Mafia II best game this year?

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Since the original game released on last-gen platforms and PC in 2002, 2K bought its Czech developer, Illusion Softworks, renaming it … 2K Czech. The studio has not only been working on the technology behind Mafia II, the Illusion Engine, since then, but also one of the first game’s standout elements — the script. A demo was release with a single mission out of about two dozen planned for the final game; a game that may seem like a 1950s era GTA.

Mafia II takes place in “New York” between the 40s and the 50s. The game is broken down into flashbacks that weave between the two time periods and tell the story of Vito, the son of a young immigrant out to capture a piece of the American Dream. If this sounds familiar, that’s because the writing team is the same guys who did Mafia I they stuck to their Goodfellas inspirations to craft a tale of loyalty, revenge and corruption in the mob syndicate of America. Most of the story in the “Room Service” mission the developer demoed was told through in-game conversations between characters, as opposed to theatrical cut scenes.

Room Service started out with a 50s-era car parked along the side of a road. In a short cut scene, Vito shows up and chews Joe out for inviting a new getaway driver Marty along on the mission. Then the gameplay starts with the player having to drive the car to a fancy high rise hotel.

Once at the hotel, a short cut scene shows Vito and Joe leaving their getaway driver in the basement parking garage of the hotel. In a bit of video game pedantry, the game drops the player back into the game to walk the equivalent of like 30 feet to open a door, only to go into another cut scene where Joe tells Vito to put on a janitor’s jumpsuit as part of the plan.

Once the jumpsuits were on, the interrupting cut scenes went away for a while as Joe and Vito worked their way up the hotel via the elevator to infiltrate the mob boss’s conference room under the pretense of “cleaning up a mess.” While they’re on their way, they pass so close to the mob boss they intend to kill that they overhear snippets of his conversation with some other mob bosses – something to do with “the mess.”

This section of Room Service is an example of the story being told mostly through in-game sequences. While walking, Joe went off about how the guy was right there and they could just whack him. Vito talked him down under his breath and urged Joe to stick to the plan.

“The plan” is this: plant a bomb in the conferences room, run the wires out the window (because remote controls don’t exist in the 50s), go up to the roof and ride the window-washing scaffold down to the conference room window, hook up the bomb and then go back up to the roof to set it off. You don’t have to be very creative to think of at least three ways this plan could go tits-up.

In the conference room, there is a giant smear of blood on the floor – the “mess” Vito and Joe are supposed to clean up. While Joe throws wires out the window, the player can move Vito freely – to look at the blood smear or just gaze out the window at the massive city spread out 30 stories below.

While the game doesn’t mimic New York as closely as GTA’s Liberty City, the sheer size and detail of the world outside that conference room window was enough to evoke a sense of the city. Joe announced the trap was set and Vito leaves the conference room Vito and Joe made their slow way up to the roof via the stairs. The dialog between the two mob buddies was amusing, I suppose once on the roof, a short cut scene showed two mob goons hanging out on the roof spitting at pedestrians down below; Joe gives Vito a gun and the game lets the player take control again. Grace took a moment to explain that you had a choice in resolving the issue of expectorating goons. You could be non-violent and go back the way you came, skirting around a different path to the other side of the roof, he said. But because that third element – the intense gunplay – hadn’t had the limelight yet, of course our demo master opted to shoot the place up.

Anyone familiar with the melee and gunplay system in Mafia I, will remember a cover system, over-the-shoulder aiming, regenerating health, and a almost now heads-up display icons (besides a targeting reticule) and tactical AI that also uses the cover system. It looks like you can knock enemies out of cover with a careful shot to the knee or the shoulder – but what you really want to do is score a headshot before you take roughly three or more hits and die (sort of like you would in real life). According to Grace, this combat system is very much improved over Mafia I – and again, being that this build is pre-alpha, it’s probably only going to get better

With the goons shot up, our heroes then bound and gagged the real window washers and stole their ride. Yet again, we got the nothing’s-happening lull in action – but this time at least you could ogle the city on the ride down to the conference room. Once down by the conference room, you could turn and look inside – which later causes problems with Grace’s realism claims.

Once the wires were connected, the game entered a cut scene showing the scaffolding ascending the hotel. Then suddenly the bomb went off early, shattering the window right below our heroes’ feet. Joe took the scaffold back down to have a look at their handiwork and – surprise, surprise – the mob boss wasn’t dead. He stumbled out of the bathroom, wondering aloud (rightly so) what the hell just happened.

Here’s where the realism falls apart for me: if you could look into the conference room, wouldn’t you have seen that the boss wasn’t there? Or if he was – do you really expect gamers to believe that in the three seconds’ lapsed time between the wiring of the bomb and the cut scene showing the bomb going off that the mob boss could have gotten up from the head of the table and made it all the way into the bathroom?

The game resumed with Vito and Joe inside the blown-up conference room in hot pursuit of the mob boss. There’s more gunplay and that shotgun came in handy as Joe and Vito shot their way past mob goons, innocent passers-by and room service carts to get to the elevators, get down to the basement and get into the getaway car. Another short cut scene informed us that Marty was dead (big shocker) and then the game resumed with Vito and Joe in their getaway car in pursuit of the mob boss’s getaway car.

The Room Service mission was over and Grace ended the demo with a little Q&A. The take home points he had for the media are that Mafia II is a game that will be more polished than Mafia I, with a better combat system and supposedly a better police system. He also stressed that while this is a sandbox game in terms of size, it’s still a linear story that the player is following to one of the possible four endings.

So while there are what you’d call “side quests” where you’re building your mob reputation by “helping” people, the progression of the story is not measured in persistent day and night cycle. Everything feeds back into the fiction, Grace said, describing how police interference would actually go down over the course of the game as you gained more mob influence because you’d presumably have cops on your payroll (his words, not mine).

Grace tried to describe where, if you did a mission that brought a lot of heat to you or your crew, the game wouldn’t just pick up the next day with you guys doing the same old thing. You’d have to hide out for a while and the game would move forward in time to a couple of weeks or months later, when things had died down.

The original Mafia was released for PC and the PlayStation 2 and Xbox consoles. There’s an entire generation of gamers unfamiliar with the franchise. Whether you have fond memories of Mafia or you have never heard of the series, 2K Games wants to make sure that you know about Mafia II. Taking place decades after the original, Mafia  II blends shooting action, driving sequences, melee combat, and heavy storytelling in a game that shows the glamorous and not-so-glamorous sides of mobster life.