RPS Preview: Mafia II

By John Walker on April 19th, 2009 at 11:01 pm.

It looks rendered, but it ain't.

RPS is very pleased to have been one of the first websites in the world to see Mafia II running. We took a trip to 2K Czech, in their Czech Republic headquarters, and saw how the game is coming together. So far, so good. They were allowed to continue with our blessing. Below are detailed impressions of the game at this stage in development, along with five brand new screenshots (click on them for the full versions).

Mafia II is authentic. Authentic to its 1940/50s setting, and authentic to its origins. It’s been seven years since Mafia. That might normally be an enormous gap between sequels, if it weren’t for the affection with which the original is remembered. It was a bold game, developed alongside GTA III, but taking open world gaming in a very different direction. What’s perhaps most fascinating about what we learned when visiting 2K Czech’s headquarters is how defiantly Mafia II intends to pursue that direction, rather than reinventing the game as yet another GTA clone.

Heavily focused on the story, despite far more side quests and interactive locations in the brand new city, Empire Bay, the team proudly explain its linear nature. This is about telling one powerful story.

This isn’t to say that the city isn’t going to be dramatically more involved. Throughout twenty neighbourhoods, shops, mechanics and many other locations can be visited, with clothing bought, cars tweaked, and sights seen. Empire Bay, inspired in parts by New York, Chicago and San Francisco, is intended to be the most interesting aspects of the best American cities distilled into one enormous area.

Set a decade on from the end of Mafia, the Second World War is over, and America is going through the transition of the lean 40s into the flourishing 50s. This is a whole new story, with a new cast, in a new city. Apparently allusions to the original Mafia will be made, but only as slight treats for fans, rather than involved plot points. (You have to wonder if Empire Bay just might be the place witness protection relocated Tommy Angelo to – it’d be splendid if you could find his white picket fence-surrounded house.) So once again the city will evolve with the passing of time, but in a superbly involved way. Cars will change on the streets as the years go by, but so will interiors.

You play Vito Scalleta, who is frequently accompanied by his childhood best friend, Joe. Throughout the game you’ll visit Joe’s apartment, which changes as the years go by to the reflect the tastes (and tastelessness) of the era. It begins quite plain, sensible, orderly, and littered with women’s underwear. (We presume from his ladyfriends, rather than a special secret surprise about Joe himself.) By the boom of the 50s it’s a garish mess of neon kitsch, his kitchen looking like a diner. Littered with women’s underwear.

The glass in the background shows off the remarkably specific destruction possible.

Studio tours are often a slightly awkward obligation when visiting a developer. You’re there to see the game in action, interview people involved, and complain about the sandwiches. Traipsing through the corridors of a development studio is generally polite handshakes and concerns that you’re disturbing someone who’s in the middle of crunch, as they show you how they designed the teapots. I was humbled by my tour of 2K Czech, when the sheer scale of Mafia II became clear. Eight people work just on the AI. Eight.

Let’s talk about the AI for a moment. You’ll know if you’ve played open world games that the pedestrians tend to be either set decoration or targets for the psychopathic. In Mafia II the pedestrians have a choice of how to think. In fact, 2KC refer to them, and indeed rival gangsters, police and any other NPCs, as having “brains”. There’s the individual brain, and the team brain, and their actions are decided by a combination of the two. So, say there’s a dead body lying in a park. Any number of pedestrians may be around, but their team brain will choose which runs up to investigate. The others will be assigned different behaviours, maybe to panic, stand and watch. But if a police officer is around, this changes, the team brain deferring to authority with the policeman approaching. He may respond by trying to investigate the crime.

Or maybe you’re trying to fight four or five gangsters in the park. Their team brain will allow them to work together, choosing positions, cover and targets, even flanking you. But if one finds himself in individual danger, his own brain will overrule the team, and he’ll act to preserve himself. If his hit points are low, he’ll make a run for it. It also plays a part in melee combat, so if you’re fighting three people at once, only one will attack while the other two cheer him on.

The team brain also defines police responses to crimes they witness. They won’t only react to your felonies, but those of anyone else on the streets. A gangster may decide to jack a car, and if spotted a pursuit could begin in which you have no involvement.

