If there's one thing we admire about Mafia II, it's that it really doesn't pussy-foot around. In fact, Mafia II would have removed the word "foot" out of that sentence and stuck in a couple of other words beginning with F for good measure. You know where you are with a game when the bonus collectibles are Playboy centrefolds and where the cutscenes involve gratuitous sexual acts, excessive violence and the sort of shower scenes where bending down to reach the soap is not an option. Mafia II is very much a man's game - albeit one with a pretty low opinion of what men want.
It's also a game that does a lot of things better than you might expect. Ostensibly a crime game in the vein of Grand Theft Auto, it's the tale of a young Sicilian immigrant who gets into trouble, ends up in the army, and returns home to find a place in a special kind of family. All the required reference points - The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino, Once Upon a Time in America - are observed, and the game does a commendable job of capturing a period feel.
You get a real sense of the grim austerity of the post-war years or, later on, the exuberant style of the 50s. The cars, the fashions, the architecture and the furnishings are all spot-on, bar the odd anachronism here and there, and while you'll often hear music on the soundtrack that falls out of the right time, the selection of swing, jazz, blues and early rock-and-roll does a lot to tie you in.
In fact, if we just rated games on cinematic style and atmosphere, Mafia II would have come out with a better score. It's not a visual masterpiece, but the characters are well-drawn and animated, the scenery is rich in detail, and the use of lighting to convey mood is particularly effective. The dialogue isn't anywhere near as brilliant or shocking as it seems to think it is, but the cutscenes roll by with an entertaining swagger, and Mafia II certainly does a better job of telling the Mafioso story than EA's woeful Godfather titles. It can be dumb, it can be cliched, but Mafia is a game you want to like.
Unfortunately, we can't just rate games on cinematic style and atmosphere, and this is where Mafia II's problems lie. The fact is that the bits between the cutscenes - you know, the bit we call the game - aren't actually so much fun. For a start, Mafia II isn't really an open world game. Sure, you have a city you can steal cars and drive around, with tailors supplying snazzy suits and gun stores selling guns. All the same, the game doesn't really give you anything to do except drive to the next mission kick-off point, drive wherever the game tells you to, shoot some people when you get there, and then go on to the next objective. Despite the odd adventurous diversion, like a long chapter played out inside a prison, Mafia II is incredibly formulaic. It's fun for a while, but the more you play the more you wonder: is this really all there is?
In itself this wouldn't be a disaster were the driving and shooting not so mediocre. The vehicles are slow, unwieldy and just not that much fun to drive, to the point where the more driving-focused missions are a slog. The action sections, meanwhile, offer basic duck-and-cover gunplay and a handful of genuinely exciting set-pieces, but a lot of the time you're just wandering from one dull area to the next, cowering behind the scenery and taking pot shots at dozy goons who are pretty much doing the same. Alternatively, you may find yourself engaging in melee combat using one of the simplest and most predictable duck-then-punch fighting systems we've come across this year. In short the actual action just isn't that engaging.
The result is a game that's, well, sort of okay. It's not terrible. It's not brilliant. You sit in front of the screen, watch the next cutscene, push through the next chunk of mission, and repeat for a few hours without feeling too bored. It's not particularly difficult or frustrating, and while there are some awful sections, like a prison boxing match where you have to keep moving just to remind your opponent to take a swing, these don't exactly spoil the game.
What does is an ever-building sense of fatigue and disappointment, as you realise that the hours 2K Czech clearly put into the cinematics and the atmosphere haven't been matched by corresponding efforts in terms of making the actual action that compelling or the world rewarding to explore. It's less a good game than a middling interactive movie, and if you want to watch a movie, wouldn't you rather watch The Godfather or Goodfellas instead?