Mafia 2 is a game with a lot of style; something you’d be forced to admit even if you hated every single other aspect of the game. It captures all the iconic elements of the 1940s with effortless ease, from the hair-dos and popular music right through to the architecture and casual sexism, with effortless ease. We found ourselves actually choosing to obey the speed limit or stroll through the streets idly, just in order to soak up the ambience.
What really makes Mafia 2’s style so interesting and enthralling though is how far the game goes in order to complete that effect, often tweaking things in a way which, on paper, would sound like a terrible idea. The cars, for example, handle like butter in a hot pan even as they struggle to move faster than narcoleptic turtles. It sounds terrible, but it’s actually just another element in Mafia 2’s stylish master plan.
Learning to appreciate the style isn’t always easy though and 2K Czech hasn’t done itself any favours in a lot of ways. The opening chapters of the game, for example, take place in the winter of 1945 – where icy streets in the most unwieldy and ancient cars in the game make navigating the narrow streets a formidable task. Eventually you get used to the slow-motion drifting and things do improve when the story moves on in later chapters, but the early sections are needlessly hard going, even if they are worth the effort in other regards.
"I said put a bed in his horse, you hear?"
In fact, to be honest, a lot of the time little things like the narrow design of the city and the realistically sloppy car handling can make Mafia 2 almost impossible to enjoy in the way it’s obvious it should be enjoyed. One early mission, for example, gives you only a few minutes to visit every petrol station in the city, of which there are many. It’s an almost impossible task which, it turns out, you aren’t even really expected to succeed in. If you fluff the mission up then the story continues regardless. The fact that that isn’t made clear meant we restarted the mission several times before grasping that failure wasn’t just an option, but actually the easiest way to win..
It has to be said though that this error is a rare one and, if anything, Mafia 2’s main issue is how over-wordy it is. There are cutscenes every two or three minutes, it seems, and you can often spend longer watching the characters talk about the upcoming mission than you will actually spend playing it. The dialog is interesting and realistic, but, again, that realism doesn’t always directly manifest into a good game experience. Sometimes you just want to punch a wiseguy in the throat rather than put up with another ten minute cutscene about drunk Sicilians burying a corpse.
Bit-tech's staff is often fined for being too dashing and handsome
What makes the wordiness even more of a pain in the testicoli is that, viewed on the macro level, Mafia 2’s plot is the same as pretty much every other sandbox crime game; man comes to new city, discovers financial problem, becomes criminal, kills many people, fin.
In this case the man is called Vito Scarletta. Rather than coming to a new city he’s returning home after a stint in the war, but it’s essentially the same-old schtick and he’s been away from Empire Bay so long that it’s basically new to him. He spends practically the entire game being guided around by his old pal, Joe, who slowly brings Vito into the criminal underworld.
None of this obviousness should detract from the appeal of Mafia 2’s story though – it may be flabby and over-long, but it’s also very effective at times and littered with likable characters. Veteran Vito is nowhere near as naïve as his GTA counterparts, while the supporting characters each have their own appeal too. The story doesn’t have any real depth, it has to be said, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good – it’s so damn stylish that it easily compensates for the fact that it can’t conjure more of a message than ‘Crime = bad, fedoras = stylish’.