While the original Mafia was a challenging and underrated cult classic that told the tale of a crime drama in 1930s America, Mafia II will be a sequel that takes place in a bigger, postwar world with faster cars, bigger guns, and much higher stakes. We took a second look at the upcoming sequel by watching a demonstration of part of the early game and then playing through a level that takes place about halfway through it. We stole cars, got into fistfights, bribed the police, fought through a vicious gun battle, and even picked up a girlie magazine along the way. And we have much to report. Please be advised that this story may contain minor spoilers.
As we've discussed previously, Mafia II will be a story-heavy third-person action game that spans the 1940s on into the 1950s and will cover the career of Vito Scaletta, a young man growing up in the Italian quarter of the fictitious city of Empire Bay. Vito starts his life as a down-on-his-luck neighborhood kid who gets drafted into service in World War II but comes back on brief medical leave to find that his neighborhood buddy Joe is a made man with money, women, and enough pull to get Vito a phony government note that will get him out of the army forever. Joe has an intriguing offer he shares with Vito over drinks, but gives him some time to think about it.
At the beginning of the game, Vito returns to the big city in the dead of winter, and in the early part of the game, he makes the long walk back to his apartment, passing by the locals engaged in various outdoor activities, like shoveling snow, buying hot dogs, and slipping on frozen sidewalks, and generally going about their own business. Many of Mafia II's venues will be populated by ambient characters that are both scripted to perform certain actions and are unscripted--in addition, the game will have a dynamic music score with some 120 period pieces from the 1940s and 1950s (plus a symphonic score from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra) that will change depending on what you're doing in-game. In fact, even the game's weather system will change to help suit the scene (rather than simply change on a 24-hour day-night cycle) to help make even quiet downtime moments seem like scenes out of a motion picture.
Vito returns home to his apartment to meet his elderly mother and high-spirited sister, enjoy some home cooking, and make the unpleasant discovery that his hardworking-but-estranged father, who recently passed away, had taken out a huge loan from a loan shark just before he shuffled off this mortal coil. This obviously puts Vito in a tough spot and motivates him to take Joe up on his offer. We then jumped ahead to a different part of the game, about halfway through, in the early 1950s, with both Vito and Joe firmly established as up-and-coming confidence men working odd jobs for local mobsters. This was about the time that we picked up the Xbox 360 controller ourselves and started playing the game.
Our session began at Vito's apartment, which acts as a hub area that contains a working radio, as well as his clothes-filled closet--which is more important than you think, considering that changing your clothes and ditching your stolen car can sometimes be the only way to get the cops off your scent. After nabbing some clothes, we picked up a note that Joe had left for us about a job. We ducked out of the apartment building to find that we had been holed up in a pretty decent part of town, complete with a garage out back to store all the cars we'd acquired. While there were a few cars for us in storage to try out, we were more interested in borrowing one from oncoming traffic.
Stealing cars is as simple as pressing a button, just like in the Grand Theft Auto games, though there are obvious consequences, including an increased "wanted" level that will make you a target for the police, as well as angry motorists who may not give their cars up without a fight. We nabbed a passing sedan from a plucky motorist who helpfully put up his dukes so that we could try out Mafia II's melee combat system. The game uses the four controller face buttons to let you throw a light punch, throw a heavy punch, dodge, and continuously block--properly dodging an incoming punch gives you a brief advantage that will let you land a quick counterpunch. If you're lucky, you can also land a critical hit, such as a vicious kick to the face, that will instantly floor your opponent, just like we did. If you're unlucky, you'll end up finishing off that vicious act of assault and battery right in front of a passing police car, just like we did. But since Vito was already well on his way to becoming a made man at this point in the game, we had the option to slip the cops a couple hundred bucks, and with a little greasing of palms, we were off the hook.
Rather than risk the hassle of dealing with the fuzz again, we hightailed it back to our garage and picked out a muscle car we had lined up. We hopped into the car and hightailed it downtown to our rendezvous point with Joe, marked on a minimap in the lower corner of the screen. Fortunately, 2K Czech has opted against making running red lights and stop signs a punishable offense, so you can drive like a moderately crazy person without the frustration of always having the cops on your heels. Like the original Mafia, Mafia II has a speed limiter option that will automatically keep your car under the speed limit--speeding is considered a minor offense, which, like most low-level crimes in Mafia II, will attract the ire of the police only if you commit it within sight range.
And should you commit a minor offense in front of Johnny Law, your "wanted" level will increase only slightly, and if you're able to outrun the cops, your "wanted" status will eventually disappear. There are multiple levels in the "wanted" system that are fairly nuanced, but generally speaking, as long as you keep a little extra money in your pocket to pay off the police, and don't do anything stupid, you should be able to get by in the early game without too much trouble. However, in later parts of the game, you may be tasked with messier jobs, such as disposing of dead bodies or robbing a gun shop--serious infractions that will bring the authorities in droves, setting up roadblocks, calling in armored trucks, and sending in cruisers at top speed with the specific purpose of ramming you off the road.
