The original Mafia was a victim of technological difference. Although widely praised for its story, impressions of gameplay varied wildly depending on the platform. On PC, Mafia was nothing short of a spectacle, but it had the misfortune of coming out as naysayers decried the death of PC-gaming. On consoles, the pared-down visuals and glitches emitted the aura of another half-hearted GTA wannabe. I doubt Mafia II will have that problem.
2K Games was gracious enough to let me play four chapters from various points throughout the game, and I want more. The protagonist of Mafia II, Vito Scalletta, isn’t exactly a poster-child for organized crime – at least, not in the beginning. It’s 1945 when Vito returns from the battlefield of WWII to find a father-less home and a family deep in debt to the wrong people. Vito needs a lot of money, he needs it fast, and only one sort of business in town pays that kind of dough.
One of my main gripes against games centered on criminals is that I rarely feel in-tune with my character. Playing the bad guy is against my nature, and I’ve been known to reload saves after accidentally making unsavory decisions in games with morality/karma. Mafia II doesn’t have a ‘good’ option, but 2K Czech does such a wonderful job of illuminating characters through well-scripted cutscenes that I felt sorry for Vito, not repulsed. The story seems to be more about a man slipping into darkness, rather than gloriously rising to the top; more Donnie Brasco and less Scarface.
The city of Empire Bay is wholly believable, with clear separation of slums, suburbs, and downtown, but the details make it come alive. Radios play period-specific tunes that change as the in-game years go by, every texture is impeccably detailed, and you can even read the nameplates on doorways. Minute occurrences, like a cat that hisses at you and leaps to a windowsill or a couple squabbling over the engine of a stalled car are pointless in terms of gameplay, but each instance brings you deeper into the fiction.
My first job was a simple bit of lockpicking and car theft. Apparently, I had a knack for the craft, and I was commissioned to steal one particular car. Of course, it had to be owned by one of the local street gangs. Their retaliation quickly came to blows. Melee combat uses light attacks, heavy attacks, and dodges, and relies on timing over button-mashing. The camera swings down for a close-up view, much like a one-on-one fighting game, and pulls away just as seamlessly if you need to run for the hills.
Fisticuffs are fun, but real gangsters need guns. I got my hands on a 1911 pistol, magnum, tommygun, shotgun, and one gigantic machinegun, and all of them thoroughly deliver with screen-shacking force. Solid gunplay requires equally solid controls, which is why it confuses me that so many action-adventure games feel the need to invent unique control schemes. Any fan of third-person shooters will feel right at home with Mafia II. It even utilizes a basic cover system that can’t hold a candle to Gears of War 2, but is sufficient for keeping the armorless Vito alive.
Driving is bound to be a sore spot for some people, and a pleasure for others. 2K Czech obviously wants you to take pride in your cars, and offers garages, paint jobs, rims, and full, but repairable, damage. On the flipside, the need to refuel, cops that give chase for speeding, and realistic handling circa-1940s-1950s (i.e. slow and clunky), means that driving is likely to be a largely utilitarian activity. Keep in mind that Empire Bay is a healthy-sized city. I let the atmosphere of the city and the radio wash over me for the first two hours. By the end of my demo, I pitched my car down steps and off highways to add a little excitement to the commute.
If my experience is any indication, Mafia II should not be mistaken for another GTA-clone. It is a linear game in open-world clothing, but that is certainly not a complaint. The four hours I spent with Mafia II were absolutely riveting. If the rest of the chapters live up to the superb storytelling and fierce gunfights, 2K is going to have an epic tale of criminal proportions on its hands.