Being a mobster might seem like a cool profession - buckets of cash, hot women on tap, flexible working hours - but it's more hazardous to your health than challenging Gazza to a pint-downing competition. If you're lucky, you'll probably end up in some high security prison, where burly fellow convicts will attempt a bit of ‘male bonding' in the showers. If you're not so lucky, you'll end up neatly packaged in brown paper bags and distributed across various scenic building sites.
The first Mafia game allowed working chumps like you and me to live the life of a gangster without fear of a gruesome demise or some non-consensual bum love. Mafia II is the long-awaited sequel and introduces a new character, Vito Scaletta, who at the start of the game is returning to America after fighting in World War 2. He arrives home to find his family in debt, and decides that the best course of action is to run errands for the local mob - nasty, shooty, blood-filled errands.
All of Mafia II's action takes place in the fictional city of Empire Bay, during the '40s and '50s. One of Mafia II's greatest strengths is its vivid and highly detailed recreation of the period, and the amount of effort that has gone into building the game world is admirable. Everything from the cars you drive to the weapons you fire are authentic to that time, which draws you further into Vito's grimy life.
As well as feeling authentic, Mafia II's streets are truly alive. While exploring you'll pass leery drunks, squabbling neighbours and angry cats that hiss at you before diving out of windows - little touches that are sadly missing from most open world games. Sure, most of these events are scripted, but they help Empire Bay feel like a real city that's worth exploring.
While Mafia II's voice actors do a great job, they sadly have very little to work with. The script is a mish mash of classic gangster films and borrows almost every mobster cliché imaginable, while the dialogue varies between dull and depressing. Supporting characters will happily chat about their latest sexual conquests in the middle of a car chase, even when you're being rammed on both sides by cops, which detracts greatly from the realism afforded by the rest of the game.
Even worse, Mafia II's characters are an unlikeable bunch that lack the charm and hilarious nuances of the Sopranos cast, or the emotional complexity of the Goodfellas. Vito's complete lack of morals make him a hard protagonist to root for, despite his original good intentions, and after a while you really couldn't care less what happens to him.
Mafia II's missions also fall short, with obvious comparisons to the Grand Theft Auto series but little of that title's invention. The majority have you driving across town, only to shoot some place up then drive all the way back. A decent cover-based control system is in place, and scoring a headshot is as rewarding as ever, but the endless gunfights got tedious in GTA IV, and it sure gets tedious here.
An occasional stealth-based mission spices Mafia II up a bit, with Vito infiltrating an enemy stronghold as quietly as possible. These sections are tense and thankfully not frustrating, but also few and far between. Besides, Splinter Cell: Conviction did it much better already.
Mafia II is a game bursting with potential, but lazy missions and poor writing detract from the incredibly realised world. However, those hardcore action fans, or anyone who can't resist the lure of a loaded tommy gun, will definitely get something out of the game.
Just make sure your rig has at least a dual-core Intel or AMD processor and 2GB of memory, as those are the minimum system requirements. A semi-decent ATi or nVidia graphics card will be needed to run the game on high detail.