You’re back home. Not home, home – not the sunny, embattled Sicily your parents took you from as a child, but the teeming, crisscrossed streets of Empire Bay in Mafia II. An old friend is driving you around, taking you for a drink to celebrate your return from the war.
Christmas songs croon on the radio as snow blankets the streets, and by all accounts, it seems like a perfect time to be back. With one phone call, your buddy gets you discharged from the army for good, and what was meant to be a brief stay becomes permanent. So what’s an Italian-American to do, with his family indebted to dangerous loan sharks, and a best friend with mob connections?
Mafia II is an excellent game. Let’s just get that out of the way first. If you missed it the first time around, it’s definitely worth your interest now. Not just as a free-roaming crime game, but as an exceptionally well-developed and authentic period piece that captures the atmosphere of old-school mafia movies and 1940’s “New York”. They carried that ethos forwards into Mafia III, which, whilst perhaps not the more accomplished game, still recreated a time period sometimes uncomfortably well.
Vito Scaletta is a man with flexible morals, working his way up the criminal ranks, hungry for all the luxuries and comforts life has always denied him. He’s a serious guy doing bad things, but he lives by a code. It’s refreshing, after years of GTA and Saint’s Row to go back to an open-world crime game that takes itself seriously. There’s no tearing around the streets at high speeds or outrageous set-pieces with submarines or fighter jets.
In fact, if you go above the speed limit, the police will pay attention to that, and the small touches like this help the game feel more deliberate and grounded. It’s a good balance between authenticism and enjoyable game mechanics, something Red Dead Redemption II would go on to dramatically overdo.
Certain parts of the game have not aged so well. Driving and shooting are a little janky, definitely feeling like a PS3 game with a facelift (which to be fair, it is). It’s still a pleasure to revisit the game’s stellar story, which is given more weight by the added consequences for breaking the law in the open world.
The aged parts are definitely creaking a little, and in a game that relies quite heavily on dialogue to set the scene, it’s a real shame to hear the original voice lines get muddled behind music or ambient sound. Obviously we can’t expect those original recordings to get magically upscaled for the new version, but a little more prominence would go a long way.
There were times where the game struggled and stuttered. There was also a very obnoxious 2K logo that refused to go away until I made an account and signed into their online service, which seemed unnecessarily pushy. This is a gem of a game wrapped up in all the heavily branded nonsense and occasional technical shortcuts of modern AAA titles, and yet despite the handful of flaws that cropped up in my time with it I was very glad to see it get a little more tender loving care.
With a full rework rather than remaster, Mafia II could have stood side by side with many of its modern counterparts, but apparently, SEGA is the only ones willing to lavish their classics with such luxury.
Nonetheless, this is an essential game for fans of the mafia “genre”, delivering an authentic and cinematic experience only slightly stymied by its age. Whether you loved it the first time around or it’s on your radar for the first time, if you love those stories, you’ll love Mafia II. You might have to spend some time getting to grips with the stiff controls, but it’s well worth it. It’s a fantastic story with a meticulously genuine and grounded backdrop, and though the gameplay itself might hold it back a little, it’s not bad by any means.
Mafia II: Definitive Edition overall thoughts
Mafia II, without a doubt, is the most accomplished piece of sincere gangster storytelling to ever grace the gaming medium. Granted, it doesn’t have buckets of competition, but that might be our fault for flocking to the loud, crazy fun that usually dominates the genre.
Even in its original iteration, Mafia II was cinematic, beautifully grounded, and evocative to a point of inducing nostalgia for a time that 99% of the people playing it didn’t even live through. However, calling this the ‘definitive edition’, with often poorly mixed audio and middling performance, feels like a bit of a stretch. It looks better, and it’ll run on current-gen consoles. Perhaps ‘Slightly Better-itive Edition’ would be more appropriate, but it definitely wouldn’t sell as many copies.