Hands-On Preview: Mafia II (PAX East)

In the wake of Grand Theft Auto and the inherently similar titles we all like to compare to Rockstar’s powerhouse, we tend to forget that many of those titles that are cut from the same cloth are veritable great choices to turn to if you’re not feeling the Tommy Vercetti or Niko Bellic vibe. It’s the God of War phenomena. Sure, Dante’s Inferno was largely inferior, but it could stand on its own as a decent alternative. I’d liken Mafia, released on the PC back in 2002 via Gathering of Developers, to the Bayonetta position in the great God of War/Devil May Cry-styled game wars.  While it shares the same elements that its “parent” games possess, it makes a name for itself through its finesse and campaign that’s an absolute blast to play.

was both a critical and commercial hit, though the console ports did tend to disappoint. Around that same time, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City made the scene, and not even the fact that you could hop into the driver’s seat of over fifty classic rides swayed gamers tempted by the voracious sound of the eighties or the vulgar language of Vice City. Fast forward to 2010, where sandbox gaming is enjoying copious amounts of success. We eat them up. We love to screw around for a couple of hours doing donuts in the sand in Grand Theft Auto IV or toss cars at people in Prototype. Perhaps now that the genre isn’t completely dominated by Rockstar titles (though admittedly they do it justice), the upcoming Mafia II from 2K Games can flourish and attract the audiences it deserves.

I was lucky enough to demo Mafia II at PAX East over the weekend, where a lovely rep hooked me up with a station equipped with a decadent headset and a debug unit where she could show me specific areas of the game. With the show floor buzzing with excitement and the adrenaline getting the best of me, I dove into the demo with high expectations, as the previous Mafia continues to impress.

Set in the 1940s through the 1950s in a fictional homage to New York and San Francisco known as Empire Bay, Mafia II is an absolutely gorgeous game.  And everything, right down to the speedometer on your vehicle when you’re cruising down the highway is from the days where the only gangsters you heard about were the ones bringing the pain, class, and style to organized crime, not rap music and sagging pants. The lush visuals were the first thing I noticed upon taking the controller from the friendly 2K rep, though I wasn’t there just to take in the eye candy.  I played through two scenarios: one that demonstrated the finer points of arriving at your destination via car, and one that showed off a slick and satisfying battle system rife with cover and guns of the period.

Demo mission #1, “Wild Ones,” began with one Vito Scaletta, the playable protagonist, on his way to a meetup with a guy named Joe. As he chatted with his compatriots, I was given a taste of the voice acting, which brought lazy Italian accents in cartoons to mind. I don’t know what it is about nailing a certain dialect, but it was lost on the starring roles in this scene, and despite the spot-on atmosphere that would follow, the voice acting simply was not as palatable as I would have liked.

It was simple and familiar to muscle my way into a car I chose off the densely populated roads (Niko Bellic-style, I jacked the vehicle) and speed off into the distance, following the map on the lower right side of the screen. Driving mechanics were solid, comfortable, and what I’ve come to expect from years of sandbox escapades, so I eased into maneuvering my slick-looking ride down the road and pulled into a lot a few blocks away. These cars are not speed demons, as you might recall from the original Mafia. They’re functional and they feel, well, safe. For that reason alone I found it best not to attempt any fancy driving on the way to see Joe, as luxury cars are not the sprightly sports cars Niko Bellic has yanked out of hipsters’ possession in Grand Theft Auto. Mafia II drives the point home that slow and steady wins the race.

I met up with Joe and some of my buddies in the predetermined waypoint area, where it was revealed I was there to “unload cigarettes” from the bed of a truck that had supposedly fallen off. I’m sure.  I hopped up onto the truck bed and began to partake in a short little mini game that found me fulfilling customer orders for red and blue packs of cancer sticks until I’d filled my quota. Nothing standout there, just a brief interlude in normalcy that would tide me over until danger set in — greasers, known only as the Wild Ones, pulled their rowdy selves up and proceeded to open fire on the friendly little cigarette stand. That’s what we got for invading their space, man.

Just after I viewed another cut scene detailing the carnage, the 2K rep suggested that I check out another area of the game that dealt with a little more action. She worked her magic and fast forwarded the action to an area not long after the initial arrival of the greasers and the firefight that ensued. This began what I’ll label as demo mission #2, though from the information I could glean from her descriptions interspersed with the in-game 40s standards blaring from the car radio and the BioShock 2 multiplayer demonstration at the booth, it was still a part of the same Wild Ones scenario.

This time, I was tasked with following the greasers by car back to their dastardly hideout, where more bullets would be lodged in many foreheads, if I had anything to say about it. As I hopped into a nearby ride and gave chase to the ne’er-do-wells, I realized through my less than stellar driving we had lost the gang. A jaunt to a nearby phone booth proved fruitful, as I learned from my informant that there was a favorite bar of the Wild Ones that was screaming for a little bit of disaster. How could I not oblige? Not long after I could make it out of the car, I was met with the crisp sound of gunfire and the taunts of the greasers who had set up camp, waiting for me to arrive.

It was then I was introduced to Mafia II’s frenetic though reasonably-paced stop-and-pop action. As I quickly found out, running and gunning was not a viable option, despite the fact that I was packing the M3 Grease Gun. A quick press of the D-pad allowed me to cycle through my available weapons, and I settled on a good old machine gun in order to pepper my opponents with as much pain as I could muster. Creeping through the deserted yard filled with wrecked cars, tires, and run-down debris, I made it my business to stay behind cover as often as possible, as my enemies were quite deadly with their aim. Three or four shots to my person and a couple point blank were all it took for me to go down harder than a sack of potatoes.

It was time to be a serious wimp.

Ducking behind the various wreckage that dotted the landscape, I got a serious Gears of War/Uncharted vibe that trumped previous Grand Theft Auto-styled offerings. It felt organic, cool, and authentic. The brief firefights I mowed my way through really made me feel as though I had stepped into the shoes of a classic gangster cutting through rival gangs with a tommy gun in hand and a devilish grin on his face. I wanted to run toward each enemy and attempt to melee or blast off some heads with the shotgun I picked up minutes later, and soon after found myself amongst the pile of corpses I had left behind in my wake of destruction. These classic arms will do some damage, but if you’re to make it anywhere in the game you’ll need to learn to tone down your instinct to run and gun and realize that, like the vehicles demonstrated, patience is key here. Even gunfights play out with the old-school style and debonair grace the gangsters of old employed. They don’t wear those dapper suits for their health. Those were different times, back then. And Mafia II does a fantastic job of giving you a glimpse into what it must have been like to be a cold-blooded killer who retained as much of his dignity as possible.

I downed as many of the baddies as I could before switching to my shotty and throwing it into a few greasers’ faces, then found myself dead once more. At this point, we had taken enough time at the booth and I relinquished control of the sweet, sweet headset back to the 2K rep. I came away from Mafia II feeling quite satisfied. For an open-world sandbox-styled game, it knows where its priorities lie. The graphics were stunning, and held a regal air that instantly transported you back to that time period, if the authentic Italian standards blaring from your radio weren’t enough to do so. Controlling Vito felt smooth and natural, just what you’d expect from any Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, or similar escapade.

In a word, I’d call Mafia II familiar. It’s destined to be a cult favorite like its predecessor if the final release retains as much polish and pop as the bits of the demo shone off to me. If you’ve always wanted to see what it was like to relive the glory days of the certified gangster (and not a straight up G), then Mafia II will be singin’ your tune. Let’s hope it doesn’t end up with a pair of cement shoes at launch, as it has so much potential.

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