Hands-On: Mafia II

Mafia II was an experience that left me with a huge smile on my face. While at PAX East I had the opportunity to sit down and spend nearly an hour with the sequel to 2002’s stunning Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven.

Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven was a game that allowed me to dive into the world of the mafia of Al Capone and bootleggers in the 1930s. Playing the part of a taxi driver, Tommy Angelo, I picked up a wounded mafia member and delivered him to a private doctor while evading rivals intent on finishing him off. As a result, Tommy was recruited to join the mob for his talented driving skills and soon rose through the rankings until he became disillusioned with the business. Working with a detective in the police force of Lost Heaven, Tommy worked from the inside to bring the Don and everyone around him down.

Mafia defined itself as a unique alternative to GTA. While it featured stunning graphics, the game also presented a world that was realistic in comparison with GTA‘s over-the-top antics. Cars could run out of gas if driven around long enough and pulling into a gas station would immediately bring out attendants who would fill your tank. Speeding on a city street would catch the attention of police officers who would haul after you and slap you with a ticket, and pulling out a weapon on the streets would lead to your arrest – unless, of course, you chose to resist. Cars realistically moved slowly to start and reacted poorly to sudden turns and accelerations. It was a vivid representation of the 1930s, and the city of Lost Heaven was beautifully detailed, with soaring skyscrapers, civilians moving about doing their own business, and a vast countryside outside of the city that was beautiful to explore, with farms, an airfield and foliage-draped trees amongst the rolling hills. It was, simply put, a sublime gaming experience.

So, with a mix of trepidation and extreme excitement I approached Mafia II unsure of what I would find. Mafia II is set in the city of Empire Bay, a large metropolis based on elements of San Francisco, Chicago and New York. My demo began with the game’s protagonist, Vito Scalleta, waking up in his apartment after a crazy night. A woman’s bra sat on his bed, and he sat at his kitchen table in his boxers, listening to his friend Joe telling him that he had to get to a warehouse in the city where they were going to be distributing cartons of cigarettes for sale from the back of a truck.

The apartment was highly detailed. I wandered around, taking in the fruit on the kitchen table, the bra on the bed, magazines on the coffee table, a television against a wall and finally found Vito’s closet, where I put on a pair of clothes and headed out to retrieve Vito’s car. Vito’s car was in a garage, and, set in the 1950s, the car behaved as it should. It was far superior to the cars in Mafia, but will feel like a clunker compared to the Ferrari’s that can be stolen in GTA IV. I drove through the streets of Empire Bay, following a small map in the bottom corner of the screen that pointed out how best to get to my destination. I stopped at stoplights and looked around for cops before tearing through.

Arriving at the warehouse, I was asked to get up into the truck and pick up a blue carton of cigarettes. I then was asked to hand out a red carton and suddenly, a group of Greasers showed up in their hot rods and circled around us, threatening that Joe and Vito give up what their doing and get off their turf. Tossing a molotov cocktail into the back of our truck, the Greasers continued to circle around as Joe shot their leader in the head. We scrambled into Vito’s car and Joe yelled for me to follow and kill the Greasers in their hot rod. My car couldn’t keep up, and on the highway they got away.

We then had to go to a phone booth and call our boss, who screamed at us and told us he didn’t care how we did it, but that we had to raise $2,000 to pay for the lost cigarettes and that he wanted us to make the Greasers pay for what they did. Joe suggested that we meet up with some other gangsters at a Greaser bar in a factory section of town. We drove through the Italian section of the city and I marveled at the people walking on the sidewalks, the distinctive buildings and the cobblestone streets that marked an older part of the city. We eventually arrived at the bar, a wooden, one-story building in some woods just off of a street in the industrial part of town. We drove down a dirt road to get there and met up with the other gangsters, who promptly told us that we ought to get some Tommy Guns out of the back of their car. Vito was then told to shoot up the bar along with the others, which commenced a prolonged experience in which I continuously fired the Tommy Gun at the bar, shooting out glass, breaking signs, splintering wood and generally destroying the place.

The guns sounded incredibly authentic, and with 5.1 Direct Sound headphones on, the gunfire crackled beautifully from all directions. The utter destruction of the building’s exterior was an incredibly satisfying experience that truly awarded payback to the Greasers for what they had done to our truck full of cigarettes. Seeing signs break off the bar and swing around as bullets pounded them was exhilarating, as was the sound of popping glass in the windows.

Eventually, we stopped firing and Vito was instructed to get a molotov cocktail from the back of the car. I then proceeded to toss the cocktail into the bar, where it hit the bottles of alcohol inside and exploded with fury. Another mobster tossed a second molotov and we stood and watched as the bar became engulfed in flames. Laughing, the mobsters suggested we go to their headquarters with baseball bats and Joe and Vito got into their car and followed the other mobsters to an old refinery.

Here, a short cutscene took place in which the other mobsters banged on the door to the refinery and then pounded the first guy to answer the door in the face with a baseball bat. Striding in, they discovered that the Greasers were armed with guns, and a shootout commenced. I moved Vito from cover to cover using a simple tap of the “A’ button on the Xbox 360 controller. The implementation of cover was beautifully integrated into the game. From a run, Vito would slide into safety with a tap of the “A” button while if walking, he would simply hug to a wall as soon as I pushed the button and could peer out around the corner to take out an enemy. The firefight lasted for several minutes as we moved from one area of the refinery to another and finally, we eliminated all the Greasers and watched as one of the other mobsters pushed around a wounded Greaser.

I was amazed to see some Greasers simply abandoning post and climbing over fences to escape the action and I was impressed the fluidity and fun of the shooter elements of the game. Much like in GTA IV, cover works well and aiming is simple and accurate. Tommy Guns spray bullets indiscriminately and are great for encouraging an enemy to remain crouched behind cover while the revolver I had was beautiful for picking off enemies with a single shot from a distance.

At the end of the demo, I was able to get into a hot rod, which Joe estimated was worth about $1,000, and while he took another hot rod of theirs, we drove away to go satisfy the boss and pay back our debt.

Mafia II is priding itself on providing a realistic, beautifully depicted and gritty world in which firefights exist but aren’t huge. We may have taken out fifteen or twenty Greasers during the mission, but the team at 2K Czech has claimed that “A high body count is still promised…but those casualties will come the hard way — through small-scale operations rather than mass firefights.” With a 700 page, Hollywood-worthy script, beautiful graphics, excellent gameplay and interesting characters, Mafia II was my favorite game at PAX East and should be a strong Game of the Year contender when it arrives this August on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.