It's been nine years since the first Mafia, and sandbox games have evolved dramatically since. Is Mafia II up to par in a post-GTAIV world? We check out 2K Czech's crime saga to find out.
An unforeseen benefit of setting a sandbox action game in the mid 20th century: cell phones didn't exist yet. So unlike Niko Bellic of Grand Theft Auto IV, Vito Scarletta, the star of 2K Czech's Mafia II, doesn't get the perks of the digital age - he can't pull out a PDA to call up his lawyer girlfriend to get the fuzz off his tail. But here's the upside of that: he never has to deal with a girlfriend in the first place.
For the producers of Mafia II, this sandbox Mafioso experience should feature no social calls, no "minigame tasks," none of that nonsense that may have spoiled GTAIV for gamers hoping for a game full of non-stop criminal mayhem. Mafia II has one fundamental focus. "It's about being a mobster," 2K's Denby Grace said. No more, no less.
The tale of the game, which spans a decade in the hard knock life of Vito as he goes from rags to riches, was penned by the writers of the original Mafia and is full of enough "goombah" talk to make Martin Scorcese blush. Narrative is one of the key aspects of Mafia II for 2K, but creating a world's not just about the writing, 2K said. They wrote their story, and then, as Grace relates, "knew we had to make 10 square miles of city to fit it."
And it's quite the city, a fictional metropolis called Empire Bay roughly modeled after New York City. 2K Czech's Illusion Engine renders all of Empire Bay's geometry in real-time so that, as 2K boasts, you never see a single loading screen whether you're cruising the streets in a muscle car listening to classic period music or lounging in the best clubs dirty money can buy you.
Though the afternoon streets of Empire Bay were lined with skyscrapers, passersby and some of the coolest relics of automobilia past (muscle car freaks should be on alert), I didn't see much of it. Inside's where most of the action of the demo 2K Czech shared with me took place. Vito and his best friend Joe needed to take out a rival gang boss who's spending the day in his deluxe penthouse. After getting dressed in window washer disguises, they headed on up to the penthouse and set up a bomb in a boardroom with a huge panoramic view of the city.
Now, for whatever reason, this was the kind of bomb that has to be detonated from the other side of that window, so Vito and Joe went up to the roof. There they found they found what I suspect was the real reason for bringing them up there: people to shoot. Gunplay in Mafia II seems to basically be Goodfellas of War: you take cover behind objects and peek out with your Tommy Gun or period piece of choice, and take aim. The guns are as booming and heavy as the weaponry in Gears, lending a more shooter-like feel to the gunplay than I've encountered in most sandbox titles. Headshots, as always, work nicely.
Once Vito and Joe disposed of the poor sap standing by the window washing platform they were there to use, the two got on board and lowered themselves down until they were facing the boardroom. Boom went the bomb, but the target happened to be taking a potty break when it went off, and was shielded from the blast by the bathroom door. How convenient.
Mafia II certainly has the details down pat. As Vito and Joe chased down their man, I watched wine bottles and beer bottles shatter as bullets flew, sofas and pillows start leaking padding when they were used as cover. And a conveniently placed ornate window provided a fine demo of just how much care 2K Czech has poured into making their glass the most fun to shoot in any game in some time.
And it's not just the little things, either. For a game that's so intent on producing some genuine fiction (to use the fancy word), 2K Czech needs to nail the atmosphere of the period, and from what I saw they've done a pretty fine job. From the "cinematic" soundtrack of 40s and 50s tunes (you can't customize the music), to the late afternoon glow of the city streets that made every block of Empire Bay look like an iconic snapshot of the classic New York City of our dreams, and especially in the deftly scripted and acted cutscenes, Mafia II's world and its inhabitants seem more alive than any sandbox city since Grand Theft Auto IV.
Liberty City felt genuine enough to almost make you want to play it realistically, but in Mafia II that won't be a choice: Vito's going to have to play things more cool than videogame protagonists normally do. If you fail a big heist, you can't just run out into the streets and try to rob another bank: you'll have to lay low for a while (the game'll jump ahead in time) and let the heat die down before going at it again. Same goes for driving: as in the first game, traffic violations will actually net you attention from the fuzz (though if you're tenacious enough the cops will give up).
The point, though, 2K insists, is that Vito's in the mafia, and how we play Mafia II should never break the fiction of its world. Vito's not just a random goon like Niko. He doesn't want to risk getting caught by cops for speeding, it's bad business. Nor does he want to take his girlfriend out to play pool. Or go bowling with his dimwitted cousin. When, I ask you, was the last time a mobster went bowling?
Look for Mafia II this fall on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3.