It can't be easy to come up with new gangster stories given the sheer volume of seminal mob movies and TV series' that have come to define the genre over the years. The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino and The Sopranos have all shown how narratives built around a life in the Mafia can be both dramatic and compelling, which means that Mafia II runs the risk of seeming like a derivative and stereotypical representation by comparison.
Opening with a suitably sweeping prologue to its ten-year story told between 1945 and 1955, which sees young Italian-American, Vito Scaletta, shipping out to Sicily during World War II for 'Operation Husky', Mafia II begins strong and weaves its intricate story of family, betrayal and vengeance from there. Here, Vito becomes a war hero, before coming home to Empire City - Mafia II's fictional representation of New York - and falling in with old friend Joe Barbaro and his mob cronies in order to help his sister Francesca, who's in $2000 worth of trouble with a loan shark.
It's a pretty straightforward set up, which means that Vito needs money and he needs it fast. So, what better way to amass some easy cash, than getting deeply involved in some good, clean organised crime? Except it's not that simple, as Vito has to first earn his stripes, meaning that you'll be slumming it as an errand boy to begin with, loading crates, making deliveries, collecting debts, stealing cars or selling gas ration stamps before they expire. In fact, it feels like you spend a long time as a hired goon, working for the bigger fish, but you're motivated by the sense of progression, knowing that eventually, you'll be one of the big guys too one day. Or will you? Your rise in Mafia II isn't quite as clear-cut as you might think.
Empire City is a big, evocative place bustling with activity, which makes it somewhat disappointing that there isn't more to do outside of the main storyline. Apart from short-lived activities like selling cars to Derek at the docks or turning vehicles in for scrap at Mike Bruski's junkyard, holding up shops, buying new suits, collecting Playboy magazines and customising your rides, there isn't much in the way of peripheral distractions on the side. But then Mafia II is a different beast to your GTAs and Saints Rows. It seems to be less about the sandbox and more about the story, which is why you're never really encouraged to stray too far from the beaten path.
There's quite a lot of back and forth between your apartment and Joe's residence too, so you'll spend a lot of time cruising between the same destinations, while looking out for police patrol cars. Thankfully, there are devices in place to help you avoid the long-arm of the law, like a speed limiter that can be activated at the touch of a button and cop cars appear on your mini-map as small blue rectangles. And if you do have a run-in with the law for speeding, you'll get a ticket and have to pay a fine unless you flee, then the penalties get incrementally larger until the police break out the guns and shoot you on sight.
Mafia II's hook comes with its compelling narrative, which had us playing the game in sessions spanning several hours at a time. The game's 15 chapters are fairly substantial, and there's just about enough variation to keep things fresh and interesting. Some missions involve roughing someone up, in which case you'll use Mafia II's incredibly simplistic three button fighting system, which requires holding one face button to block and dodge, and using two others to throw quick or heavy punches. Fights start out simple, but get progressively tougher, although none are ever too challenging. Context-sensitive finishers are nice and brutal too, so there's always a satisfying payoff at the end of each scrap that happily includes the old Goodfellas floor stomp, made infamous by Joe Pesci in the Billy Batts bar scene ("now go home and get your f***in' shinebox!").
Other missions are of the 'drive here, deliver this, pick up that' variety, but there aren't too many of these and the driving model is so robust that they're never a chore either. There are missions that involve shooting your way through an environment, usually broken down into small chunks, though some suffer from checkpoints that are a little too widely spaced. One mission, using a stationary M60 machine gun emplacement to blast our way into a distillery saw us fall victim to an unexpected Molotov several times, and the game insisted on sending us back a good ten minutes or so to the beginning of the mission, making for a pretty frustrating time. Still, these instances are few and far between, so it's not really a major issue.
The shooting aspect of the game is also pretty strong too, with the obligatory cover system doing a decent enough job and the PhysX implementation in the game's engine making for some quite spectacular shootouts, with splintering wood, shattering glass and crumbling masonry adding to the heft and impact of a Tommy gun firefight - because it wouldn't be a proper gangster game without a Tommy gun now, would it? Some of the game's best moments come with the slightly more inventive objectives though, like donning a flimsy disguise to perform a mob hit in a hotel conference room or getting covered in excrement while running through a sewer to find a stealthy way into a warehouse. It's these parts that while hardly inventive or unique, stick out in the mind and prove most memorable. Even selling cigarettes out of the back of a truck is a welcome break from the norm and may even bring back memories of Christopher Moltisanti cutting his teeth in early episodes of The Sopranos.
However, the setting is what really defines Mafia II, providing a genuinely immersive sense of time and place with an impeccable attention to detail in its architecture, sartorial style and superlative soundtrack. Mafia II's epic scale and scope goes far beyond the size of its city, boasting an epic mob story that's almost up there with the best the movies have to offer. It may deal in certain stereotypes and old tropes that have been a staple of gangster films for decades, but it somehow makes them its own. Think of a common element you'd expect to find in any gangster movie or TV show and chances are you'll find a similar instance in Mafia II, but the story, told in three distinct acts, possesses a narrative weight often lacking from most games, that's wholly compelling and absorbing, which is quite a feat for a 12 hour+ title. The voice-acting and performances are pretty solid too, which helps a great deal in making the cut-scenes both dramatic and watchable. You may even consider playing it through more than once, which is always a mark of quality for a game this size.
Mafia II doesn't just tell a great story then, but it's also a damn fine game to boot. While it can't strictly be defined as an open-world game due to the dearth of side-missions and distractions on offer, there's still enough here to warrant losing yourself in Mafia II's world of slick cars, sharp suits, money, power and women. And if all that doesn't sound like enough for you, then fuggedaboudit, ya mook!