Mafia’s police force was famously picky. Catching you driving at 41mph, they’d eventually send the entire city’s units after you in a ludicrous misdirection of resources. 2K Czech promise this is much improved, although insist that the police will still react to speeding. Just perhaps not quite as forcefully, and relative to the nature of the crime.

There’s another smart way of getting out of police trouble. Bribery. The option will be available when being given a ticket, and later in the game when you’re rich and influential enough, you could pull over to a phone booth and give the police headquarters a ring, tell them to call off the chase.

This is your buddy, Joe.

With so much focus on story, there’s a reasonable question to ask about how a Czech-based development team can create such an American-centric tale. It turns out by doing an extraordinary amount of work. The original script, written by respected Czech author, Daniel Vavra, was 600 pages long. Three or four times longer than your average film. This was first translated into English by what we’re told was an extremely competent translator. And then it was polished once again by 2K’s American voice director, Jack Scalici, who just happens to be an Italian American New Yorker. This same process was repeated for any changes made, ensuring that the script was authentically accented, authentic mafia dialogue from New York.

Frustratingly little is being said about what the story’s about at this point. In fact, almost nothing is known, beyond it being about Vito’s journey from humble working man to flush mafia success. With such an emphasis put on this aspect by the developers, it’s a shame that we weren’t given some teasers, but presumably that’s still to come.

There is, however, much to say about the depth of detail going into everything else. The music comes from their own composer (who baulked another trend of the studio tour by making the visit to the music department a highlight, as he performed some beautiful in-game music for us live on his keyboard), and will be recorded by the no less than the Prague Philharmonic. There’s also a massive collection of licensed music from the era for in-car radio, which will apparently alter its playlist to suit the time of day.

The city changes in more ways than one. Not only will the architecture update as time moves forward, but you can exact your own change upon it in real-time. Objects are destructible in a splendid way. During a shoot-out in a bar, we watched with amazement as wood splintered exactly where it was hit – something all objects will apparently reflect. Flammable materials will catch light when you throw a Molotov cocktail at them, and the heat fire generates will even cause nearby tyres to burst. If you loved smashing phone booths in the first Mafia, then the entire city should become a lunatic’s playground.

In an effort to eradicate the open world’s silliest element, there’s to be a ton of pedestrian designs. There are (so far) 250 non-essential NPC character faces, each designed to look distinct and realistic. 2002’s Mafia set the bar for character faces, and from the brief glimpses we had, Mafia II looks certain to step up the game once again.

2K Czech have their own motion capture studio, which is but a small part of the effort that’s going into the cutscenes. The motion capture actors were even given real weapons (something a developer wryly mentioned wouldn’t have been possible in other European countries) to ensure their movement was affected by the weight of each gun correctly.

Perhaps my favourite of this extraordinary details dedicated just to cutscenes is the way the dialogue was recorded. Using established actors in LA, they had them – and this is something we’ve been begging developers to do for years – record their conversations together. So rather than the traditional stilted awkwardness of in-game chatting, the conversations will flow naturally, people’s intonation matching their companions’. Even better, they made sure every actor came back for a second session to get pitch perfect lines.

Like the AI, there’s an entire section of the studio dedicated to those solely working on the cutscenes. Fans of the original Mafia will remember how these were a league ahead of their peers back then, and it seems likely other games are going to be embarrassed into improving by the results here.

The car details are clearly remarkable, and the draw distances impressive.

We watched a truncated version of a mission, apparently running to about an hour in the game, but lasting twenty minutes in this demo, in which Vito and Joe break into a skyscraping office complex. They first steal janitor uniforms to pass security, make their way to the rooftop after being let through vital doors to clean up a mess, and kill everyone working up there. Then using the window cleaning platform, lower themselves to the level on which their target works. Clearing the rooftop took a splendid gunfight, but we were told later that a diplomatic option would have been possible too. Using branching dialogue, you can talk your way around situations, either inflaming things to start a fight, or smooth-talking your way to a peaceful route. While you’ll obviously have plenty of obligatory shoot-outs, other parts will let you negotiate according to your chosen approach. Once on the right floor they plant a bomb and make their slow, winding escape. Except the bomb goes off too early, and the target isn’t killed. This leads to an extremely ferocious shoot-out, during which Joe gloriously throws one man through a window, while Tommy guns exchange roaring fire. Take a look at the video at the bottom of the page for some clips of this, showing off the sense of panic, and some of the destructible scenery.

