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Mob Justice: Mafia II Hands On

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I got a chance to sit down with Mafia II on PC, and play through a complete mission. Then run on a lunatic rampage around the city. Read my impressions below.

Developers at 2K Czech (née Illusion Softworks) must greet any coverage of Mafia II with a wry, slightly despondent smile. Yes, it’s going to be compared to GTA IV.

It’s familiar territory. 2002’s Mafia was released in the year-long gap between GTA III and Vice City, and was inevitably held alongside for inspection. Both featured large, open cities, navigated in stolen cars, on missions focused around committing crimes. But of course each game had a wildly different intent, using a similar template to achieve entirely different goals. Mafia II has no intention to be GTA IV. So why am I, even in pulling the comparison apart, still bringing it up? Because, well, it’s the first thing you’ll think when you play it.

Along with Saints Row 2, each game appears to feature near-identical animations for dragging a driver from their car, or your bonnet flipping up and eventually spinning off behind you. They’re impossibly obvious similarities. There’s a reason why Wikipedia features a genre called “Grand Theft Auto clone”. However, it’s only a few moments before your brain adjusts, and you realise you’re playing a quite different game.

Beginning in 1945, Mafia II takes the gangster-themed crime capers a decade forward, set in a post-war Empire Bay (a city that mixes East and West coast American themes, blending the watery ambience of San Francisco with New York’s murkier corners). Vito Scaletta arrives back from Europe to discover his first-generation Italian immigrant family is in no good state. His father ran up enormous debts, pursued by loan sharks, his mother now in desperate trouble.

This quickly establishes Vito as a decent man. Much as Mafia I’s Tommy Angelo was a cab driver who fell in with a bad crowd, Scaletta isn’t your typical gangster character. He’s a man recovering from the horror of war, whose family desperately needs money, and via an old friend Joe finds his way into working for the Mob.

After the game’s snowing beginnings, we were leapt about halfway into the proceedings, to a chapter set around 1952. Clearly it was a mission chosen as it does not reveal any major spoilers, which at the same time meant it was a mission that doesn’t especially stick in one’s mind. Beginning with a simple job to sell some crates of cigarettes, things quickly tumble out of control into a series of car and foot chases, and some really rather enormous shoot-outs.

Another reason they may have chosen this mission is the opportunity to show the game’s propensity for blowing things up. Boasting some NVidia tech, APEX, we were shown confusing graphs and diagrams that explained how it made the magic buttons in your machine like each other better and make prettier bangs. Or something like that. Clearly this doesn’t exactly endear the game to those who have a fantastic ATI card in their machines, like me for instance, and are told the game could look more impressive if they’d only bought a different piece of arbitrary hardware six months ago. I would strongly question any advantage in such partisan relationships with tech companies in the eyes of gamers. Anyhow, even without the full extent of these effects (apparently clothes will wobbly about more realistically, and the like), things will still look damn fine when they go pop.

In fact, it’s important to stress quite how lovely the city looks. Ludicrously beautiful sunsets light period streets, filled with individual NPCs looking rather splendid. It’s super-pretty, and will definitely shine brightest on the PC.

We were tasked with getting revenge on one scoundrel or another by shooting a bar to bits with some punchy weapons. This was from outside, watching the wooden boards of the walls splintering and cracking splendidly. Not sure whether this was the game sneakily going through some predetermined pattern of destruction, I decided to shoot at the large lit sign upon its roof. One of the letters I aimed at burst and swung down, rolling back and forth on its pivot. More shots saw it fall completely. Then aiming at one particular area of the building I created a significant hole. This is really real. They really have created what they said they would: realistic damage on realistic materials.

Shooting glass is a little strange, but pleasingly chaotic. I’ve never shot glass, so I don’t know if it really would hold some structure and not just burst and collapse completely. But shards fall in different directions, and eventually the integrity goes completely and it all falls from the frame. Sure, not that big of a deal. Except those shards don’t then quietly fade from existence. They lie there, and continue to be a feature. Throw in a grenade through a window you’ve shot up and when it explodes, those shards blow back through. That’s, well, detailed.

In fact, so very much is detailed. You’ve likely seen the many trailers showing clips from the vast numbers of cutscenes. Fresh scenes repeat the same quality of acting and animation. People still look peculiarly shiny-faced, a sort of army of David Camerons if such an image isn’t too terrifying, but the delivery is fantastic. But more interesting are details revealed in the shoot-outs.

