Mafia II is the sequel to the 2002 game Mafia. Mafia is one of my favourite games of all time, with superb writing, tremendous characterisation and some fun shooting mechanics making up for occasionally questionable gameplay (such as that infamously hardcore racing mission). Mafia II is not a direct follow-up, set as it is in a different city with different characters. There are a couple of references to the events of the original Mafia, though these are obtuse enough that only hardcore fans are likely to spot them. Instead, the game's narrative is completely self-contained.
In terms of gameplay, the Mafia series resembles the Grand Theft Auto franchise with driving sections and on-foot combat, with the important difference that the Mafia games are not open-world titles. Instead you proceed directly from one mission directly to the next. This means that the cities do not need to be as exhaustively detailed and brimming with stuff to do as in the GTA titles, since they are merely backdrops to the action (though they are still well-realised). This gives the Mafia games a much greater focus and puts both their stories and characters under much more pressure, as they need to be good for the games to succeed. The GTA games, which a lot of people play purely to cause havoc in the cities without ever looking at the main storylines, don't quite have the same pressure.
This requirement paid off handsomely in the original Mafia. The story of Tommy Angelo's rise from taxi driver to criminal fixer, becoming a made man and gaining a family and respectability before realising how brutal and violent his world had become, was extremely compelling. It featured musings on the corrosive effects of violence on the psyche and on the morality of killing. It was a stronger story than anything to appear in a GTA title (and, interestingly, GTA4 seemed to take more than a few ideas from it).
The personalised number plates are pretty cool.
Unfortunately, it does not pay off in Mafia II. Illusion Softworks - now 2K Czech - were obviously keen not to repeat themselves in this game, so Vito Scaletta's story is rather different to Tommy's. It unfolds over a much shorter span of time (limited to two periods of several months in 1945 and 1951) and is less of the traditional rags-to-riches tale. Vito is a small-time hood who pretty much stays a small-time hood (albeit one who eventually gets a rather nice house) throughout. He doesn't have a relationship or get married, and in fact seems to be rather more sexist than Tommy (the lack of any healthy female relationships in his life and his obsession with collecting Playboy magazines indicates such). He's also a lot dumber, frequently agreeing to shady deals that have, "THIS IS GOING TO GO BADLY WRONG," written all over them.
This in itself is a problem, with Vito's misadventures being less compelling than either Tommy's in the earlier game, or the protagonists of most of the GTA games. A bigger problem is the lack of decent other characters. Aside from Vito's best buddy Joe, none of the other characters in the game gets much of a personality, or motivation. Even keeping track of which criminal is working for which gang is hard work. There is little to no emotional investment in Vito, his story, or in the other characters, which does interfere with caring about the game.
Fortunately, the gameplay is still pretty good. It's similar to Mafia's and the gunplay is even better, helped by that rarest of beasts, a cover system which actually works and adds to the combat experience. There's one oddity in that Mafia limited you to one of each class of weapon whilst Mafia II allows you to carry every weapon at once, making it a rare example of a game that actually gives the player more choice rather than taking it away through limited arsenals. This is a welcome move. Driving is also similar, with the game still being rather less forgiving about things like running red lights, speeding or hit-and-runs than the GTA series. The cops are harder to shake this time around, but you also have more options for losing them, including running into clothes shops to change clothes or offering bribes. The missions are also quite long, with mid-mission checkpoints and a number of plot twists that, whilst usually predictable, keep things ticking over. The graphics are very impressive (especially the lighting; Mafia II may have the best sunrises and sunsets of any game to date, and the way car headlights diffuse in the fog is extremely atmospheric) and the soundtrack is first-rate, with some great (if occasionally anachronistic) tracks from the birth of the rock 'n' roll era.
Ultimately, Mafia II is a far less compelling game than its forebear due to the weaker writing, story and characters. This is annoying as the gameplay is often better, but you have much less reason to care about what's going on. The game is also stingier, with combat sections often being extremely brief and easy. Mafia II has most of the same ingredients as its excellent forebear, but this time around they do not combine into as compelling a game.
Mafia II (***) is available now in the UK (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3) and USA (PC, X-Box 360, PlayStation 3).