As it turns out, the beginning of this mission didn't involve any of that. Instead, we took a leisurely drive down the freeway with the top down on a sunny summer day with John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom Boom Boom on the radio. The police were dialed down on this particular demo, so we were able to drive like a moderately crazy person, cutting off civilian cars, running red lights, and drifting around corners to get to an abandoned lot where Joe and his truckload of "found" cigarettes awaited. Our job was simple: climb onto the back of the truck and toss down the appropriate carton of cigarettes (red, white, or blue) to fill whatever orders Joe took from whichever fine, upstanding citizens might buy cigarettes off the back of a truck. We were doing all right in this simple puzzle-like minigame, matching boxes to orders, until a gang of greasers (a street gang notable for its greased-back hair) showed up, torched the cigarettes, and demanded that Vito and Joe give up all the profits, on account of it being their turf and all. Vito responded by pulling a gun on the leader, causing the rest of the gang to flee.
We hopped in our car and gave chase but lost our mark on the freeway. On Joe's advisement, we pulled off the freeway to find the nearest phone booth and report our situation to our mob boss. The nearest phone booth popped up on our minimap, and we pulled off the highway into Empire Bay's Chinatown district. We located the phone booth but found it to be occupied by a shady-looking character on the phone. We could have patiently waited our turn, but we couldn't resist the option to yank the fellow out. Unfortunately, he didn't appreciate our behavior and we found ourselves in another fistfight. We nearly lost this one but landed a lucky hit that left the man facedown in a pool of blood. But as it turns out, he was a Chinatown gangster whose nearby gun-toting buddy was cautiously observing the fight and who took it personally when we beat his pal down. Already wounded, we were faced with the option to either fight or flee, but a couple of the mobster's gunshots made the decision for us, and also gave us a chance to experience the game's autosave system, which, on the bright side, bumped us back to right before the car chase.
Our second time through, we found a completely empty phone booth and called in our situation to our unsympathetic boss. Apparently, the cigarettes were worth a few thousand dollars, and those greasers had to pay, so we were directed to torch the rival gang's watering hole, then hunt them down and slap them around a little--no guns and no casualties, since our boss had been in the papers enough recently. We drove to an out-of-the-way part of town to find a roadside speakeasy where a group of heavies were already waiting to help us with the first part of our job. We hopped out on foot and were given a Tommy gun to shoot up the joint, tearing up the fragile wooden framework and shattering all the windows in loud, satisfying fashion while sending shards of glass everywhere courtesy of Mafia II's implementation of PhysX physics. After shooting the place up, we then snagged some Molotov cocktails from the trunk of a nearby ally's car and lobbed a few into the already-devastated diner until the whole place went up in a spectacular fiery explosion. The first part of our job completed, we hopped in our car to go hunting for greasers at the rival gang's hangout.
After a quick drive down the road, we and our mob buddies broke into the gangsters' hideout, swinging baseball bats and ready to rumble until the greasers pulled out their guns and started firing. With all bets off, we pulled out our own guns and started one of the game's more intense gun battles. As we've mentioned in our previous coverage of the game, Mafia II's shooting gameplay isn't like the usual auto-aim-then-press-fire system you've come to expect from open-world games like Grand Theft Auto. Instead, 2K assures us that the development team has taken lessons from popular third-person shooters like Gears of War 2 and Uncharted 2 and, where appropriate, makes smart use of cover.
In this particular gun battle, cover was absolutely crucial. Our rivals had apparently holed up in an abandoned railway station--an open-air lot littered with abandoned freight and derelict sidecars. Though Joe and the rest of our mob compatriots were providing covering fire, it was absolutely crucial for us to hole up behind cover or risk becoming Swiss cheese. Luckily, Mafia II's cover system seems elegant and easy enough to use. You can take cover behind any solid object by pressing the action button, and from there, you can either peek out from cover to take potshots, seamlessly transition to the next nearest cover, or simply disengage from cover and come running out.
This was very much a battle of sporadically firing from cover, taking out the nearest enemies, and sprinting ahead to the next cover to gain ground. While we were already equipped with several powerful firearms, like a Magnum-caliber handgun and a Tommy gun, about halfway through the base, we came upon a small weapon stash with the classic M1 Garand rifle to take high-powered, single shots. Despite being mostly World War II-era weaponry, these guns all felt good and powerful to use. They had clear, loud reports when fired and did their jobs extremely well. About the only thing we could have hoped for beyond our arsenal would have been some explosives; we're told that you'll eventually get your hands on more Molotov cocktails as well as grenades in other missions. By slowly, carefully grinding through the base, we were finally able to get the greasers on the run, and the mission went from being a deadly game of cat and mouse to a foxhunt as we rounded up and shot down the last of our foes, picking up, of all things, a vintage issue of Playboy.
As 2K Games recently announced, the studio has forged a relationship with the long-running magazine to include more than 50 classic issues of Playboy from the 1950s, including actual viewable centerfolds from the era. While the idea of collecting old girlie magazines may not appeal to everyone, Mafia II's combination of period-piece decor, crime-drama story, and intense shootouts is the kind of thing that any fan of carefully crafted stories and heavy-duty action should enjoy. The game is scheduled to ship later this year.