At a certain point in the game, however, Vito's sister discovers his true nature; that he is an unrepentantly violent man. Francine does not recognize this Vito, and she shuns him, telling him over the phone that she never wants to see him again. As a player, I was stunned by this turn of events. I had just finished a mission to protect Francine's honor, had watched Francine visiting Vito in prison, had worked hard to find the money to give to Francine to pay off our father's debts. I had believed I was building the basis for the reconciliation of Vito's birth family, while simultaneously working my way up in his crime family. I thought I was hitting home runs. Life was good. I had a beautiful house, a garage full of cars and all the money I could spend, and yet, in that moment, when Francine, in tears, asked that she never see me again, it seemed as if it had all been for nothing.
After this exchange, I walked to the garage, got in the fastest car I owned and drove across town to the clothing store, where I bought everything they had. Yet the extravagance didn't fill the empty hole left by Francine's admonishment, and the game, for better or worse, had left me to my own devices. I could return home to sleep and advance the story to the next chapter, or I could while away the hours in the game world, pursuing my own ends. The choice was up to me.
At that moment, I recognized the brilliance of Mafia II. It had carried me along on Vito's journey, giving me just enough control to be entertained, lowering my defenses while it reared back for a sucker punch to my emotional core. I realized then I was feeling exactly what the developers wanted me to feel - some portion of what Vito must feel. I had believed I had earned some measure of control over my life, my world and my destiny, but the game informed me otherwise.
As a player, I felt as lost as the character whose story I was playing out. I chose a fast car from Vito's garage and drove it as fast as I could down the longest stretch of straight road in the game: the bridge between Hunter's Point and Empire Bay. I managed to push my little coupe up to 125 MPH, and I earned an Xbox Live achievement, but none of this distracted me from the troubling turn of events in the story. I was still bothered that I had failed my sister at the height of my career in the Mafia. I had to come to terms with the fact that I could not have it all. I had lost my birth family. So I returned to Vito's home, went to sleep and started the next chapter of the story, at which point the game took away everything else.
So what kind of game is Mafia II? I honestly don't know. At times, while playing it, I was disappointed that the action wasn't action-y enough. I wished the open world was even more open, and I wanted the story to end in an entirely different way. As a long-time game player and reviewer, I also noticed various odd weaknesses in the game's design or execution, and I regretted that they had marred an otherwise excellent game.
Yet for all of its shortcomings, Mafia II affected me. It made me feel. It reached into my heart and squeezed until I genuinely cared about a character in a videogame. What kind of game does that? An excellent one.
Whatever else Mafia II may be called, it is a truly excellent game. It deserves to be played, and I'm thankful it was created.
Russ Pitts' review of Mafia II can be found here.