Growing up, my first exposure to a two-bit crook came by way of Tom Sizemore’s Milo Peck in the tremendously underrated comedy-drama Hearts and Souls. A lowly thief, out to steal back a book of stamps soon led to Grand Theft Auto, a hail of gunfire at my fingertips. A couple of iterations later we, of course, had Grand Theft Auto III which made its bones as the veritable godfather of the modern, ‘orgy of violence’ simulator. Though it didn’t receive the notoriety of Rockstar’s sandbox of depravity, Mafia has managed to maintain an understated dignity, prioritising class over ‘Hot Coffee’.
Mafia II doesn’t romanticise the mobster lifestyle, nor the passage one takes to rise through the ranks and get made. It’s a point-blank, stark admonition that the road to hell might be paved with good intentions, but it’s paid for in blood. For a crook turned discharged war hero like Vito Scaletta, anchored by his dead father’s debts, a life like this can look alluring. What follows isn’t a standard tale of ascension free of consequence, Vito’s rise is offset by the alienation of those closest to him. What started out as a means to clear his family’s debt grew with Vito’s misplaced ambition, and his mother died with her only son behind bars. A no good crook, and this ‘pitfall of the selfish’ is the catalyst constantly driving Mafia II forward as Vito and Joe ceaselessly pursue more until the city has no more left to give.
There aren’t any heroes in this story and that, in itself, is a refreshing change. The determination to make something of himself is a relatable baseline for Vito as a human being, though his methods are callous. It’s because it’s grounded that Mafia II’s plot lands harder than its contemporaries and, even a decade later, there’s value in that. Not every gangster needs to go out like Scarface, sometimes it’s enough to see another day.
Because it isn’t a rebuild from the ground up like the remake of Mafia, this definitive edition has plenty to offer despite sporting gameplay mechanics that feel a touch dated by today’s standards. There’s a whole open world on offer, though it doesn’t do a lot to encourage exploration. Mafia II came at a time when these games were still in a stage of infancy and while the lure of scantily clad, classical Playboy centrefolds will have ‘horny on main’ type operators trawling Empire Bay, it’s not likely most will stick around once the twelve hour story wraps up. Ten years ago, this game introduced a cover system to the Mafia franchise, adding a tactical element to firefights. Vito can duck and weave through the beautifully designed, tight arenas. Mafia II is up close and personal a lot of the time and focuses on Vito’s time in the nick, though at range the game is uniformly unflinching. For a game as old as it is now, the animation has held up as watching bodies slump after a calculated headshot is as disconcerting as it gets.
From the Jefferson Provincial to the Smith Mainline, the care taken in recreating these stylish workhorses in all of their era-appropriate glory has long been an impressive task. They’re characteristically on-point and they handle as expected, though they do walk the line between arcade and tank-like realism. The game’s opening act takes place during a miserable, cold winter with the slick roads wreaking havoc, whereas Vito’s post-prison resurrection has a more pleasant summertime setting. It’s satisfying to hit the high gear across the Empire Bay version of the Brooklyn Bridge.
The main selling point of this remaster is clearly in its presentation and it’s safe to say that Mafia II has never looked better. As is strangely the case with a lot of remasters, it looks like the game I remember playing in 2010.
It now runs at a sumptuous 60fps and it’s incredibly smooth in motion. Though I wouldn’t say the story experiences diminishing returns throughout its twelve hours, though Empire Bay never again looks as striking as it does during the bleak, midwinter first act. There’s a sombre cloud that hangs over the opening and I feel it best encapsulated Mafia’s tone, though Vito cruising around in an open-top to the late, great, and a little anachronistic, Little Richard is one of the game’s smaller pleasures. Even the best remasters aren’t without their hang-ups and Mafia II’s definitive outing doesn’t defy the rule. There’s plenty of texture popping and the draw distance is certainly a telltale sign of a dated engine, though it holds up for the most part. The game boasts one of the greatest licensed soundtracks the medium has seen and, though a lot of the choices are out of time, I feel Mafia II doesn’t get the credit it deserves for amassing a catalogue that includes the aforementioned ‘Architect of Rock and Roll’, The Andrews Sisters, Chuck Berry, Bing Crosby, and so many more.
It’s certainly an odd choice to release the trilogy out of sequence, though given Mafia II’s definitive offering serves up little more than spit-shined graphics and the extra content from a decade ago, it decision begins to make a little sense. It’s hard to concede that the game’s newfound fidelity does enough to justify the asking price for this remaster, especially if you’ve ruled over Empire Bay before. Though for those new to Mafia, you could do a lot worse.
THE PC VERSION OF THIS GAME WAS PLAYED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS REVIEW. A DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
Though it pulls a lot of the punches today’s open-world games freely throw, Mafia II is a time capsule in a lot of ways. Not only because its post-World War II Empire Bay lives and breathes only to have its face driven into the dirt by enterprising individuals fixated on the American dream, but because it’s a testament to the timeless, story-driven crime drama. The kind that became extinct once substance was forced to make way for Rockstar’s frenzied brand of mania.