Throughout all this there were a number of perfectly performed cutscenes, setting the mood and showing off the stellar acting. There’s a concern, however: they were pretty frequent, and if this were the case throughout it could take control away from the player too often. It’ll be interesting to see how these are balanced.

The Illusion Engine has taken 2K Czech three years to build (the name a nostalgic nod to the developers’ previous title, Illusion Softworks, before they were affiliated into the 2K ‘family’). It’s part of the reason why it’s been so long since the original game – the technology didn’t exist to create their ambitions, so they set about making sure it did. Along with the destructible materials mentioned above, there are many other specific factors that make it sound pretty special.

There’s the weather effects, which will do more than look pretty. If it’s raining, or snowing as it is at the start of the game, then driving is affected. The cars will obviously be a whole lot more easy to control than Mafia I’s ‘30s wobbly boxes, but handling will change when the road is slick. There’s about fifty cars in the game, based on real world vehicles but not licensed. There’s a good reason for this – they can break. And licensors don’t tend to like it when you show how their cars fall to bits. Each bit of the car can be damaged, dented or broken off.

Perhaps the most important element of the Illusion Engine is the complete absence of loading. Now, we’ve had this promise before from others, but 2KC are adamant it’s true this time. The entire city will manage all its buffering in the background, offering a seamless drive, but even missions will load without your knowing. This is all part of their effort to keep you in the cinematic experience as much as possible. While there will be a HUD, and indeed a proper minimap this time, such things are optional.

There some concessions to the modern gamer. Health will be regenerating, which may cause a few to raise eyebrows at the emphasis on realism elsewhere (talking of which, they promise that hitting an enemy in the head will kill him in one shot, which will be worth a thousand percent on its own if true). And unlike Mafia I, there are difficulty levels to make things more accessible. The Illusion Engine was built from the ground up to work across all three platforms, 360, PS3 and PC, each able to live up to its full potential rather than limited by the restrictions of the weakest, but obviously there’s a desire to improve upon the rather poor efforts made when Mafia was ported to Xbox and PS2. Concerns about the game being simplified for a console audience don’t seem appropriate from what we’ve seen (and such concerns are as patronising to the console audience as ever).

There are absolutely no plans for any form of multiplayer. This is a development team who are obsessively focused on the single player, and we were told that the time required to get this to the standards they’re aiming for, anything multiplayer would end up being half-arsed.

There's no getting around it, this is the most boring screnshot of all time. Look, they only gave us five.

The degree of authenticity, both to the times in which the game is set, and to the legacy of one of the most engaging stories in gaming, looks like it could set Mafia II up for great things. Certainly the sheer volume of detail should be fascinating, and if the story lives up to their claims, it could be special. It’s still a long way off, not likely to appear before the end of the summer, and possibly deeper into Autumn. It will live and die on its story, no matter how impressive the details may be, and this far it’s the one thing we know nothing about. That we do know about, however, looks mighty impressive.

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70 Comments »

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  1. EvoG says:

    Did they happen to mention if the game is free-roam, open-world (GTA) or open insomuch as you’re on a mission and able to drive around but towards the objective only (Mafia 1).

  2. lumpi says:

    2K??????????

    Is there any studio in the world that hasn’t been bought by a publisher now? Sigh.

    2K… sounds so… soulless.

  3. Mo says:

    Great preview! I loved the first Mafia, and judging by the preview & video, it looks like Mafia 2 will replicate that success. Also glad to hear they’re going Single Player only … it’s a brave move, but one that will certainly result in a better game.

  4. Robin says:

    First World War?

  5. teo says:

    What’s up with this preview being so praising? Just because you’re the first?

  6. Mo says:

    … or maybe John thinks it looks like a good game? Just saying.

  7. HidesHisEyes says:

    Really looking forward to it. :)

  8. Lars BR says:

    Finding Tommy Angelo’s house? Bah, I expect to be the one who delivers Mr. Salieri’s regards!

  9. John Walker says:

    teo – Gamespot were the first. We’re the first to post the preview in Europe, by one hour. Obviously this has no bearing on the preview. I reported the potential the game has, from what has been shown so far.

