Empire Bay presents one of the more visually arresting cities to appear in an open world-game, seeming more "alive" than other titles. Besides the all-around high quality of the voice-acting, the characters are expressive, with their own distinct personalities. It's not often that a game can convey emotions effectively through facial expressions alone, but Mafia 2 is full of such moments. Pedestrians go about their daily business, and you'll occasionally find yourself stopping to overhear scripted conversations between inconsequential characters just because they're so entertaining. Some may find the racism somewhat shocking (and based on stereotypes), but it seems to be there to set the scene for that time and place, not the sake of attention.
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Gameplay in Mafia 2 consists of a blend of driving and on-foot combat and exploration. The game's gunplay is fast-paced fun, with cover playing a key role to survival. Step in front of a Tommy gun, or a close-range shotgun blast, and you'll be reloading the last checkpoint before you can say "cannoli."
Mafia 2's mission structure is more akin to playing through a piece of gangster fiction than playing other open-world games. Each of the game's fifteen chapters is structured around a series of specific events, though you'll never have more than one primary objective to pursue at a time. You can always explore the city at your leisure while between objectives, but despite Empire Bay's beauty and stellar ambiance, there isn't very much else to do. Stealing cars and robbing stores are interesting diversions, but the main story is compelling and well-paced enough that you'll rarely feel the need to dally with these minor distractions. (The exclusive "The Betrayal of Jimmy" DLC for the PS3 brings in some more traditional "drive and kill" missions to Empire Bay, via a separate storyline.)
Though fictional, the game's period vehicles are highly detailed, a lot of fun to drive, and reflect damage realistically. I couldn't help but laugh the first time I peeled around a street corner and my hubcaps popped off. It's also worth noting that high-speed vehicular collisions can kill you instantly, which adds some tension to the game's car chases. Listening to Mafia 2's various radio stations is also a treat, since they're brimming with a great selection of songs from the era to help set the mood. (I still have Louis Prima's 'When You're Smiling' stuck in my head.)
Mafia 2's biggest shortcoming is that outside of the events and missions in the main storyline, there's not a whole lot of depth—just the illusion of it. Cops will occasionally pull you over for speeding or colliding with another vehicle, but you can run red lights all day without repercussions. Players can also interact with the world in a number of incidental ways, like flicking light switches and flushing toilets, but their inclusion is entirely in the service of ambiance, not gameplay. You can waste your money to fill cars that never run out of gas, or take your car to the car wash. Or not. It's entirely up to you.
Without spoiling anything, I will say that the game's cliffhanger ending is too abrupt for it's own good, and left me wishing for more closure after having grown so attached to the characters. By the end of the campaign it rather amazed me how much of Empire Bay ended up serving as nothing more than incredibly atmospheric set-dressing. It's a ripe setup for DLC, I suppose.
Mafia 2 was developed by 2K Czech and is available for PC, Xbox 360, and PS3.