I've had my hands on a preview build of Mafia II, limited to four missions but with the whole city open. Below you can read my impressions at this stage, a couple of months ahead of release. You should be warned, at the end of this article is a picture of a lady with her boobies showing. It's from the game, I swear.
Wanting an opinion on Mafia II, I decided to ask the man on the street. By punching him in the face. Giving pedestrians a shove will initiate a fight, switching to a micro-mini-game in which you can dodge and jab at people until one of you can’t get back up again. Take that, innocent bystander!
As he fell down, a small crowd gathered around to look at his limp remains, and a police car pulled up. The policeman got out to inspect the scene, and fortunately no one grassed me up. So the cop, he looked at the body without comment, then got back into his car, and drove toward a nearby fence. And stared. Where he’d still be now if I hadn’t tried to steal the police car while he was still in it.
After I’d bribed my way out of arrest, I walked back over to my dead victim, and stood on his corpse. “Hey, watch where you stand!” shouted an Italian-American onlooker. So I punched him.
This isn’t really how you’re supposed to play Mafia II. But mucking around in the preview build I’ve been playing does highlight some of the game’s strengths and weaknesses pretty usefully. The grand plans offered a year ago, in which elaborate AIs would operate on individual and group levels creating patterns of behaviour in the streets to rival reality – well, they don’t seem to have panned out. While there’s certainly a lot more going on here than in (four paragraphs in before I mentioned it!) Grand Theft Auto, perhaps this isn’t entirely to the game’s advantage.
Oblivious bystanders aren’t realistic. But they’re written off as nonsense as you play. However, pedestrians who act like they’re about to get involved but then spin on the spot and walk off, are unignorable. Cops pulling up to investigate crimes is brilliant. Cops then ignoring that crime and driving into alleyways like they’re having some terrible mental breakdown, is not.
This is definitely the most living living city so far, but perhaps rather unfairly, in heading in this direction it seems they’re only going to highlight quite how much farther there is to go.
But I shouldn’t take too much away. It’s quite extraordinary to see the city getting on with life around you, little set-pieces taking place, fights breaking out, people chatting. At one point early on I walked past a bar when a glass came flying through the window, a fight going on inside. Stood in an apartment you can see out of the windows at the busy streets. There’s a lot of life here.
The version of the game I’ve had my hands on offers four of the missions, set in two time periods of the game’s span of ten years. It’s not yet known how many missions there will be in total, but my guess would be 15 to 20. If it’s any fewer than that, then by the length of the missions I’ve seen it’s going to be an awfully short game.
Beginning at the beginning, our character Vito returns from the war, his family in terrible debt, and his childhood friend Joe offering him some work for a whole other Family. Compared to Mafia’s Tommy Angelo, Vito is seemingly far more prepared for a life of crime, presumably his time in the war having emotionally flattened him. Joe is an eccentric buffoon, overly excited about their various jobs, and seems to be a pantomime version of Paulie.
The four missions follow a very similar format. Get yourself out of an apartment to the start of the mission, drive, yourself and others to where shooting needs to happen, shoot people, head home.
The driving and combat both seem extremely solid. Cars aren’t quite as wobbly as Mafia’s 1930s boxes, but still aren’t sleek, power-assisted future-wagons. Driving in the early sections in a heavy Winter offers a decent challenge of slippery surfaces and clunky vehicles. Later things get more powerful, driven in better weather, but still handle in such a way that you have to concentrate. And I stress this is a good thing.
Shooty-bangs tend to take place in areas offering plenty of cover, letting you choose your own route through an area as you pop the heads off enemies. Cover works extremely well, with a far more fluid means of moving from one area of safety to another than I’ve experienced elsewhere. Hitting E when in cover glides you around corners, toward new objects, etc, letting you make sneaky paths toward or around the baddies.
My only concern at this point, having played chapters four chapters, is that it’s all far too easy. It should be stressed there’s no difficulty levels in this build, so it could well be sticking me on something far too easy to lull me into thinking I’m brilliant. I know I’m not brilliant, and thus I know whatever it’s set at, it’s not tough enough.
Of course these are only four of the total number of missions in the game, but it seems a shame if they have any sections that deviate from this mould, they didn’t choose to reveal them yet. All four were extremely quick, and none required me to do anything other than follow the minimap to the next red circle, shooting anything that doesn’t like me along the way. Thinking back to the original Mafia, and quite how enormous some of the missions were, it makes me wonder if this game will have its Omerta with its enormous airport sequence, or its You Lucky Bastard! With that vast sequence at the warehouses.
It’s very chatty. And it’s extremely good at being chatty. As has been much touted, the standard of voice acting is extremely high, and really well delivered. Recording actors together has led to fluid, believable scenes. And cor, they’ve got potty mouths, those Mafioso types.
But from the small bits I’ve seen, it’s not the most enigmatic script. It’s a decent job, but nothing has stood out as being exceptionally good. It’s mostly been people swearily chatting about the upcoming tasks, and how cross they are with someone else.
There’s one niggle that they could easily solve before release. And I’m going to write this in capital letters to make sure they can hear me all the way over in the Czech Republic:
SORT OUT THE BLOODY CHECKPOINTS.
It’s like every single review of every single open city game ever hasn’t SCREAMED about how incredibly stupid it is to put checkpoints before laborious travel and lengthy cutscenes. Here they’re placed with Vito in his pants in his apartment. Just to get back to the street, let alone anywhere near where a stray bullet may have killed you (inevitably because you were running over old ladies in the street), you have to go through the awful menu system for choosing clothes, answer the phone, and trudge your way down flights of stairs. Then steal a car, then drive to wherever you were heading before. It’s insane, there’s no fathomable reason for it, and they can easily fix it before release. Checkpoints AFTER cutscenes and tedious plodding scene-setting nothingness.
And one other peculiarity that can’t go unmentioned at this stage: the nudity. While anything in The Witcher is clearly going to be wildly contended, where I tend to lose respect for someone is when they defend the nude cards. While Mafia II’s bare ladies aren’t issued as a reward for doing sex on someone, their presence is absolutely mystifying.
Hidden around the game, like some daft platform collectable, are Playboy magazine photos of naked women. But clearly not of the era, as they’re in colour. And Photoshopped beyond belief.
What they’re for is mystifying. Perhaps there was concern that the open city game, lacking prostitutes and peskily preventing you from being able to punch women, wasn't alienating to a female audience. Anyway, there they are, completely at odds with the theme, and boy are they ridiculous. But none is so hilarious as this one. I’m almost loathed to mention it here, as it means they could fix it before release. But see a problem with this?
Some people miss it. Much like she misses her right leg. Exactly.
What’s available in this preview of four missions is an absolutely beautiful game. The city is vast and remarkably detailed. The lighting is phenomenal, and the business of the place is almost believable. Weapons fire satisfyingly, enemy AI can often be great (although sometimes is a bit daft), and the destructible environments are a great pleasure. (Although, tragically, it’s not longer so fun to drive through phone boxes – in the first game it was the best bit, here you’ll have a realistically nasty crash.)
There’s cause for concern over the length of the missions, and the volume of cutscene interruption. And the sodding checkpoints. But at least they’ll be fixed before release, right 2K Czech? Good.
Right now I couldn’t guess which way the full game will go. Clearly playing four missions scattered throughout can’t give any impression of the story, which was of course the greatest strength of the original. If that works, then most of the issues mentioned above will be easily brushed aside, since the driving and combat both stand strong.
And importantly, even though I’ve finished the few missions, I’ve still got an enormous city to explore and muck around in, making even this limited code extremely replayable.