WITH MAFIA II, 2K Czech’s not trying to outdo the scale of other sandbox games. Rather, the developer’s focus is to deliver a true cinematic experience (think Heavy Rain, Alan Wake or Mass Effect) within an open-world environment.
The game begins in the fictional city of Empire Bay circa 1945, with the player assuming the role of Vito Scaletta, a WWII veteran given a leave of absence after sustaining a bullet in combat. Mafia II tells the story of his assimilation into an Italian crime family and his journey towards becoming a ’made man’.
Empire Bay is a relatively modest 10 square miles (when compared to, say, Just Cause 2’s 400 square miles). But as senior producer Denby Grace told Game Console last issue, Mafia II is intended as a story-driven, cinematic experience, and “what’s important is that the player feels that the environment is big enough to contain the story and the immersion of the experience”.
That’s not to say that Empire Bay is small, nor that you’ll be funneled through MafIa II in a completely linear fashion; the game world is certainly large enough and filled with enough detail and activities to keep open-world aficionados more than happy. On that note, Mafia II’s environment feels more believable than most sandboxes, with many non-player characters (NPCs) engaged in context-relevant activities. The various characters wandering the streets feel less like randomly-generated NPCs and more like they have actual purpose. Stroll down any given street and you might see someone fixing a broken store window, or perhaps a stranger assisting a lady with a broken-down car. Drivers will actually pull over, park up and get out of their cars as if they have somewhere to be. Inside apartment buildings you’ll see the landlady scrubbing the floors, or even the apartment’s cat scratching about. Everything is period-authentic, from the cars to the music to the collectable Playboy magazines complete with vintage centrefolds. Yep, you read that right – there’s a little more R-rated incentive to pick up the collectables in Mafia II (which will release with an R18 rating) than, say, glowing orbs or feathers.
Like the Grand Theft Auto series, certain situations may require the ’long-term loan’ of a stranger’s car, which sets up a lock-picking mini game. You’ve really got to pick your moment, though, and if a police offi cer busts you in the process, he’ll give chase. If you’re caught, you can choose to either resist arrest or bribe him with $100 (a lot of money back then!) to turn a blind eye. On that note, the police are a little less forgiving than in other sandbox games. If you’re caught speeding in a vehicle by a nearby policeman, he’ll give chase (although you can switch on speed limiters in all vehicles to keep you within the limit). Curiously, though, cops don’t seem to care if you run red lights. Go figure…
But no matter how impressive Mafia II’s environment and attention to detail may be, it’s secondary and supplementary to its story. I got to check out a preview build of Mafia II containing four chapters from the full game. The four chapters weren’t sequential (being chapters 2, 5, 9 and 10), and subsequently the plot jumped around a lot. In a nutshell, Scaletta returns from the war to find that his late father has dropped his dear old mother and sister in some serious debt. Without giving too much away, the story charts Scaletta’s involvement with the mob as it goes deeper and deeper.
The production values of the (in-game engine) cutscenes for Mafia II really are exceptional, and I’d put them up there with the many of the classic Mafia movies. They’re cinematic in a manner not too dissimilar from, say, Mass Effect, with plenty of close-ups to capture the excellent facial animations. I’ve got to give props for the skin textures, where realistic blemishes, freckles and the like can be seen on the faces and bodies of the individual characters.
Of course, Mafia-style dirty work often involves gunplay, and there’s plenty of that action in Mafia II. Much like Grand Theft Auto IV, it employs a Gears of War-style cover and aiming mechanic.
A neat addition is that pressing a button will allow you to manoeuvre around cover, allowing you to evade flanking enemies without leaving yourself vulnerable. Aside from this, however, the combat is pretty close to what you’d expect from Grand Theft Auto IV, albeit much less overthe top based on what I’ve seen.
In four chapters, I only got a small taste of what the missions hold in store, but they seem to be varied and interesting enough. One required Scaletta and his good friend Joe Barbaro to sneak into a hotel disguised as cleaners in order to plant a bomb in a conference room about to be filled with rival mobsters. Another had Scaletta sneak into a heavily fortified slaughterhouse through a sewer in order to rescue some accomplices destined for a date with a meat grinder. Each featured intense combat and interesting plot developments.
Based on what I’ve seen so far, Mafia II may not present the most exhaustive sandbox environment, but it plays to its story and atmosphere-driven strengths hard. It’s certainly looking to be one of the more mature titles out there, and is bound to be essential gaming for Mafioso fans. The full game will have hit shelves by the time you read this, so keep an eye out for our full and considered review next month if you’re still on the fence.