At first glance, the open world of Mafia II might seem a wasted one. Despite a myriad of details, both visual and aural, that set an authentic tone and atmosphere for the game, there is very little to do in the world that other open worlds might offer. There are no side quests, very few side jobs, and exploration is something that the player is likely to be motivated to do in order to simply take a look around because there are few meaningful things to interact with in this world. The game constantly drives the player back towards his mission.
However, the fictional city of Empire Bay in the game’s context of a 1940s and 1950s America (the first several chapters of Mafia II take place in 1943, while the latter chapters occur in 1951) is rather lovingly crafted. While some elements of the world are slightly anachronistic (Songs appearing in the 1943 and 1951 section are from the decade but often were actually released in a later year. Likewise, the Playboy magazines collected by the protagonist were certainly not available in 1943 or 1951, since Playboy‘s first issue appeared on newsstands in 1953.), nevertheless, the cars, architecture, and music are still evocative of these decades and are authentic in their sense of tone, if not their literal historical exactitude.
Empire Bay is a fun city to look at and listen to, even if time spent in the open world is usually just occupied with moving from here to there in between and during missions. The opening scenes of the second chapter, marking protagonist Vito Scaletta’s return home during the Christmas season to the Italian Quarter are especially well designed and scripted. Even while simply walking through his old neighborhood, people talk to Vito, welcome him home, and provide something to gawk at (like watching residents yelling at one another through open windows and the like), making the world feel alive and painting a picture for the player of the place that has made Vito who he is in a far more useful manner than the opening voiceover of the initial chapter that is intended to explain his background. These lived moments make Vito seem like he really comes from something like a real place, rather than is the result of few didactically explained bits of biography.
The focus of the missions then, as is the world building, is on Vito himself. Empire Bay seems less to have been built for the player to play in, then as a place to really authenticate the protagonist and his story. This is a different approach than other open worlds generally take with their emphasis on player freedom and the ability to do what you want, and it proves really to be just a different approach rather than a superior or inferior one.
Indeed, it might be the most appropriate one to take given the sort of story being told and the kind of character that Vito Scaletta seems to be. While Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto story seems like a bit of a love song to lawlessness and libertine attitudes in its “go anywhere, do what you want” gameplay and criminal characters that do exactly that, Mafia II‘s more linear approach to an open world, in which the player simply moves from mission to mission in order to allow the story to progress is a bit more appropriate given Vito’s slightly less autonomous position in his world.
Right from the outset of the game, we learn that Vito has ended up as part of an American unit in Italy as a result of getting into trouble with a neighborhood buddy, Joe Barbero. Choosing military service over jail, Vito’s coming of age occurs within the context of a social organization in which he doesn’t get to decide what he will do; he has to follow orders. Indeed, even as the game begins and Vito is freed from his military obligation with the aid of Joe’s criminal connections (made while Vito was abroad), Vito once again doesn’t really make a choice to break free from the military; Joe chooses for him.
In this regard, Vito differs an awful lot from the presentation of most open world protagonists (and the player’s own circumstances in playing as this character result in a similarly different experience). While characters in the GTA series achieve success by carving out a place for themselves in their world and eventually build criminal empires (as they do in San Andreas or Vice City) through their social climb from street thug to kingpin, Vito is a considerably less successful or self made man. While in GTA, the protagonist usually starts with little money, begins accruing a little wealth, and then sees an exponential growth in cash (so much so that in-game purchases are more or less meaningless in the late game), Vito (and the player), however, struggle throughout Mafia II.
Vito is, indeed, a soldier, not a boss. He is mildly successful at times in the game, usually before taking a tumble. The player will struggle to have enough cash to buy a decent suit for Vito or to repair a car in the early part of the game. Later, Vito will make big bucks from doing some big jobs, before having his house burned down and losing all that money and property. He will rebuild that fortune before finding that he owes someone else more powerful than himself, and, well, the reality is that those people get to make the decisions in his world and he has to pay.
Like many mob stories (like The Godfather II and Scarface or GTA IV, for that matter), this is an immigrant’s story, a story about chasing the American dream through the only avenues seemingly possibly available to an alien to the United States. Why we usually sympathize with mobsters is that, while they act criminally, they exhibit a tenacious attitude, a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude, and a challenge to conventional authority, like the law and government (all very American values as a nation built on the idea of freedom from authority and self determination). Mafia II, though, is much more ambivalent about this rise to success. As Vito says in voiceover when explaining his arrival in America and first impressions of it, to him Empire Bay was “the most beautiful thing” that he had ever seen as well as the biggest “shithole” that he had ever been to. The arc of Vito’s story punctuates this theme, as every time he is up, he gets put back in his place again.
Much like the linearity of the game experience, Vito finds that pure freedom is always illusory despite the promise of an American dream. You do the best that you can in the context of a world whose design belongs to someone other than yourself.