The point of Mafia II, says producer Alex Cox, is to make you feel like the lead in a mobster movie--to be the video game equivalent of The Godfather or Goodfellas. That makes classy cinematic presentation and musical score; "mature, believable" narrative; and meticulous period details the order of the day: all the trappings of a classic gangster flick wrapped around an urban driving and shooting sandbox. For our preview, we played four chapters of the game; one of these included the consumer demo, which will be available two weeks ahead of the game and is described in our Mafia II hands-on from the Electronic Entertainment Expo.
Mafia II comes from studio 2K Czech, formerly Illusion Softworks, which brought out the first Mafia game back in 2002. The game is set in Empire Bay, which, at 10 square miles in area, feels like a miniature New York. 2K Czech splits the action between two distinct periods: an icy winter in the mid-1940s set against a World War II backdrop and a brighter, more colourful summer in the mid-1950s as Vito Scaletta, the star of the show, rises through the ranks as a Mafioso.
Vito is an Italian immigrant, a US soldier, and the only son of a deceased father who has left his mother and sister with debts they can't hope to repay. We get introduced to Vito in Home Sweet Home, the game's opening chapter, in which he arrives back in Empire Bay for a month's leave after recovering from being wounded in battle. It's February 1945, Empire Bay is snowbound, and Vito is met at the train station by Joe, a tubby hustler and Vito's old buddy, who later passes on his best pick-up lines in a way reminiscent of Roman, the cousin of Grand Theft Auto IV's Nico.
As Joe drove us away from the station, Empire Bay revealed itself as an attractive wintry cityscape. Attention to detail, especially period detail, abounds in Mafia II, right down to the clothing on passers-by and the wartime posters on the walls. The frozen streets produce a moody, austere atmosphere that fits nicely with the World War II backdrop. The convincing 1940's setting is completed by period-style, snow-topped cars (not real licensed models but inspired by iconic vehicles of the time) with contemporary news and authentic music on their radios. There are about 120 licensed songs, we're told, with "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and Vera Lynn numbers for the 1940's era and rock and roll for the 1950s. Vito arrived home in Little Italy to the sound of "Let It Snow."
The apartment where Vito's mother and sister live is lavishly detailed too, as are the interiors throughout the demo, with care given to even grubby stairwell textures and mundane domestic details--saucepans in the kitchen, for instance, and health-giving beers and sandwiches in the fridge. After a rest in Vito's childhood bedroom and a change of costume out of his GI uniform and into a leather jacket, it was back out onto the streets, where we found Vito's sister being threatened by a loan shark. Cue a hand-to-hand combat tutorial and Vito's motivation: He needs a lot of money to get his family out of trouble--and soon. The melee combat is simple but handsomely animated, allowing light and heavy hits and a couple of basic combos. Holding down the A button (in the Xbox 360 version) has Vito nimbly dodge whatever punches come his way, and when an opponent is near defeat, a button prompt lets you trigger a knockout final blow.
Lucky for Vito, Joe is well connected. He's made a call to get Vito out of returning to the battlefield, promising some forged discharge papers, and, better still, he is Vito's first step into a life of organised crime. We're told to drive him to locksmith and apparent counterfeiter Giuseppe to pick up Vito's papers and a set of lock picks, putting us behind the wheel of a car for the first time. The car we drove, a close imitation of a wartime Ford model, seemed to handle authentically for a 1940s vehicle on treacherously icy streets. It skidded around corners and slid to a halt when we put on the brakes. A 1950s convertible we extracted from Vito's garage later in the game was punchier and louder. And though the cars are authentic, the minimap comes with all the modern conveniences--that is to say, a GPS-like route finder and objective markers.
With a set of lock picks in hand and some training in the simple lock-picking minigame under our belt, we picked the lock of a car parked outside of Giuseppe's;. Approaching parked cars lets you either smash a window or, to avoid damaging the car, pick its lock and hot-wire it. Under instruction from Joe, we took the stolen car to a body shop to "legalise" it--that is, change the plates or get it resprayed. The license plate can be customised to say whatever you like, though the colours are restricted; you won't be painting your car neon pink. The shades on offer are all realistically contemporary, with that first stolen vehicle available in fennel (green) or buttermilk (off-white). The body shop also offers basic tuning to improve the engine performance and repairs.
We headed over a bridge to the Riverside part of town to a junkyard, where we were given a handgun and a brief shooting tutorial, taking out tyres and gas tanks on cars with an over-the-shoulder aim. Then, our first minor job from Joe was to steal a car from outside a nearby cafe. The job didn't go all too smoothly, with Vito getting caught in the act, which led into the cover tutorial: It's a simple one-button press to pop into cover, making Vito duck behind a car or press up against a wall and the same again to leave it. There's also a slight and welcome aim-assist as you pull the left trigger to line up a shot.
When we fast-forwarded into the 1950s for another chapter, Empire Bay was transformed: The city, now deep in summertime, was warmly coloured, in contrast to the chilly, white streets of earlier in the game. The music and news on car radios had changed, as had the cars themselves, with newer models added to the roads. This chapter involved meeting mob boss Falcone at the Maltese Falcon club. Falcone sent us on a tailing mission, which led us to a slaughterhouse out of which the rival Clemente gang was running operations. On our eventual arrival, we had to sneak in through a sewer. As we drove to the slaughterhouse, however, a run-in with a passing police car escalated into a free-roaming car chase through the streets of Empire Bay. Though Mafia II won't deny you a five-star run from the law, it was a relief to find that you can also choose to surrender once you're on foot with your weapon holstered. At the point of being collared, you can choose to resist or bribe the arresting officer.
Much later in the game, in chapter 10, Room Service, we found Vito living in the idyllic suburban Villa Scalleta. Falcone, calling for all-out war on the Clemente family, ordered Joe and Vito to eliminate Alberto Clemente, head of the rival mob. Their plan meant infiltrating the Empire Arms, a swanky high-rise hotel, to plant explosives in a Clemente meeting on an upper floor and then detonate them from a "safe spot" on a window-washing platform outside.
We snuck into the hotel with Joe, disguised in hotel-worker uniforms and false mustaches. After furtively planting the bomb in the mob boss's conference room, we fled to the roof, where we were engaged by Clemente soldiers. Cue a rooftop shoot-out, in which we took cover behind rooftop vents and pipes to make our way to the window-washing platform, picking off enemy mobsters as we went. Though Vito can regenerate health in a fight, he's not superhuman; a few bullet hits will turn the screen blurry and washed-out as he nears death. This was a feature we got familiar with when the bomb failed to kill Alberto Clemente, leaving us to chase him back down through the hotel to the parking garage. We were met with plenty of resistance along the way, with the period weaponry both lethal and convincingly accurate. Shotgun blasts were devastating in the confines of a hotel interior and tommy guns sprayed wildly. Coupled with impressively destructible environments (tables splintered, glass bricks shattered), these made for a fierce, hectic firefight with which to end our demo.
The care 2K Czech has taken to bring together all the elements of a top-class Mafia movie were constantly in evidence in our Mafia II demo, from authentic historic details to the measured, artfully done cutscenes. With these layered on top of solid gameplay, Mafia II promises good times for 1940s gangster wannabes when it is released on August 27.