  10. Alec Meer says:

    That said, they did pay John in heroin, platinum hats and soul-love to be unnaturally positive about it. That’s just how we roll on RPS.

  11. John Walker says:

    Yummy heroin!

    Cor, we have loads more details about it than other sites. We’re great!

  12. wtj says:

    The Infinity Engine was built from the ground up to work across all three platforms, 360, PS3 and PC”

    Whoa, secret project, Baldur’s Gate III from 2k Czech, revealed!

    Anyway, I so do want this. Need to upgrade.

  13. Schadenfreude says:

    @ Lars BR

    I don’t think I’d be able to bring myself to do it however. :(

  14. John Walker says:

    Heh, thanks wtj – fixed.

  15. kobzzzz says:

    Cool, didn’t know they were Czech. Wonder how they’ll manage to shoehorn some evil russkies into the game, with that setting >:) looking forward anyway.

    What’s that onslaught of AAA original content? RPS RSS feed suddenly looks so… Important.

  16. teo says:

    I wish there could be a different format for these really long articles. Something with the font, line spacing or whatever actually makes RPS really easy on the eyes when reading stuff which is great, but when it’s this long I think you need something extra.

  17. toni says:

    hurray. that all sounds splendid. If have high hopes for this game. if they spent as much time on the acting and story as on this engine, I will be a happy mafiosi :)
    i played Mafia1 about 4 times, I hope M2 will beat that !!!!
    time to save money for that new pc

  18. DrGonzo says:

    It did seem to be really rather a positive preview… Not a complaint at Mr Walker but just at previews in general. I don’t mean about hyping gameplay and story either, that is obviously just his enthusiasm toward the game.

    But, of course they will say that it’s going to take advantage of each platform to it’s fullest. Doesn’t mean it will and I don’t really think it’s worth putting in the preview. They aren’t going to say it will be completely unoptimised and need a theoretical machine from the future are they?

    Anyway, other than that great preview!

  19. John Walker says:

    DrGonzo (and I bet it’s not a medical doctorate, hmmm?) – It’s that they’re not making it for 360 and then porting it to PC. It’s being developed from the ground up on all three simultaneously, which is pretty damned significant when you look at the utter mess of Saints Row 2 and GTA IV on their eventual PC arrival.

    Yes, previews are positive in tone, so long as the game isn’t obviously a stinker. Without playing it I couldn’t possibly say what’s wrong with it. However, with reservations about the frequency of cutscenes, what I saw gave me great cause for optimism. Had it not, I’d have been far more subdued.

  20. EBass says:

    Is it me or is the “You lucky bastard” a homage to the first game? I seem to remember a certain lucky bastard in that as well.

  21. psyk says:

    “It also plays a part in melee combat, so if you’re fighting three people at once, only one will attack while the other two cheer him on.”

    Will they also attack not just stand there and cheer.

  22. MeestaNob! says:

    That video made the game look fun, which is all I want from my single player experience.

    WANT!

  23. TheLordHimself says:

    @EBass

    Yeah I thought that too.

  24. Mattress says:

    On previews, I too must decry the tendency in games journalism to be overly optimistic at the best of times and borderline fictitious at other times… I understand that magazines need stuff to sell and need co-operation from developers to sell it (and with the deluge of game reporting both online and in print, developers/game publishers can sometimes afford to be picky about which publications they choose to go with). But there’s a difference between journalism, between reporting and between being mouthpiece for some publisher’s marketing team.
    I can’t level any complaints at Rockpapershotgun and what you guys do on this website, as for most of ye it’s not a primary outlet of professional writing and secondly… it’s free (for which we as readers shall forever be grateful).
    But looking at the majority of games journalism, from the section in FHM (I presume they have one yeah?) to respected publications like Edge – most of it is hyped bollocks.
    Edge is considered one of the best gaming magazines in the West, but to look at it over the last few years to see it suffers chronically from hype syndrome.
    The mid-section of each issue are feature articles, say there may be four or five of them in each issue. Of that five, one may be an actually feature on gaming in general (e.g. a couple of months ago they had “An audience with Phil Harrisson” which was a very polite interview). The rest of the mid-section features are six-eight page articles about an upcoming game. Sometimes they can be great (see the Sam Houser interview pre-GTAIV release), but that’s rare. Mostly their pap, hyperbole written about how this game will be innovative, how it will transform the genre, how it’ll connect people online in a way we could’ve never imagined or wanted before. Nine out of ten times, the game in question will be forgotten two weeks after it’s released. The upsetting part is this is dressed a real journalism and is completely separate to the fifteen/twenty pages they officially designate as the preview section (which somehow manages to be more fair and balanced than their lead articles).
    The Mafia2 piece above is a common example of that type of uninteresting games journalism. Which is a shame, as I’ve often liked John’s writing and he should be able to feed himself and still write proper pieces aren’t so… safe.

