Mafia II Impressions (PC)[Disclosure: I've played for two hours at this point. Based on what I've seen, though, I don't expect these impressions to change.]
Last time, it was a city square.
This time, I'm waiting for a stoplight to change, sitting with my buddy Joe, just shooting the shit, listening to the radio over the purring of the exhaust. Outside, it's lightly snowing, the streets full of cars and people.
That's when I realized, once again, that I'm not here, in my study. I'm there.
Here's the first thing you need to know about Mafia II: Daniel Vávra is the best writer in gaming today. Period. He's sitting in a room, and no one else belongs in that room. No one else is even knocking on the door.
Here's the second thing you need to know: the voice-acting is almost as good as the writing. The banter between characters, in particular, is the most natural-sounding I've ever heard.
Here's the third thing you need to know: the city is wonderful. It's functional. It's coherent.
Like the original game, Mafia II does a spectacular job of creating a sense of time and place. The WWII-era radio announcements, the period posters and propaganda, and the story itself evokes an era that only exists in documentaries today. It's a living documentary, in essence.
Also in the sense of living, this game breathes. It's not hyper-manic. You don't have to shoot someone every fifteen seconds. The subtle touches of this development team, so often on display in Mafia, are once again in full throat here. I was driving to the mission, wondering why it was taking longer than I expected. Then I just relaxed and started paying attention to the city around me, and realized that, almost certainly, it was the point of the longer drive.
I've seen complaints in reviews about the number of cut scenes and their length. To me, that's like complaining a Van Gogh has too much paint.
I'm not saying it's perfect. The graphics of the original game were absolutely stunning, and they don't pop quite as much this time. The music is also pitch perfect, but it's not Django Reinhardt, and Vladimir Šimůnek didn't do the score.
Like I said, though, the sense of time and place is overwhelming. It doesn't feel like a studio lot. And that's an experience, in gaming, that is almost impossible to find.