Gamers lucky enough to have played the game Mafia remember a rich, open world setting filled with classic cars, mob violence, emergent police chase missions, brutal combat and an engaging, well-told story about a young guy making his way in the world by climbing the ladder up the ranks of an established crime family. In spite of a few memorable flaws (race track mission, I'm looking at you) it was a game that captured imaginations and left players wondering why more games like that hadn't been made and still haven't been made since.
Seven years later the same development team behind the original (now renamed 2K Czech) are previewing Mafia 2 at GDC 2010, and I'm pleased to say that from the first look we were granted, the sequel has a good chance of being every bit as excellent as the original.
Mafia II takes the franchise into a new era. Set during and after WWII, Mafia II moves the action from the 30s and 40s to the 40s and 50s, and 2K Czech once again shows an impeccable eye for capturing the details of the age. The vehicles, clothes, language, weapons and music all provide a hearty dose of nostalgia and variety. Playing Mafia II you will feel very much as if you're immersed in a period action film, more so than in most other games that try and inevitably fail to do the same. There are even collectibles this time around; in various nooks and crannies you will find Playboy magazines complete with classic photo "spreads" you can view at your leisure (over and over and over).
The story follows main character Vito who returns from WWII and discovers he has debts to pay and no easy way of paying them. Before you can say bada-bing, his friend Joe is on the scene introducing him to the way of the made man, "leading him astray," in the words of Senior Producer Denby Grace. We were shown very little of the path Vito will then be led down, but if the first game is any indicator, it will be filled with twists and turns and perhaps a chance for redemption.
Mafia II, like Mafia, is an open-world game in the Grand Theft Auto vein which means there will be lots of driving. The world is "twice as large" as the world from the first game, according to Grace, and from the brief glimpse we received, it looks easily twice as detailed and interactive. Pedestrians and other drivers now do a better job of reacting to the players' actions, and the addition of a body shop in which you can upgrade and "legalize" your car shows the promise of adding a bit of depth to the inevitable police chases. The developers had "turned down" the police reactions for the demo, so we didn't get a chance to see this mechanic in action. It remains to be seen if it will be an enhancement or a degradation of the original formula.
The driving itself is easy to learn but difficult to master and different cars behave believable differently and damage to the vehicle degrades its performance, making it important to learn how to drive safely. I drove three cars during the demo; a four-door sedan, a convertible and souped-up hot rod. Each behaved as you would expect, with the sedan handling like a heavy, wallowing boat, the hot rod like a spirited stallion with too much horsepower for its own good and the convertible somewhere in between.
Overall the driving was fun and the period music playing on the radio and enhanced AI showed the game's potential for the emergent, vehicle-based gameplay that made the first game so unpredictable and fun, but again, this was not a part of the demo. How the police reactions have been updated for the new era remain to be seen and is something we're eager to see in future previews.
One major and delightful change to the series is the addition of a cover system, and the absolute necessity of using it. Combat in Mafia II is absolutely brutal. A couple of gunshots can be fatal, which makes shootouts much more of a tactical exercise and a bit more engaging than the "run and gun" of the first game.
During the demo we had the chance to use the .357 magnum, the Tommy Gun, the M1 Garand and the molotov cocktail, each with unique charactersistics (the .357 is a one-shot kill, for example). Although the combat is difficult (I had to restart the combat section of the demo three times), it's enjoyable and has a definite movie shootout feel to it, with enemies seeking cover of their own, gas tanks of cars exploding and raging gun battles spreading across large areas.
Pretty much the only problem area I experienced in playing the demo was a frustrating contextual action system that required the character to be standing in a ridiculously precise spot and facing in the exact right direction in order to activate an item. This made what should have been a fun, little mission in which Vito is selling stolen cigarettes out of the back of a truck into a nightmare of trying to figure out how to pick the damn things up. With a few more months of active development yet to go, it's entirely possible this will be refined before the game ships, but if not it could lead to some extremely aggravating play sessions.
The core of Mafia II, however, will be in how well all of these elements are stitched together, and how well they complement the story. The story of the original game was filled with all of the heartbreak, honor, betrayal and revenge one would expect form a great mob tale, and Mafia II looks to continue the tradition in great style.
Of all of the elements on display in the demo, the story, characters and voice acting were easily the most impressive. Combined with the game's refined and excellent art direction, Mafia II made a strong showing, and promises to be a must-have for fans of immersive gaming.
Mafia II is set to be released sometime "between August and October" of this year, with a simultaneous release on the Xbox 360, Ps3 and PC.