E3 2009: Mafia II
Despite critical-acclaim and strong sales, the Mafia franchise went dormant following its 2004 release. Players appreciated the game’s style, which distinguished itself from Grand Theft Auto by offering a more realistic experience. Mafia required players to behave discreetly, quietly. Players were expected to obey speed limits and traffic signals and to only break the law when absolutely necessary.
It certainly wasn’t for fans of the wanton destruction and absurdity of GTA, but it earned a strong following amongst fans who could appreciate the design. Those fans are about to be rewarded, as 2010 will finally see the release of the first sequel to the game. We were given a chance to check out some of Mafia II in a private preview on the final day of E3.
From the opening, this is exactly what you’d expect from Mafia II. You play as Vito Scaletta, a veteran who has returned from World War II wounded and hopeless. Looking for a way out, Vito turns to organized crime, which he thinks will give him a life of wealth and power. The plot will look at 10 years of Vito’s life, starting in 1945. The environments, clothing, even the music is all period-specific.
The game takes place in Empire City and will feature 10 different districts, each with their own look and feel. Our demo took place on Sand Island, a poor neighborhood, but as you progress through the game you’ll be able to travel to wealthier districts filled with mansions and fancy cars. Each section of the city has its own unique look and you’ll be able to judge the wealth and affluence of an area based on the clothing you’ll see the multitude of pedestrians that line the streets wearing.
In many ways, Mafia II seems much more alive than the original. Our demo opened on a snowy scene on Sand Island. Trees were sprinkled with white powder and a partially-melted blanket of snow lined the streets, with worn paths revealing the asphalt below and snow covering parts less traveled. The city felt truly alive and organic as the demo operator slid his car around corners on the icy roads that led to the destination.
Vito’s mission in the demo was to teach “the fat man” that when you operate an illegal business in territory controlled by the mafia, you need to pay your dues. We saw a brief cutscene with Vito interacting with his two allies and the direction and cinematography of it was incredible. The camera moves around in dramatic ways to make the game feel more like a movie than a video game, and beautifully rendered character models really help suspend your disbelief.
The fat man eventually arrived and we had a chance to see some of the combat mechanics of the game. It plays like a typical third-person shooter. You’ve got your crouch and shoot cover system that will draw instant comparisons to Grand Theft Auto 4. One of the coolest things was that there was no HUD on screen to clog it up, giving the illusion that you’re a part of something really happening. The team hasn’t finished up the HUD yet, but they believe that there’ll be an option included to turn it completely off for people who want a more cinematic experience.
The emphasis of the game is definitely the narrative. The team is trying to build a gritty, mature experience that will be more in line with a movie than a video game. From what we saw today, it seems like they’re on-track for that goal, but they also skipped over a lot of the more mundane, repetitive parts that make up the bulk of almost every game. But, with well-designed cutscenes and very strong voice acting, it’s clear that the team is taking great strides to see that happen.
As far as tweaks and improvements from the original, the team has promised that this game will not include the dreaded racing mission that earned them a great deal of scorn in the first Mafia. They’ve also made the city about two times the size of the first and have added about 100 interior environments that you’ll be able to access. There won’t be a day/night cycle, but there will be a weather system that progresses during your missions. If you start a mission on a cloudy day, you may find it raining once the mission has ended.
After our demo, I was approached by another journalist and we both came to the same conclusion: this game is what EA’s Godfather series should be. Mafia II, from what we’ve seen, is trying to deliver a unique cinematic experience that few games so far have managed to pull off. Whether they succeed on that goal is yet to be seen. We’ll have to wait until early 2010 when the game comes out to find out, but all the pieces are in place for 2K to deliver a classic Mafioso experience.