As a big fan of Mafia, I was delighted when Craig emailed to say he was too full-time employed to accept 2K’s invitation to try out a preview of the soon-to-be-released demo for Mafia II, and someone would have to go in his stead (should have thought of that before you decided to work and support your family, Craig you idiot). So yesterday I nipped off to the 2K offices in Windsor to have a little looky. And yes, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, ahhahaa. Namely beer and pizza. Alas, with no PCs set up I had to play the PS3 version so I’ve not included commentary on graphics or controls.
Windsor! Not actually 2K’s offices. I think they might be Rockstar’s.
The demo I played was the mission, ‘Hustle’, shown at E3 of the pretty standard “get a call, drive here, drive there, shoot baddies, drive back” set-up. You can go watch it and draw your own conclusions. I’ll try and tell you a few things that haven’t been spread all over every other preview you’ll have probably read by now.
I mean, it’s a fairly safe bet that it’ll be a good game. It’s certainly a very solid, cinematic experience; heavily story driven and, as the PR guys were at pains to point out: “it’s not like GTA IV”, “don’t expect it to be like GTA IV”, “this is what happened to the last guy who compared it to GTA IV”:
Dead press adorned the demo room.
But the similarities are present and don’t really need pointing out for the most part as they’re just inevitable design choices when creating a semi-interactive city. Like the first Mafia, it’s a partial sand-box; I began controlling Vito in his house and it contained various interactive elements to immerse and amuse like a fridge with snacks and a wardrobe to change outfits. A radio was chattering away in 50s style about the H-Bomb, how “the USA was the only country to possesses this amazing technology”, or something, followed by an artificially kitsch ad for tomato sauce. Rather than adding to the immersion as Mafia II’s vast catalogue of period music so magnificently does, the chatter veered slightly too close to Fallout 3′s parody rather than the eerie realism I was hoping for. Maybe it’s just something that requires getting used to.
On the counter in Vito’s kitchen I found a Playboy, which zooms to full screen displaying a naked model from the era when picked up. Apparently there are 50 to collect. I asked one of the 2K guys about this and they thought it was in keeping with the gangster lifestyle; machismo, booze, women etc. I wondered if there had been much of a media furore, as there usually is when sexual content is discovered in computer games (really trying to assess if this was a bit of a publicity stunt) but no, there hadn’t been. I was told it was an 18-rated game and not really within the sphere of underage appeal anyway, as I suppose Mass Effect was with its aliens and spaceships (and sex scenes).
Still, I was left a little disappointed by the inclusion of the Playboys (which are official and licensed); is it gangstery to be running around collecting jazz mags? Wouldn’t horny gangsters rather spend that effort finding a broad on/in/with whom to bang? It just seems that 2K are aiming to titillate me, rather than describe the sexuality of the character and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the idea of a group of Czech men trying to turn me on, in a computer game at least. Why create an immersive, mature story, design a game that receives 18 certification and then risk reducing your gamers to the level of neo-adolescent men-children? Maybe the story will place this feature in context. Anyway, enough staring at tits, let’s get out on the street.
This guy possibly doesn’t make it out of the demo alive.
Leaving Vito’s house, I joined the many pedestrians walking the sidewalks of my low rent suburb, a New York-esq skyline visible in the distance. Naturally, I pulled a gun and fired it in the air to see what would happen; some pedestrians ran, some cowered on the floor. A police whistle peeped and I made off at speed but turned back after a few feet to see the policeman calmly staring at the spot in which I’d fired my gun, hands behind his back ignoring me and the cowering citizens. The AI soon reset to the “everything’s normal” routine. “Hum”, I thought.
I jacked a car a little further on. A policeman walking the pavement directly opposite failed to see.
The police in Mafia II certainly seem more laissez-faire than the precursor’s. Drive around wrecking things and they will give chase but can be lost with ease, ditching the car, hiding in an alley or paying them off. Sometimes your crimes will be so severe that they’ll report your details across the city so you’ll need to get a re-spray to return to anonymity. Or, the easiest way to lose the cops is to simply drive to your objective and activate its cut-scene, which worked for this demo mission.
On the way I saw a clothes shop and a bar which could be visited. Kicking the latter’s door in, I hammered about 15 brandies which made the screen blur and go a bit brown but nothing more. Obviously, these mob types can handle their drink better than certain other scurrilous eastern European computer game characters.
I also took the time to test out the fist-fighting mechanic, playing with combinations of the jab, heavy punch and dodge buttons. This generally results in a pleasingly choreographed, crunching fight scene. Get your opponent to a certain level of health and there’s the option to initiate a nasty, context sensitive finisher reminiscent of the “Sonny beating all hell out of that guy in the street” scene in The Godfather.
Cars explode after a few bullets in the fuel tank. Which is only right.
Despite Mafia II being a semi sand-box game, the semi living, breathing city occasionally emits a few phlegmy splutters. The slight behavioural oddities of the cops is one, another is the citizens’ utter nonplussedness at having a gun pointed at their face, neither getting out of their cars or raising their hands in terror. A shame, as a certain vehicular manslaughter game included these interactions to great effect.
Now, the reason I’m not worried about these little niggles is that I fully expect the story to so engross me in the life of Vito and his associates that I won’t feel inclined to run about Niko Bellic style causing mayhem. I anticipate wanting to act like a gangster in a gangster movie: avoiding the cops, looking cool in a fedora, only using force when necessary. Wearing the blinkers of a compelling plot, immersion breaking AI behaviour shouldn’t be a problem.
And I was sure there’d be some kind of Free Play mode as in the first game to properly mess about in the city sans plotline. Would there, Mr 2k man?
“I can’t say”. Dah!
I got the sense that there would be something though, and it would be crazy not to make the most of Empire Bay’s fine looking assets.
Reaching the mission location, a brief cut-scene introduced Joe, (essentially Pesci from Goodfellas) and Henry (a little like de Niro from Goodfellas). The latter talked about his family moving to America fleeing Mussolini which displayed the promise of rich and interesting characterisations to come. The voice acting, as you’ve probably seen from preview vids, was excellent.
Then I got to shoot a machine gun from a window at some guys and cars. The cars exploded, as did the guys.
Then, chasing through the distillery in which the mission is set, bullets flew, bottles shattered and wood splintered; the combat zings. Guns sound full and meaty, bad guys react suitably to bullet impacts, garnished with brutal little scripted bits performed by Henry and Joe; the action feels bloody, frantic and dark as in the best mob movies. There’s also an effective cover mechanic which seemed a little gluey, but probably just requires getting used to, and health now regenerates but it doesn’t take all that many bullets before you’re toast, so you’re encouraged to keep your head down. The demo ends, having escaped a now flaming distillery, with the three mobsters stuck in a car on a bridge surrounded by cops.
Despite the stated misgivings (and hearing that it would include over 100 sodding achievements – I hope they aren’t obtrusive) I left 2K with a confidence that this game will be pretty damned good. It has solid mechanics and the promise of great characters and story. It would be wrong to expect GTA 1940s -1960s, it’s obviously not the game 2K set out to make, but I can still hear the dismay this demo’s likely to cause next week as people discover Empire Bay is not as sophisticated as Liberty City. I’ll bet that a strong, immersive story will negate these complaints almost completely.