2K Studios are one of those development houses that have expanded by acquisition quite strongly over recent years, buying up smaller developers and assimilating them, Borg-like, into the 2K family, putting them shoulder to shoulder with other subsidiaries of the quiet monolith Take Two Interactive such as Rockstar Games.

2K Czech, formerly Illusion Softworks, were previously best known for PC-centric army shooters Hidden and Dangerous and Vietcong, as well as the original Mafia game in 2002. As with many developers, their focus has switched somewhat from concentrating on the floundering (WoW aside) PC gaming market to the consoles. So here we are, eight years after the first game, with the sequel.

Even though we’ve seen three major releases of the Grand Theft Auto series since the last game, not to mention both Saint’s Row games, Mafia remains the only sandbox game to be set so far in the past- in this case moving the action up from the 1930s of the first game to 1943-51. The first thing that strikes you about the game when you open the box is how perfectly this fits: the fold-out map is bordered with 50s Americana advertisements for made-up products: sure, it’s been done before with more comedy in GTA (Piswasser) and more crassness in Saint’s Row (Freckle Bitch’s), but never with more soul than the lovingly-illustrated adverts for Swift Cola or Stoltz beer, among others.

The attention to detail does not stop there, though. The city streets, fashions, weapons, cars and even patterns of speech have all been lovingly crafted to really make the story of Vito Scaletti’s rise through the ranks of the Cosa Nostra in Empire Bay (New York) into an incredibly believable experience. Within the first couple of hours, you’ll see more textures and models than you’d usually get in three games, and all that’s just to set the scene for the main story.

When looking at Mafia II critically, you can’t let your expectations cloud your judgement of the experience. A lot has changed in gaming and sandbox titles in particular since the first Mafia, so going in, it’s reasonable to assume that this will basically be GTA 1950, with the added bonuses of mafia-related mayhem such as extorting protection money, ripping off parking meters, gambling, running prostitution and the myriad other neat little mini-game style possibilities for earning your mob stripes and moving up to Capo. Well, throw that out the window right now: if you stop thinking of Mafia II as a sandbox game, you’ll consider it a lot more kindly.

Instead try to think of it as a 3rd person cover-shooter, with some driving involved. Even though there might be 36 unique cars to choose from, and you might have to steal one to get to the mission, the main gameplay emphasis is firmly on the shootouts rather than the driving. The game is also very heavily story-driven; in the first couple of hours this seems like it’s the usual tutorial-style introductory missions, but as you go on from job to job and hour to hour with no break in between them save for a fade to black as Vito goes to bed, you start to realise that the whole game is going to follow this pattern, with very little opportunity (unless you’re the sort of person who can ignore a ringing phone) to go explore on your own. Should you manage to tear yourself away from the main plot you can explore the city, hopping in different cars as the mood takes you, but other than drive around checking out the scenery whilst listening to the excellent choice of period songs on the radio, there’s really not a whole lot to do, except look for the Wanted posters and Playboy magazines scattered across the city. If you’re a real fetch-quest fiend/packrat this might be entertaining enough to keep you going, but I’ve shot/collected/talked to more than my fill of pigeons/CDs/hobos in other games already, thanks.

Sticking to the main story is a perfectly reasonable course of action, and the excellent scripting, voice acting, characterisation and attention to detail are really what make the game stand out. For a game based on an organisation with such a rich and storied past, both fictional and real, it manages to avoid a lot of the clichés that it could so easily have slipped into. Unfortunately, this is also actually kind of a problem. Though the story is unique and interesting, the gameplay tends to be a little repetitive: none of those fun-sounding mob activities I mentioned above appear in the game, with most missions taking the form of ‘come pick me up, drive to location, shoot people, evade police, drop me off’, with very little variety except in setting and setup. Most of the time, if you can avoid accidentally alerting the police, you can get through a mission pretty easily just by biding your time in cover and blasting your way through a building full of enemies before hopping in your car and driving home safely.

Speaking of the police in Empire Bay, they are also a bit of an issue. For starters, they appear to be psychic, as they can tell you’re picking the lock on a car from a good couple of blocks away, and will pursue you relentlessly because of it. They are also quite biased, pursuing you and you alone regardless of who might have started an altercation. Apparently it’s fine for people to firebomb your house and attempt to gun you down as you escape, but if you even attempt to return fire, you’d better hope there aren’t any police within a mile or so or you’re going to find yourself a very wanted man, a status which can be irritatingly difficult to lose sometimes.

There’s also very little progression for the main character through the game. Though I’m sure this is intentional, it does become a little frustrating that Vito is essentially no better off at the end of the game (and, it can be argued, very much worse off), than when he started. Just like there’s no opportunity to run a protection racket in your neighbourhood or play in an illegal poker game, there’s no opportunity to take control of your own destiny and become more important in the mob/game world. I know, these are things that I want the game to do rather than things the game has even suggested it will do, but damn it, that would be more fun. At one point Vito laments the fact that life as a gangster isn’t all pretty girls, fast cars and money. He’s right, of course, but the problem is I would prefer it to be. Back in the day when GTA was still a top-down game, many people thought Driver was awesome, and would only be more awesome if you could do all the things you did in GTA, but with the 3D graphics of Driver. Then Rockstar made GTA 3, essentially killed Driver as competition with Vice City, and have never looked back. In the same way, if some developer were to take the attention to detail, sandbox city and aesthetic of Mafia II, and splice it with the territory-based reputation-building and minigame variety of Saint’s Row, I guarantee they’d have a huge hit on their hands.

All in all Mafia II is a beautifully crafted cinematic gaming experience, with all the upsides (lovingly-rendered period décor, cars, clothes, music and story), and downsides (rigid structure, relatively short length) that entails. More style and substance than Bioshock, more charm than GTA IV, similar shooter/stealth mechanics to Splinter Cell: Conviction, prettier than almost anything out this year, but less pure fun than Saint’s Row 2.

Alex