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PAX East ’10: Mafia II

PAX East 2010

Cinematic moments are a dime a dozen in today’s videogames, but there’s a scene in Mafia II that ranks up there with the best of them. Vito Scaletta, a lowly Mafioso, has just arrived at the dilapidated diner where the rival gang hangs out. Accompanied by some higher ups in the mafia, Vito is told to pick up a tommy gun and help lay waste to the building. A moment later, five men are unloading on the diner. Bullets break through the windows in a roar of gunfire. The lights dance in a jolted, twisted fashion as the rounds are fired.

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All of this is totally interactive and the destruction is just beginning. To put a finishing touch on the bullet-riddled diner, Vito tosses a Molotov cocktail inside. The flames consume the building as the gangsters look on with approval.

It’s the perfect blend of cinematic style and interactivity. Many games would have gone with a dull cutscene to move the story along, but to stand alongside four other fully-armed guys is an empowering and memorable experience. The hands-on demo for the Xbox 360 was about 30 minutes long, so here’s hoping that the game will be rife with these moments.

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The demo starts about five minutes into the actual game, and Vito is dropped into the open world with just a marker on the map guiding him where to go. It was a mile or two away, so I hijack a car. With the time period of the game spanning the ‘40s and ‘50s, the vehicles are appropriately bulky and powerful. The taxi I stole handles like a tank compared to the modern cars populating the rest of the free-roaming sandbox genre. The music is period appropriate, with a crooning singer belting out a love song. Corny? Perhaps, but it works.

In interviews, the developers, 2K Czech (formally known as Illusion Softworks, the creators of the previous game) promise a grittier, darker game than the predecessor, which took place in the 1930s. The demo has moments of this, including a particularly nice touch when a rat scampers across the ground during a bloody gun fight, but the game also evokes feelings of the first act of Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas. The time period is the same, as is that warm feeling of nostalgia about how powerful the Mafia used to be. Heck, the game even starts with some back of the truck cigarette sales in a presumed nod to that film.

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After driving for a couple minutes, I arrive to meet a colleague who had acquired numerous cartons of cigarettes through less-than-legal means. Being at the bottom of the totem pole, Vito gets in the back of the truck and picks out the cigarettes based on what queuing customers wants. A box of reds? Coming right up. Some blues? No problem. Each carton sold nets Vito with $2, but there wasn’t a way to spend that money in the demo.

The customers leave once they’ve been served, but trouble takes their place. The local greaser gang shows up and tells Vito and his partner that they’re on their turf. During a cutscene, the truck is blown up, a greaser is killed and a high-speed chase is on. The behemoth of a car that I drove in the chase was too slow to catch the criminals, but the handling felt right. Dodging cars on the highway was fast and fun, while negotiating a sharp turn on the exit ramp is manageable despite a few scrapes against the barrier.

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After calling up the other mobsters and destroying the diner, the shooting and combat mechanics are brought to light when the greasers’ hide out, some sort of industrial factory, is invaded. Mafia II employs the crouching and covering mechanics that are all the rage right now, and at times this felt a bit clunky, although that’s partially due to a small bug I encountered that made it difficult to stick to a barrel, car or other form of cover.

Playboy

During a firefight towards the end of the demo, there’s a rickety shack that can be entered. Inside is a vintage Playboy Magazine, and picking it up displays a nude photo of one of the girls that appeared in that issue. I felt a little dirty looking at this with a fairly large crowd of people waiting to get a turn in the game, but it’s one of the most natural instances of product placement I’ve seen in a game. Plus, naked girls are nice.

The action is a little slower paced than some other games, like Just Cause 2 or a typical action shooter – partially because it’s so easy to die unless behind some cover. This isn’t a knock against Mafia II: it just suits the time period well and adds a bit of realism since Vito doesn’t come across as a bulletproof super soldier. He’s human, and so are the people he kills.

As Vito storms the hideout with his allies, the outmatched greasers retreat deeper and deeper into the complex. Two greasers flee at the same time, and seeing an opportunity for an easy kill, I fire with their backs turned. I hit one of them and he fell to the ground. I’m not sure if this was intended or if I interpreted a small hiccup incorrectly, but the living greaser turns around and hesitates after he saw his friend dying on the ground. In that moment of hesitation, I shot that guy.

Now that’s cinematic, I thought.

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2003. Get in touch on Twitter @akarge.

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