A discrete sequel to a successful 2002 PC game, Mafia II has you play as Vito Scaletta, a first-generation Sicilian immigrant to Empire (for which read New York) City, during his gradual rise through the ranks of the Mafia in the 1940s and 1950s. To the casual observer it looks just like a Grand Theft Auto rip-off in stylish period garb. As in that most successful of gangster-themed games (published by the same parent company), you steal vehicles that you're then free to drive around a beautifully detailed and rendered virtual city, between the missions that move the story along, requiring more driving and lots of shooting.
What's different is that the illusions of autonomy and freedom-of-play that Mafia II gives you quickly evaporate, and it emerges as a determinedly linear narrative about a man who has learnt to do what he's told with few questions asked. The casual observer will now dismiss it as a frustratingly limited Grand Theft Auto rip-off – and it is true that it's a less expansive game, suited to the kind of player who prefers to get on with a story and not dally in open play or on side-missions. But the tightly controlled, well-organised narrative, and the sense of actions resulting inexorably in consequences, are what lend the game its richness and moral complexity.
It opens in the midst of the action of an Allied campaign in Sicily, 1943. (Later, when asked by a mob boss how he'd feel about being ordered to kill a man, Vito is able to reply that he's used to it.) Returning to the US to find his old neighbourhood gripped by wartime austerity, and his family indebted to a loan shark, he looks for work down at the docks. One of your first missions as a player, then, is a tediously slow and repetitive task involving the loading of crates. "All this for a lousy 10 bucks," Vito moans, while at the top of the screen it says, "The door is open. Leave when you have had enough." The game makes you acutely aware that this is the moment Vito resolves to dedicate himself to a life of crime, and forces you consciously to make the decision along with him.
Ever since Edward G Robinson and Jimmy Cagney wielded Tommy guns, rise-and-fall gangster narratives have presented themselves as morality tales so as to excuse the audience's pleasure in engaging with lawlessness and violence. It's a trickier thing to pull off in an interactive medium because if a player isn't having fun, he won't ever reach the end of the story. So Mafia II rations the action, discourages driving its vintage cars too fast or recklessly, even sends you to prison for a significant portion of story-time. But to compensate, there are two or three secondary characters – and this is good going for a videogame – whose fates you care about. And it makes engaging with the story, relating to characters, even experiencing pangs of conscience, as much of a thrill as flooring the accelerator or opening fire.Reuse content