A brief prologue points out how tough life could be for Italian immigrants moving to Empire Bay in the 1930s. But things really get rolling in Mafia II in 1945 when twentysomething Vito comes back from the war and starts hanging out with his childhood pal Joe. Vito's dockworker father recently passed away, and his mother and sister are struggling to keep up with a loan shark debt the old man left behind.
As Vito, gamers are given the choice to break their virtual backs lugging crates at the dock for 10 dollars a day, or tap into Joe's "connections" for some big money in a hurry. And with leg-breaker goons leaning on Mom and Sis, the game makes it clear that Vito really only has one choice.
So the slick-haired wiseguy-wannabe starts with small jobs—muscling some uncooperative dockworkers, moving a few thousand black market gas coupons and swiping a car or two. And then his responsibilities eventually ramp up to a full-on mob hit. And once the Scalleta family debt is paid off, well, there's no turning back now. Vito falls in and out of various murderous Mafioso allegiances on his way up the ladder to becoming a "made" man in one of the major families.
Icing Made Easy
The gameplay itself is pretty simple, with intuitive controls for your lockpick manipulations, stolen-car maneuverings and quick weapons switches—tapping an arsenal of handguns, shotguns and military-grade machine guns (not to mention a rock-hard pair of fists). And though the open-world map of Empire Bay is huge, it never feels unmanageable as the game leads players through 15 chapters of murder and mayhem.
Now, if the action and city settings I've described so far sound a whole lot like Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row, that's for good reason. There are obvious genetic similarities between all these sandbox-style third-person shooters. The difference here, however, is the lengths to which Mafia II goes to make the carousing, thieving and bloodletting feel "classier" and more "palatable."
Setting everything in the 1940s and '50s "helps" with that. No abrasive rap music or thugs dressed in wife beaters and polyester running jackets here. As the game begins, the city streets are sprinkled with snow, women wear topcoats and high heels, and the men bustle off to work in jackets and ties. Thugs sport sleek suits and Fedoras—and they listen to Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters, Dean Martin and Dinah Shore while working on their whacking.
On top of that, some of the bad guys, particularly the dark-haired, handsome Vito, seem almost thoughtful in their approach to the "necessary" criminal things of life. Vito really cares for his family. He'd go to great lengths to protect them. And you can tell from his stoic frown that he doesn't really like killing blacks and Asians, pushing drugs to the masses and crudely manhandling prostitutes. It's just something he has to put up with.
The game also makes it clear that a life of crime has its consequences. Criminals go to jail, no matter how well dressed. Ill-gotten gain is eventually stripped away. And those who dabble in power and murder end up paying the ultimate price themselves.
So what's the point, then, of playing as a stone-cold mobster if hard-case consequences are the real deal? Well, it's … um, it's …
Bada Bing Bada Blood
It's a hard-edged run through lots of kill-or-be-killed brutality. That's the point. There's nothing like a few gallons of gore to take the shine off a nice Italian leather shoe. Guys have guns shoved in their mouths or shivs jammed in their necks. Shotgun blasts throw cops and goons around like candy wrappers as brains splatter on the walls and floors.
A picture of the virgin Mary is bloodied and burned in one of the family's initiation ceremonies. The initiate is then told that if he violates his "sacred" vow and betrays the family, he'll burn in hell for eternity.
Accompanying the butchery and sacrilege is a frontal assault of obscenity. The f-word is more common in the running dialogue than and.
And there's sexuality too. Like other city street games before it, Mafia II pushes its tough-guy protagonists into pursuing after-hours sex. Women are shown in various stages of undress—including garter-accentuated outfits that reveal quite a bit of breast and backside. In one "cathouse" scene the boys are drinking heavily and planning their next nefarious scheme while near-naked women kiss and caress them. One of their number receives oral sex (not quite completely out of the gamer's field of view).
To raise the sexual stakes even more, Playboy must have worked out a marketing deal with Mafia II, because its magazines are scattered throughout the game's chapters. In all, there are 50 photographs of nudes and centerfolds from the '50 and '60s that gamers can "collect" and ogle.
So I guess we can completely forget about that consequences lesson.