Several open-world action games sprang up in the wake of Rockstar's innovative Grand Theft Auto III, but the original Mafia stood out from the pack with its unique sense of place and dedication to cinematic conventions. For the sequel, developer 2K Czech is taking its Hollywood approach to the next level, with quick cuts, stylish camera angles, and iconic mood music to enrich the experience. To get a further sense of how the project is coming together, I grabbed a controller and jumped into Mafia II's first hands-on demo.
For those of you unfamiliar, Mafia II chronicles the life of Vito Scaletta, a World War II vet who returns from the war to find his mother and sister struggling to make ends meet. While Vito was diving in fox holes across Europe, his deadbeat dad racked up a sizable debt to a bookie and unexpectedly kicked the bucket before he had the chance to balance his checkbook. Not the sort to excuse a death in the family, the cutthroat loan shark demands that the family ponies up the cash. To bail out the fam, Vito and his buddy Joe Barbaro turn to petty crime. Their gift for grifting does not go unnoticed, and suddenly the duo is climbing the ranks of an Empire Bay crime family.
The first hands-on demo of Mafia II drops us into a mission called “Wild Ones,” which takes place well into Vito's criminal career. The session begins with Vito standing in his skivvies, reading a note left by Joe on the kitchen table. Joe's apartment is your typical rundown urban tenement, with the only distinguishing feature being the collection titillating pin-up posters on the wall and a red bra on the unmade bed. Joe is nothing if not sure of his sexuality. The note explains they have another job that afternoon, and instructs Vito to meet Joe at a nearby parking lot. Before heading out the door, I open the wardrobe and select Vito's attire for the day – a leather jacket. Leaving the building, I make may way around the corner to the garage.
From the fedora-donning wise guys loitering on the streets to the advertisements for booze, smokes, and baseball plastered on every wall, Mafia II delivers an unmistakable sense of place and time. Though Empire Bay is a fictitious amalgam of east coast cities, the buildings, gas stations, signage, and citizens are pulled straight out of 1950s Americana. Opening the garage further confirms the Fonzie-friendly setting, as each of the three rides I have to chose from would be right at home on Happy Days. I hop in a sleek convertible and hit the road with early-era rock and roll blasting from the speakers.
Like other open world games, the route to my destination is outlined on a GPS map in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. The car feels a lot stiffer than your typical Grand Theft Auto vehicle, so when navigating tight turns or passing between two cars, I find it best to drive much slower than I normally would. As I pull up, a quick jump cut brings me straight into a cutscene. Joe is stationed next to a cargo truck full of cigarettes in a parking lot. He says Eddie (the duo's higher up) came across the cartons and wants them moved. After we make a few sales to mopes on the street for two bucks a carton, a caravan of hot rods pulls up next to the truck. A greaser dressed in the standard jeans-and-leather-jacket attire confidently steps up to Joe and tells him that this is their turf. If we want to operate in the area, we'll need to cough up some cash and cigarettes. Not one to be strong-armed out of his goods, Joe politely tells him to scram, but the slick-haired goon doesn't step down. He signals his henchmen circling the truck in a car, and out flies a Molotov cocktail that sets our cartons of smokes aflame. Joe is not pleased; without saying another word, he draws his gun and shoots the unsuspecting tough guy in the forehead, hardly blinking an eye. We jump in a car to chase the remaining greasers, but they're long gone by the time we hit the road.
With the cigarettes burned to cinders and the cargo truck in shambles, we have to report the bad news to Eddie. Finding the nearest pay phone, we ring him up and prepare for the worst. After an expletive-laced rant chronicling the myriad ways we failed him, Eddie instructs us to meet up with his shakedown artists at a greaser hangout to set things straight. To do good by the boss man, we have to come up with the $2,000 reimbursement, and be discreet in getting revenge.
When Joe and Vito arrive, I find out the shakedown guys have a different plan of attack. Fellow mobster Steve – who looks to be the guy in charge of this operation – hands everyone a Tommy gun. So much for being discreet. On Steve's signal, each of us lets loose on the empty diner with our machine guns, tearing holes through the walls, shattering windows, and knocking down signs with the hail of bullets. A few well-placed Molotovs top off our fireworks display with an explosive bang. Now that the joint is sufficiently trashed, we hop in cars and head to the old Empire Bay foundry where the greasers often congregate.
Steve politely knocks on the door, and an unsuspecting greaser opens up. Not wasting any time in letting his displeasure with the small-time gang be known, Steve immediately takes the end of the bat to the face of our greeter, then caves in the skulls of other nearby greasers with a few Babe Ruth-like swings. When the rest of the greaser crew responds by pulling out guns and shooting, we return the favor.
Mafia II's shooting mechanics will be familiar to anyone versed in standard third-person shooters, albeit with a few subtle differences. A tap of the d-pad draws a weapon, each direction cycling through different classes of armaments, making it easy to quickly switch between your handguns, machine guns, fists, or projectiles. The left trigger handles the aiming, right trigger handles the shooting, and tapping the A button brings Vito in and out of cover. Taking refuge behind crates is key, because it only takes a few bullets to bury our aspiring mobster. If Vito takes just one bullet, the screen immediately grays out, indicating it's time to either seek cover or make funeral plans. Thankfully, the regenerative health system only takes a few seconds to restore Vito to full strength.
With no discernible auto-aim and a jumpy reticle that expands upon each shot, taking down enemies in Mafia II requires a steady hand. Take too many shots with your pistol in a row, and your accuracy suffers greatly; the better course of action is to fire once and let the reticle settle before targeting another enemy. As I carefully down one greaser after another, I notice Joe and the rest of the mob are taking shots, moving forward into new cover positions, and providing suppressing fire when needed. When we turn the bend in the complex, I find a rifle resting on a crate – looks like it's time to reacquaint Vito with the M1 Garand from his days in the service. The difference between shooting enemies with the pistol and the rifle is noticeable; a well-placed shot from the rifle sends the fleeing greasers spinning to the ground with the force you'd expect from a military-grade weapon.
Once the last greaser meets his maker, I survey the aftermath, taking notice of a rogue copy of Playboy laying on the ground. Picking up the copy unlocks a racy centerfold shot of a well-endowed lady pulled straight from the issue. This poster would look right at home on the walls of Joe's ratty apartment.
The gang won't be bothering our operations anymore, but Vito and Joe still have the problem of reimbursing Eddie for the lost merchandise. Vito notices two mint condition hot rods in the parking lot, and suggests to Joe that fencing these impressive cars could go a long way toward repaying the boss...but our demo ended before I could see the situation resolved.
My short and sweet first taste of Mafia II has me itching to jump back into Empire Bay. Though the controls could use some tightening, the producers say the game is nearly content complete, and the next few months will be dedicated to fine-tuning the experience. One thing that doesn't need much refinement is the game's cinematic approach – it seamlessly moves from cutscenes to gameplay and vice versa, with only negligible loading screens that can probably be squashed altogether by installing the game on your hard drive. Come back to the site in the coming months to learn more about 2K's ambitious send-up to Hollywood gangster flicks.