From the opening moments of Mafia II, it’s clear that publisher 2K Games spared no expense in designing the game. The voice acting is great. The 1940s-era soundtrack is perfect. Everything from the rakish hats to the fonts on coffee-shop signs feels researched, considered, and labored over.
No doubt Mafia II hopes this avalanche of detail will sweep gamers away on a magical journey through time. When Bing Crosby sings “White Christmas” on the radio and snow falls between the buildings, it provides a glimpse of the brand of magic 2K was no doubt trying to evoke. Unfortunately, aging gameplay mechanics and weak plot turns make the game’s magic peel away faster than a bank-job getaway car.
The game tells the story of Vito Scaletta, a veteran who returns home from World War II and gets mixed up with the neighborhood mafia, Henry Hill-style. Missions consist of driving, shooting, and fist-fighting. Lengthy cutscenes wedged between missions are designed to justify whatever combination of driving, shooting, and fighting you’ve been tasked with.
The three gameplay types work well enough, but never distinguish themselves in any remarkable way. No one expected 2K to reinvent the open-world wheel, but the driving-shooting-fighting mix has been around since 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III, and it’s been stale—and getting staler—since GTA: Vice City.
For a game that often feels so crafted, Mafia II features plenty of incongruously thin narrative turns. One mission tasks you with stealing gas-ration stamps. Once you’ve stolen them, you’re informed that they’re dated and expire at midnight, which is only an hour away. Part two of the mission: Deliver the stamps to no less than six gas stations before they expire. Whatever suspension of disbelief you had peels away like a second getaway car.
Yet the game's greatest sin is that it fails to tell us anything new about mafiosos. Putting guys in suits, giving them Tommy guns, then having them engage in generic conversations about “made guys” isn’t enough substance to support a 15-hour game. After six seasons of The Sopranos, after Scarface, Goodfellas, and four GTA games, the cliché-ridden Mafia II expresses absolutely nothing fresh or worthwhile about organized crime. Remember “Leave the gun; take the cannoli”? Those six words contain more information about the mob than Mafia II does in its entirety.