Mafia II Preview

Every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in.

As with every other sphere of popular entertainment out there, video games have their own beloved and favored archetypes—the wisecracking, one-man army; the anthropomorphized, can-do animal; the unlikely medieval-ish hero; the gunslinging hottie; the superhuman samurai; and even the occasional warm-hearted robot; or sympathetic, flat-out psychopath.

[image1]Many of these archetypes have been cyclical in nature: Zombies seem to be coming back in a major way this year, while pirates sadly seem to be on the wane for the moment, and–trust my professional experience on this one–those adorable penguins will keep making the occasional ‘cute’ game, nature documentary, or animated-movie appearance (…right up until it’s time to Rise and Assimilate). And once in a while, there are the mobsters.

Note that I don’t say “gangsters” (or–God gag the entire universe with His divine spoon–“gangstas”), but mobsters. Many of the stories in the Grand Theft Auto universe clearly take their modern-day inspirational cues from the cannoli-and-horse-head days of yore as presented in The Godfather (which just saw its second video-game incarnation). And then there’s 2K Games’ 2004 release Mafia, which had a strong, much-hailed storyline, but also had its share of gameplay hiccups.

A while back, I had myself a little family-style—and I do mean ‘Family’-style—sit-down with 2K, getting an early look at Mafia II, and at what lessons the game designers have learned from player feedback in the interim.

I’ve gotta hand it to 2K for their choice of venue—a gloriously matter-of-fact, stereotypical, almost uneasily-cozy little Italian joint called Sodini’s Trattoria in San Francisco’s North Beach. “NO DECAF NO RESERVATIONS NO DESSERTS NO EXCEPTIONS”: Cleared of customers before noon. Free of distractions. Impeccably-dressed, old-school muscle posted just outside the front door, keeping anybody, including us, outside until the appointed time and giving tough-guy lip to any random sidewalk-passersby all the while, just to keep the morning interesting. Good old-world, valve-blocking Italian eats… and just enough red wine to fuel four or five editors’-worth of increasingly-aggressive inquiries.

[image2]Mafia II follows the ascent and descent of Italian-American Vito and his childhood pal, Joe, into the world of organized crime. It’s interesting to note that, from what we understand, the game’s story-arc is not intended to follow some clichéd meteoric rise to mob-family don-dom, but rather to portray a more likely story of one man’s tangle with mob life… with all its moral shades of gray.

Whether you’re returning from having completed the original game or are coming into the Family completely wet behind the ears, the first thing you basically have to notice is that Mafia II—even at this early, almost embryonic stage—has an impressive level of convincing, environmental detail.

That detail ranges from the wavy, Art Deco, glass-brick-wall interiors of a high-rise’s fancy-schmancy lounge (said wall can be blown out by gunfire in a suitably dramatic shootout, of course), to the authentic lumpy lines of period automobiles cruising the streets, to the dynamic, in-car period soundtrack.

Analogous to GTA‘s radio stations, Mafia II‘s scheme takes the additional step of automatically commandeering the in-car/in-game airwaves at certain dramatically-critical junctures—presumably to ensure that players don’t, for example, suddenly find themselves listening to “Call Me Irresponsible” just as a critical driving segment is supposed to get all tense, dark, and mobster-y. Even the ubiquitous facades of buildings and the ranks of civilian NPCs out walking the sunny, oh-so-heavily-New-York-inspired streets are visually striking.

[image3]You’re practically an automatic C-rank production these days if even your handheld game doesn’t have fairly thorough ‘cinematic’ (or at least ‘dramatic’) elements. Mafia II looks to take dramatic engagement of the player as a top priority, rolling out a period tale (scripted by the original Mafia writing team) of mob allure, life… and escape? Well, nobody’s talking about that… at least nobody who wants to stay alive.

Powered by 2K Czech’s next-gen engine, Mafia II will let players travel from from exterior to interior locales without requiring annoying load-screens. It’s all about single-player immersion, here, so much in fact that there’s not even a multiplayer mode being created; the 2K Czech team is focused simply on crafting and honing the storytelling, and on a solo experience that will draw gamers in as much as would a high-caliber mobster-movie.

The New York-inspired urban mash-up that is Empire City is composed of 20 visually distinct neighborhoods or boroughs that will—just like the characters, the automobiles prowling the streets, and even the period, licensed tunes playing in the background—change to reflect the current year over the game’s decade-long story (starting out in the early ’40s and ending in the early ’50s). Oh, and the script for said decade-long story? Yeah, that would stack in at around 700 pages. Fuggetaboudit!

We won’t give out any needless specifics or plot-spoilers (we’re looking at you, Gamespot); if we’d had our way, even the revealing demos we’ve been exposed to up to this point would have cut off just a bit earlier than they did—purely with an eye toward our own enjoyment later on, when the full game ships circa TBD 2010. Suffice it to say that between what we’ve learned of the startlingly-attractive environs, blistering shootouts (both on-foot and car-to-car), free-roaming driving, absolutely buyable chracterizations and voicework, and cliff-hanging scripting, 2K’s forthcoming game is looking like a tough, worthy successor to their earlier mob-life epic—and we can’t wait for them to pull us back in.