Vito Scaletta was born in Italy twice. The first time, he was just a round-faced, innocent bambino. Then his family moved to America, home of the grand delusion. Faced with a subsistence existence in ratty tenements, Vito saw a better fate for himself among the hustlers on the street. Caught robbing a jewelry store, Vito passed into the hands of higher authorities, who clad his feet in a pair of combat boots and set them on the road to resurrection as an American G.I. in World War II. Back in Italy, he witnessed an old man demand and receive the surrender of every Fascist soldier involved in a standoff. At that moment, Vito was reborn as a wiseguy. His eyes were reopened; he saw that the road to peace and prosperity was paved with power.
But instead of pursuing that power, Vito returned to America and continued to do what he was told. Not necessarily by his mama, whom he ignored after a few quick cut-scenes. Instead, Vito became an errand boy for the mob, undertaking the usual array of car thefts, jewel heists and human hits. The only thing separating him from a common videogame antihero was the fact that in Mafia II, the city of Empire Bay didn’t give him the freedom to do whatever he wanted. He could steal cars for a smidgen of cash and buy a few generic suits. But for the most part, he had to stick to the sequence of tasks he was handed.
Vito lived his life chapter by chapter like someone turning the pages of a book. It wasn’t that the book was boring — Vito’s life story as told in Mafia II was a rather elegant rendition of the rise of a thug. But Vito never took charge of his fate. His life was merely a matter of driving to the next conflict or dramatic cut-scene. Only a few times — when it appeared as if men were mistreating women — did Vito act with what could have passed for conviction. The rest of the time, though — even as he mocked bourgeois conventionality and working-class drudgery — Vito plodded through the motions of a gangster. Despite being born twice, Vito Scaletta never really lived.
THE GOOD: Empire Bay is an entire city that has been fabricated just to tell a simple mobster story. Sure, many other games have worlds even more elaborate. But Grand Theft Auto IV diffused its action with cell phone calls, long commutes and games of darts, while Red Dead Redemption revealed that there wasn’t that much variety in the wide, wild West. I’d rather be surrounded by a teeming, virtual world serving as nothing more than a backdrop than be overwhelmed by a teeming, virtual world full of nothing worth doing.
THE BAD: From a basic narrative standpoint, Mafia II lacks a compelling villain. Vito talks about his desire to rise above his family’s humble, humiliating background. But aside from a brief moment where the game makes Vito schlep boxes like some schmuck scrambling for minimum wage, there is no existential opponent standing in Vito’s way, and very little for him to desire to achieve.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Mafia II is loaded with detail but lacks drama.