Of course there’s a cover system, and it’s simple to dive and dash between box and car. But in a rare treat, the enemies seem to understand how to use it too. Rather than ducking behind an object and then popping their heads back in the very same spot (it’s extraordinary that most games still do this), they instead sneak around, use their brains, and most of all, stay in cover if they know they’re in danger. Which is of course the moment to take advantage of the game’s fire damage, and throw a Molotov his way, watching things burn.

Also rather fun is shooting at a car’s petrol tank. They go boom! It’s a very effective means for getting control in a fight. Or just causing absolute mayhem in the streets for no reason at all.

Which of course attracts the attentions of the police. And here Mafia II is working an awful lot harder to put in a lot more details. We’re overly familiar with wanted systems, generally a set of stars that represent the scale of how much the cops want to smack our bottoms. But Mafia gets a lot more involved.

Let’s say you speed past a police car fast enough that they can’t glimpse your face, but not quite fast enough to stop their seeing your plates. You’ll get a warning on screen that they know which car you’re in, which is your opportunity to get clear and ditch the vehicle. You’ll be safe. Perhaps someone sees you on foot battering an old lady, and gets a description of you to a cop. To speed up shaking them you can change your clothes, buy some new attire, and throw them off. Then there’s greater scales of things you may have done wrong, which will in turn up the ante.

There’s a deliberate attempt to have the world behave slightly more realistically (well, in the context of a game where you get instant feedback on what the police know about you), with it being completely unacceptable to march down a street with a rifle in your hands. People will react, police will be alerted, some people may take things into their own hands.

Talking of which, one of the moments that surprised me the most appeared somewhere where things were feeling most familiar. I wanted to drive a car I saw, so knew I could go up to the driver door while it was at the lights and press F. I’ve played GTA enough. Vito opened the door, dragged the driver out and pushed him to the ground, and started to get in. And the guy pulled a gun on me.

It’s moments like that which make you realise the extra depth. Such a brief play didn’t allow me to appreciate the promised constant evolution of architectural style and internal décor, along with fashions and technology, as the decade passes. But we’re promised it’s all there. And there was no doubting the authenticity of the setting.

There’s apparently hundreds of licensed songs, changing as the years go by, and we’re told the game can pick out appropriate tunes for what’s happening at the time. I’m not quite sure what it was the game thought I was doing to offer me That’s Amore.

Well, they sent us a picture of some barrels, so we'll bloody well publish it to show them how stupid it looks.

What else did I spot in the hour-long mission? Well, if your car gets too beat up, rather than just having to ditch it, you can hop out and perform a little roadside surgery. It doesn’t magic the car better – it just gets it going enough to get you home – one more bump and it’ll be puffing smoke once more. But you could take it to a mechanic and have it fixed up properly.

And of course being set ten years after the original Mafia the cars are faster, and easier to control. Not easy to control, I should stress. Cornering is no longer quite such an ordeal, but the authenticity gives driving a flavour that means you can’t just handbrake turn your way around without thinking. Road conditions affect handling, and of course finding faster, sleeker models means you’ll have a more entertaining journey.

However, we come back to Mafia II’s very purpose for being. It’s not trying to be GTA IV. So its success will ride on its delivery of a story, and the depth of its combat. From the fire-fights I experienced the latter is looking to be in fine form. Enemies were certainly taking a very silly amount of damage in places, but a good headshot was generally enough to do the job. Plus there’s the fun of damaging the walls and any windows you might spot. However, the story here was unmemorable. Clearly we were coming into a game at the halfway point, so context wasn’t present, but at the same time there wasn’t anything in that sequence that dragged me into the plot.

From the other parts of the game we’ve been shown, and certainly from the (heavily abbreviated) opening scenes we saw, there’s a strong chance that will all be present. And it will have to be, because it will be by this that people will know not to call it a GTA clone.

Oh, and one final test of such a game. Once the mission was complete I restarted the area, and went on a mindless rampage through the streets that managed to shock the 2K representatives in the room. Gathering as many police as you can to one location for target practise is fun. Making your targets the elderly is just wrong. And great. You don’t last too long once you head down this destructive path, but it’s a fun way to find out when you last passed a checkpoint.

Mafia II is due at the end of August.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founding robots of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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