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Eight years after the original game's release, 2K Czech heads off to Empire Bay for the second instalment in its Mafia series...
The original Mafia, for all of its merits, was also a little too realistic. There were cars so finely replicated to their 1920s/30s time period that they struggled to top 30mph and, as a result, attempts to drive these cars up a moderate incline resulted in them grinding to a halt and rolling backwards down the hill. Gamers will be glad to hear then, that while Mafia II remains true to the authentic feel of the original, it's also not quite so gratingly realistic.
Car crashes of 70mph+ can result in death, as they would in real life, but it's not as if you have to drive like a saint to actually get anywhere in the game. Mafia II is more forgiving in this sense but it also has speed limits that coppers will notice you breaking and, likewise, you'll also be stopped for walking around with a gun in public (even if you don't fire it). If the fuzz spot you committing a significant criminal act, then both your appearance and the car you're driving can become 'Wanted'. Unless you subsequently change your clothing or the plates on your car, then this 'Wanted' brand will remain and hinder you considerably until you do.
Because of this, it's a refreshing take on open-world sandbox games; a genre that's swamped with titles which put an emphasis on over-the-top action ahead of authenticity. So many games, like Mercenaries or Just Cause, focus on the question 'Wouldn't it be cool if you could do this?' that they forget to ask whether you should be able to. Mafia II is very clear about the world it wants to construct and unrelenting on the level of detail that it puts into that vision. Because of this, the city of Empire Bay is certainly an immersive one. Granted, it's nowhere near as large as most of its competitors, but that also allows the city to appear more dense and believable. There are fewer recycled assets, a map that doesn't aimlessly sprawl, and you can get to know the setting more intimately as a result.
And then there are the finer details: cars that are well varied in performance and reflect the 40s/50s era well, radio music superbly selected from the time (as well as the occasional news report updating you on the War effort overseas), and numerous other facets from clothing to building design that have clearly been painstakingly researched and crafted. It's perhaps a shame that 2K Czech hasn't taken full advantage of this world by offering up more side missions and odd-jobs to do around Empire Bay away from the main campaign, because this would only have enhanced the immersive feel further. What time it hasn't spent developing these features, though, has been well spent elsewhere.
Mafia II provides one of the most dedicated and well produced campaigns of any sandbox title on the market today. The story and cut-scenes keep you hooked more than most (even if some of them are a bit indulgently long) with characters, voice-acting, dialogue, and plot that present the kind of classic mafia story which has been severely lacking in competing titles like EA's Godfather series. Individual missions aren't only varied enough to keep gameplay interesting but also add in a few surprisingly novel touches, from Shenmue-esque menial tasks in the day-to-day life of a gangster (e.g. selling cigarettes from the back of a truck) to missions with varied plots depending on how you execute them.
All of these tangential missions (three or four of them in total) ultimately end with the same conclusion to a chapter, but precisely how you get there is what varies by executing hidden tasks and opening up additional cut-scenes as a result. It's a fairly straightforward touch but also one that we're surprised other developers don't use more when it adds so much to the experience. Beyond this, Mafia II seasons the experience with everything from some solidly designed stealth missions to a twist towards the middle of the story that takes Vito Scaletta, the game's protagonist, away from Empire Bay. We're not going to say where he ends up to avoid spoilers, but let's just say that copious fighting goes on there and it's more than just knuckles that are bare on one particular occasion.
The fighting system that propels this section's gameplay is another pleasant surprise. It's a simple three button system with dodge, light punch, and heavy punch attacks that sound basic enough (GTA IV has something similar). Having said that, the system then has combos, counter-attacks, and finishing moves layered on top to add a little depth, while decent camera work around these fights then punctuates the experience. What's left is the best brawling in any open-world game, ever. It's just a shame that 2K Czech didn't use this mid-section of the game (chapter 6 to be precise) to do a little more than just fighting as it's rife with other gameplay opportunities.
Of course, the bread and butter of any open-world game of this type are FedEx quests and gun combat, and Mafia II has its fair share of both to flesh out the campaign. Gun combat is heavily cover-based as straying out into the open during fire-fights will get you 'whacked' fairly promptly. Thankfully 2K Czech has constructed a good cover system to make sure that these shoot-outs don't become frustrating. One minor criticism of the AI is that it will stick to one spot in cover fairly exclusively and avoid flanking, so the combat gets a bit whack-a-mole heavy at times. In the final few chapters, the difficulty is dialled-up with enemies that will actively pursue you, although this then goes too far in the kamikaze direction. Somewhere between the two extremes would've been the perfect balance really, although the gun combat remains largely enjoyable nonetheless.
Inevitably the shoot-outs get larger and heavier as the story roles on and reaches its climax. At the same time, these heavy combat sections are largely the result of a plot that feels more convoluted and drawn out in its closing chapters. Perhaps it's just us but precisely who was back-stabbing whom and why had become a point of confusion at the end of what was otherwise a very well balanced plot and this did leave a slightly sour, drawn-out feel to the final few hours of the 12-15 hour campaign. That said, it's all made up for by a brilliant twist at the end.
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