    You can understand why magazine editors and publishers allow themselves to be coerced by the games industry at large – their dependent on them. But I do believe a more inquisitive and critical gaming press would (whilst initially incurring a backlash by publishers and developers) be healthy for the games industry as a whole. Standards would be raised, PR and marketing tricks would be less effective, consumers would no longer reward substandard games and creativity within the medium would be naturally flourish… maybe.

    But still just looking at Edge’s covers over the last few years, they include such games as: Mirrors Edge, Mad World, Lego Indiana Jones, Fracture, Quake 4…. all of which turned out to be substandard, some of which were duds. Maybe magazine editors can continue to compromise their journalistic integrity to the games industry, but as subscription numbers fall… well the writings on the wall.

    The internet for all it’s terrible trappings, offers real fecking opinion. Whilst these opinions maybe awash in a sea of opinions… at least it’s undiluted.

  25. Spanish Technophobe says:

    You know what goes well with that video when you mute it? Old Dominican bachata music. No lie. I can’t explain it.

    Anyway, never played the first game, but this looks promising. Can’t wait til I have a system that can run it.

  26. Owyn says:

    I was hoping, as i loved it in the first game, that they kept with the realistic aiming and ‘feedback’ in the sequel and judging from the posted video, it looks like they have.

    I’m glad. The kickback from the more powerful weapons added a whole new degree of tactics in Mafia, especially the Tommy Gun, where you had to fire in minuscule bursts or end up shooting at the Sun.

  27. Owyn says:

    Oh, uh, good preview by the way.

  28. A-Scale says:

    This in depth preview about the expensive, smart, painstaking measures that they have taken to do this all right will do more to fight piracy and sell copies than any lawsuit ever could.

  29. Will says:

    Hopelessly off-topic, but the Czech Republic is really really nice, I went there a little while back (Aside from fellow Englishmen drunkenly ruining Pargue, I think it was something to do with foot-to-ball).

  30. MeestaNob! says:

    I don’t have a problem with exciteable hyped up previews, because at that stage a game is nothing but potential until the gold master disc is created.

    I do however expect reviews to be merciless in proportion to this pre-hype if a game fails to deliver.

    That said, I don’t expect anything but Optimus Thumb looking skywards when this is released, it looks outstanding.

  31. (fish) says:

    I’d have an issue with the preview painting such an impossibly awesome picture…if the first game hadn’t been so incredibly good. Have been looking forward to this for quite some time now.

  32. mister slim says:

    The game looks good, but “2K Czech” hurts almost as much as “2K Boston”.

  33. Jim Rossignol says:

    Indeed. It’s hard to comprehend why large, acquisitive companies feel the need to rename studios that have a substantial history and reputation.

  34. DigitalSignalX says:

    Godfather II was a shallow storied disappointment, Saints Row 2 had great game play but utterly horrid controls, and the glitches/bugs in GTA4 were unforgivable.. lets hope Mafia II saves the sandbox day. Looking good so far.

  35. Peter says:

    So RPS, do you think that the pc version of the game will be a `real`pc game because the original is SOOO GOOD on the pc I want it to be real pc game so bad.

    thanks in advance

  36. John Walker says:

    Peter – chatting with the tech team at 2KC, they made it clear that they were confident about the PC version.

  37. Ian says:

    I really ought to go back and try the first again.

    I bought it 4 cheepz but the very first driving level pissed me off as I was unable to get the car to go faster than, say, a jelly being thrown by a small child. I appreciate this was probably my own inability to get to grips with the driving controls than a fault with the game.

