Fans of the 2002 PC game Mafia agree that the game never got its due. It was an open-world mob drama with third-person action, driving, an outstanding soundtrack, and a memorable story (and a not-as-fondly-memorable frustrating car race that was later corrected with a patch). But 2K Czech and 2K Games are gearing up for Mafia II, a sequel to the unappreciated crime drama with a new look, enhanced engine, better driving, deadlier shootouts, and a brand-new story. We had a chance to see the game up close and personal, and we have much to report.
First of all, Mafia II is being developed from the ground up as a cross-platform sequel simultaneously on all three platforms (PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3). You may remember the not-that-great Xbox and PlayStation 2 ports of the original Mafia--that won't be the story with the sequel, which is being worked on by a sizable team of some 120 developers at 2K Czech. The developers have been upgrading the game's basic technology, the Illusion Engine, for some three years. The game will take place in an open world some 10 square miles in size (twice as big as the world in the first Mafia) and will stream the world's geometry in real time. Consequently, you should see no loading screens while playing, even when entering any of the game's more than 100 interactive indoor areas, such as diners, auto garages, and swanky high-rises, all of which will be packed with destructible environments.
Although the original game took place in 1920s America (better known as the Roaring Twenties), the sequel will take place within a 10-year time span between the 1940s and 1950s. This new time period will set the table for faster-paced action on all fronts, now that better guns will be available, and far better cars. The autos of the '20s were utility vehicles that struggled at speeds of 30 miles per hour or better, whereas the 1950s ushered in the era of high-performance muscle cars that were built for speed and racing. In addition, the game will have a more lenient, more realistic way of handling incursions with the law. Instead of chasing you to the ends of the earth on a minor traffic violation, the police in Mafia II will be "fat cops" who may tire of chasing you after a few blocks if all you've done is commit a traffic infraction, but they will definitely call for help if you've been gunning down civilians willy-nilly. You probably also won't want to be pulled over for a traffic ticket if you have some wise guy's body in your car's trunk. Then again, the story of Mafia II is one man's 10-year odyssey, from humble beginnings under the thumb of his hardworking but unsuccessful father to entering a criminal syndicate and eventually becoming a made man, so later on in the game, the police will be on the take and will actually help you on your way.
The demonstration version that we saw took place partway through the game during a mafia mission. Vito, the game's main character, has come up through the ranks with his childhood buddy Joe, a violent hothead who will play the mouthy Joe Pesci to the DeNiro-like straight man Vito. As a newly made man, Vito's mission is to drive downtown with Joe and the teenage driver Marty to a fabulously decadent mob party in the penthouse of a downtown high-rise, disguise themselves as a cleaning crew, infiltrate the party, plant a bomb in the boardroom to assassinate a rival gang boss, and get out alive. This entire briefing takes place in real time, narrated by Joe as you make your drive, after which you arrive in the building's parking lot and tell young Marty to stay put.
We watched as Vito and Marty hit the elevator to meet their inside man, change into their disguises, and then head up to the posh penthouse. The joint was a highly detailed, fully stocked piano bar with a handful of mobsters in expensive suits cracking wise as we walked through the party to head to the boardroom, which lay behind the bar's wall of frosted glass. After we were waved into the boardroom on the pretense of cleaning a stain off of the carpet, the game switched to a brief cinematic sequence during which Joe armed the bomb underneath the table and then waved us out the window to a window washer's platform, where the two were to make their escape.
Unfortunately, the bomb went off early, nearly killing the boys and giving the rival mob boss, who through blind luck happened to be taking a bathroom break, a chance to escape. At this point, the cinematic sequence ended, and Vito and Joe had to leap over the ruins of the luxurious mahogany conference table and chase down the mob boss through a crowd of angry, gun-toting gangsters and take him down. This was also about the point where Mafia II stopped being a standard, walk-around-and-bump-into-people open-world game and became a heavy-duty third-person shooter.
The idea behind Mafia II's gunplay is to make it much more of a shooter and much less of a tacked-on, auto-aiming minigame. The gunplay that we saw was fast-paced and deadly. Even though you'll be carrying weapons that are conventional to the '40s and '50s, such as various handguns, rifles, and Tommy guns, from what we saw, your fights won't be the kind of arcade-style, drawn-out firefights that you may have seen in other games--you know, where you take a few hits and then casually make a run for the nearest health pack. Yes, the game will have a full-on cover system that will let you attach yourself to nearby walls and other objects, and even blind-fire around cover. Yes, enemies will also smartly use cover themselves, taking shelter behind walls and even kicking over tables to hide behind. But a few well-placed shots will do you in completely, and a well-placed bullet in the head will also take out your enemies, who will be hard-nosed mobsters but still human.
The chase through the penthouse was short but thrilling, thanks to a command performance from Mafia II's most impressive supporting cast member: the environments. Bottles and shot glasses shattered loudly when bullets began flying, small furniture got chewed up by gunfire, and after a stray bullet grazed a pipeline, the building's sprinkler systems poured torrents of water into the hallways, obstructing our view in some places. We watched as Vito and Joe ground their way through armed gangsters that stood between the two men and the elevator. At some points, the two played a deadly game of cat and mouse as both men alternately dropped behind cover and sprayed off a few shots to entrenched enemies. At another point, Joe bum-rushed a thug who wasn't fast enough to react (or smart enough to stand away from the building's windows); the poor sap was brutally beaten, picked up by the lapels of his pinstripe suit, and hurled clean through the glass to plummet to his death below. Apparently, Mafia II will also have a new melee combat system, but the details on this are being kept under wraps for the time being.
Once Vito and Joe finally made it to the ground floor, they leapt into their getaway car to pursue the fleeing mob boss in a high-speed chase. Some of Mafia II's car chases will be two-man jobs that will require you, as Vito, to put the pedal to the metal while Joe pops his head and his gun out of the passenger window and opens fire. The gunplay will occur only if you can bring your car in close enough, so in this particular chase, Vito had to bring the car in nice and tight after the fleeing mob boss before Joe could open fire. As it turns out, the component parts of Mafia II's cars will be fully modeled (they won't be just a gigantic brick on wheels), so if you happen to land a lucky shot on a car's engine block, it'll go up in a spectacular explosion.
From all appearances, Mafia II looks like it should offer everything that the original game did but more of it, and all of it better. The huge, interactive world, improved driving, improved gunplay, and deeper plot should pull in anyone who enjoys virtually stealing cars, or filling bad guys full of lead, or well-developed stories along the lines of excellent gangster movies such as Goodfellas. The game is scheduled to launch this year simultaneously on the PC, the Xbox 360, and the PS3.