immediately lead to hot pursuit and, if you’re feeling too lazy to ditch the cops, a $50 fine. Since this sequel to 2002’s third-person PC sandbox title is a brazen rip-off of Grand Theft Auto in virtually every respect, this driving-related statute is the height of absurdity, forcing one to either leisurely navigate the NYC-ish Empire Bay—an immense annoyance, given how many missions require lengthy car rides—or to constantly risk courting law enforcement’s ire and a potential chase through crowded city streets. Admittedly, in the grand scheme of things, this one issue is reasonably minor, and is at least mitigated by the fact that one can enable a speed-limit device that prevents your car from exceeding the posted limit (plus, you can still run red lights). Yet it’s nonetheless indicative of this polished but wholly uninspired follow-up, which finds only ridiculous and/or meaningless ways to tweak its borrowed Grand Theft Auto template.
In Mafia II, you play Vito Scaletta, a wiseguy who would be a cliché if he were an actual character at all, rather than just an empty proxy embroiled in a familiar rise-to-power mob scenario. Recently returned home from fighting Mussolini’s forces in Italy, Vito falls in with his friend Joe in Empire Bay, thus leading to criminal-enterprise gigs which require you to kill this guy, pick up that package, or drive from here to there and then back again. From time to time, a novel mission arises to tease you with the possibility of gripping action, such as a nicely constructed, if too short, task involving stealthily breaking into a building and robbing a safe, or a “chapter” that’s set wholly in prison. Yet even in these instances, Mafia II’s routine and often-clunky gameplay mechanics (a stale duck-and-cover combat system, awkward shooting controls for firefights, health regeneration that takes too long) and banal levels and assignments expose an encompassing lack of imagination. It’s a situation that manifests itself most fully when you’re forced by your drunk buddies to dump and bury a body in the dead of night, a mission that’s structured as follows: drive to location, watch cutscene, drive to next location, watch cutscene, drive to third location, watch cutscene, drive home and go to sleep. Seriously.
Mafia II is overloaded with such chores, which put a far greater premium on commuting toward choppy pre-rendered cinematic sequences than it does on letting you wreak inventive havoc.
Mafia II is overloaded with such chores, which put a far greater premium on commuting toward choppy pre-rendered cinematic sequences than it does on letting you wreak inventive havoc. Worse still, though it looks and feels just like a 1940s-1950s version of Liberty City, replete with citizens walking down the sidewalks and era-specific cars lining the streets, the reasonably sprawling Empire Bay is a phony open-world environment. There are no random side missions or achievements to find; much of what one sees and passes through in this metropolis is non-interactive, unless you’re looking to get into a fistfight with a random stranger for no appreciable gain. The only significant thing to do in Mafia II is complete the main storyline missions, a drag given how lame those incidents frequently turn out to be, and that Empire City seems a milieu tailor-made to offer entertaining opportunities for causing illicit trouble. At every turn, it’s a game that opts for limited, lethargic photocopying over energized creativity.
Perhaps all these shortcomings—as well as the frequent requirement that one engage in fisticuffs, which involves virtually no strategy and delivers almost no pleasure—might be tolerable if the overriding narrative were worth even a percentage of one’s attention. Unfortunately, every Godfather and Goodfellas trope has been dutifully shoehorned in (including betrayals, double-crosses, and even an upward-angled camera shot looking out from the inside of a car’s trunk), and with so little originality that plowing through Mafia II is sometimes more tolerable when the story-forwarding cutscenes are simply skipped. Detailed in-game graphics, some spot-on ’40s radio tunes (though too few, alas), and a visual polish that gets the era’s style and spirit reasonably right all contribute to make this trip back in time at least aesthetically interesting, for a brief spell. Spending more than a few hours in Empire City, though, leads only to a nagging déjà vu sense of having played this sort of thing before, and to far more rewarding effect.