Amongst the slew of open world, free to explore at your own leisure games there stands one game that set the bar at a slightly different level than all others; Mafia. At the time of it's release Mafia was sandwiched between two of Rockstars juggernaut games of the GTA franchise that seemingly inspired Mafia, both GTA 3 and Vice City. Where the GTA franchise missed a large era that would have been the perfect setting for a GTA universe, the prohibitionist 1930s, Mafia crept in and took it's rightful place as the outlet to freely explore and live a fictional life in that era through the protagonist Thomas "Tommy" Angelo.
Mafia was indeed the answer to those wanting a 1930s era Grand Theft Auto. From a random encounter with the mob, Tommy is given a chance to join the mob as an associate, which may sound cliche today, but actually turned into a great story line. Mafia was filled with twists, turns, challenges, rewards and all of the things you would want from an open world game.
That's not to say Mafia wasn't without it's flaws, the biggest of which was that the console versions felt like very sub-par ports of the PC game. Everything felt like it was slowed down to fit the controller configuration and never really felt very much like a genuine console release. The graphics weren't always the greatest, and while driving was a great portion of the game the cars were never really all that exciting to drive. For good and bad, Mafia was and I believe is still a worthwhile game to play.
For nearly 8 years the franchise sat dormant, and only those with their ears to the ground heard much about the franchise, but in 2010 a whole new experience was unleashed. With the release of Mafia II came a shift in console generations, meaning everything looked better, everything felt smoother and everything felt more alive. This time Mafia was set in the mid 1940s, following a war veteran by the name of Vito Scaletta as he returns from war and catches up with old friends, only to find the fast track to money and fame is through his old friend Joe, who has been doing odd jobs for the Mafia while Vito was away at war.
Again, this time through Vito, you are taken through the twists and turns of joining the mafia, but this time things don't feel quite right to me. Where the first Mafia was story driven, everything felt more fluid and everything seemed to link together, not the case with Mafia II. Mafia II lays out the story as if it were a book, in chapters, which left me feeling as if the story was disjointed and clunky. I'm familiar with the mission to mission grind, but the story just didn't seem to flow with all the fast forwarding and jumps the game did.
The flaws within this game don't really smother the fun you'll experience while playing it, but they are there. For instance the lack of free roam, which even the first game offered, 8 years it's senior. I honestly can't remember whether or not the first game unlocked free roam after completion or not, but I know it was there, so why wasn't free roam ever offered in it's sequel? Well, technically there is free roam, albeit in the form of a DLC pack called Jimmy's Vendetta. You won't be using Vito, the character you've grown attached to in the story mode, you'll be doing a short story line for Jimmy, but at least here you do get to access all three homes from the story mode, unlike Vito.
Another issue is the tiny garage, as you're only allowed 10 vehicles, only getting more with DLC included vehicles. Since Mafia II allows the player to steal and customize just about any vehicle within the game, you would think the game would allow more than just 10 cars in a garage. For example Driver Parallel Lines allows players to store 99.9% of in-game cars (which is around 80 or more), and Saints Row offering about 50 cars. There is no need to limit the player to 10 cars, plus DLC cars, especially with the plethora of vehicles that Mafia II provides.
And finally, and simply put, the police are far too easy to escape. In almost every free roam game I've played the police are ruthless crime stoppers. From GTA to Saints Row, to the original Mafia and all the way around to the Driver series. In Mafia II the police will give chase, they will even shoot, depending on the severity of the crime, but in a moderately fast car you can easily lose them within a few city blocks, no hassle. It may sound like a nitpick but if there is no real challenge or punishment for committing a crime in a video game, there is no real fun or reason to do so.
Mafia II isn't all bad, not at all. The graphics are beautiful, the city is beautiful and fun to explore. There are many things to do within the city, magazines and wanted posters to collect, clothing stores, gun store as well as diners and bars you can go in and have a meal or a drink. You can even rob these establishments for a little bit of cash, and I do mean a little bit of cash as the highest I've taken was $300 from a gun store. Not much, but it adds a little bit of adventure to the overall exploration of the city.
Now what would an open world game be without vehicles? As I started earlier you can customize vehicles and race them around the city, although there really aren't many places you can truly max your car's horsepower, it's still fun to speed around the city. There is quite a selection of vehicles to choose from, all of them based loosely on popular real-world vehicles of that era.
One of my (oddly) favorite parts of Mafia II is that should you find a vehicle you wish to make your own you have two options; you can just be brash and smash out the window, or you can be quiet and cunningly use a lock-pick mechanic to unlock the door. The trunk and hoods of some vehicles will open up with very little use as you can't store anything in the trunk, but if your car is heavily wrecked you can pop the hood and have a fiddle around to get it working again.
I like the Mafia franchise the same I like the Grand Theft Auto franchise, and I believe they both hold their own respective places alongside each other. As GTA expands upwards and outwards I hope that Mafia continues to follow where it is headed as well. I loved the crossover mission in Mafia II that called back to the ending of Mafia, proving that Mafia has a good idea of where it's headed, and as a fan I will be along for the ride.