  38. Lukasz says:

    @Ian. Same. A friend lend me the game, praising it but i simply couldn’t stand the very first mission.

    a year ago i replayed it and managed to beat it. from there it was rollcoaster of awesomeness. although incredibly hard and annoying at times.

    Can’t wait for mafia 2.

  39. Rob says:

    @Mattress

    But still just looking at Edge’s covers over the last few years, they include such games as: Mirrors Edge, Mad World, Lego Indiana Jones, Fracture, Quake 4…. all of which turned out to be substandard, some of which were duds. Maybe magazine editors can continue to compromise their journalistic integrity to the games industry, but as subscription numbers fall… well the writings on the wall.

    So magazine editors should start looking into the future to ensure they only put games that live up to their promise on the cover?

    In all seriousness, exactly how do you expect games journalists to be more “inquisitive and critical” about products they’ve only seen, not played? Either we get previews that will positive about the products, because the journalists will naturally have been shown the best parts, or we get no previews at all, only reviews. Or is that what you’re after?

  40. Paul Moloney says:

    I bought Mafia agggges ago, installed it, but never progressed beyond the tutorial. So, just reinstalled it last night and skipped straight to the first mission, where I’m supposed to outrun another car that can go twice as fast. Help?

    P.

  41. John Walker says:

    People, can we take discussion of the nature of previews, etc, into the forum?

    Stick to discussing Mafia II here, cheers.

  42. Stuk says:

    It sounds very ambitious. I really hope they can pull this off :)

  43. PC Monster says:

    Hurrah for devs sticking to single-player AI-brain goodness, and not relying on other people’s moronic friends to supply the smarts!

    In the PC Monster Top Ten of Hated Genres, Mafioso games (and films) come near the top (though below Vampires and WWII); I haven’t played the first game and even after reading Mr Walker’s fine retrospective I’m still blase about it. But in these turbulent, doom-mongering times for PC Gaming I feel it’s practically a duty to suport any dev who cares at least this much about the platform, lest they fall into fiscal despair and go console-only. This sounds interesting enough to have a gander at when it’s released.

  44. TheLordHimself says:

    But the forum is so far away!

  45. l1ddl3monkey says:

    As far back as I could remember, I’d always wanted to be a gangster…

  46. loadout says:

    nice preview and a good read.

    @ John Walker

    re the frequency of cutscenes, if you played the original? are there really a LOT more? I know it was only a short and cut down preview of a mission but there were quite a lot in Mafia 1, often quite short but the whole thing seemed seamless and just worked, is the second time I’ve read those concerns about Mafia 2.

  47. Mika says:

    Is there a quicksave option?

  48. Plopsworth says:

    +1 Mafia 1 love. +1 Mafia 2 week one (physical copy, hey fold out map, eh?) sale.

    From what I saw of the video in the morning (without sound, so as to not wake her up), it actually reminded me a bit of the very nice Retomoto tower mission in (the underrated) Kane & Lynch: Dressing up as window-cleaners, entry through a pyrotechnified floor. Also noted some interesting stuff like the protagonist’s Colt 1911 seeming to have an extended magazine (seemed to extend far beyond the grip). Is that “off the shelf” or does that hint at upgradeable/custom weapons?

    Hope they bring back penetration-modelling (and in the game? har-dee-har) and losing the unspent rounds (except for that one chambered one) with reloads. A bit distressingly, the player in the video seemed to be reloading every few shots.

    Paul Moloney:
    The very first bit where you get boarded and told to step on it? No simple answer as it is one of the hardest introductions to a game ever. Later you can shoot out the tyres (or the entire wheels) of cars, but for now, you can either outrun them or have your new acquaintances gun them down. So, with that in mind, some things to try:

    a) If they’re right next to you, drive so that their trajectory passes through something suitably immobile or heavy (preferably both), like a tram or the corner of a building, oncoming traffic or a streetlight.

    b) Nelsonian Age of Sail tactics! Cross their T. Somehow maneuver so that your gunmen are able to deliver a maximum amount of firepower at their car while taking as little as possible.

  49. Pseudonym says:

    Good review John. You had me at actors recording dialogue together.
    Speaking of which, anyone recognizable in the voice cast? (If any information on casting has been released)