It has been nearly seven years since the original Mafia was released for PC and about five since it hit the PlayStation 2 and Xbox consoles. There's an entire generation of gamers unfamiliar with the franchise. Whether you have fond memories of Mafia (the PC version, at least) 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. I recently saw apre-alpha version of the game, and even though it was still rough in spots, it's clear to see that Mafia II has a ton of potential and could easily end up being one of those games that masterfully blends interactive action and cinematic storytelling.
The game tells the story of a fledgling gangster named Vito. Entering the world of organized crime with his childhood friend Joe, Vito rises up the ranks and learns what life in the mafia is truly like. Some aspects of the life are everything he dreamed they would be, while others are darker and nastier than he imagined. The player starts out by adventuring as Vito, taking on a series of petty missions. As he gets promoted with in the crime family, his responsibilities become bigger and more dangerous.
I got to see an early mission in the game called "Room Service". In this mission, Vito and Joe have to go to the Empire Arms Hotel and take out a rival gangster named Clemente. The pair are accompanied by an overzealous rookie named Marty -- he's a kid that's too eager and asks too many questions, but Joe has taken a liking to him. Driving to the hotel was pretty uneventful and I wasn't able to get a good sense of the game's driving aspects. I expect that more of the driving will be shown at E3 2009.
After arriving to the hotel, Marty is ordered to wait in the car, against his wishes. Vito and Joe snag some janitor uniforms, so that they can get close to Clemente. First, they try to sneak around to the roof, but two gangsters are having fun spitting on pedestrians. This results in a short, but fun shooting sequence. This fight showed the game's cover system and interactive environments. After their enemies are taken care of, Vito and Joe use a window-washer platform to plant a bomb on Clemente's floor.
I'm going to take a break from the mission to talk a bit about the voice acting. Whether it was driving in the car, arriving at the hotel, or riding the window-washer platform, there was a lot of great dialogue in this mission. It really helped mundane actions, like simply driving to the hotel, feel more purposeful and alive. Both Vito and Joe had well-delivered lines that really helped the game come to life. Their conversations are contextual and organic, unlike the voice acting found in many competing titles. For example, after the bomb is planted, Joe nags Vito about getting away as fast as possible, since he wonders if they'll be too close to the explosion and die.
Obviously, they didn't die...but neither did their intended target. In a stroke of dumb luck, Clemente was heeding nature's call when the bomb went off. When Vito and Joe go to check on the damage, they discover Clemente and a bunch of gangsters are still alive. This results in a big gunfight that showed off the game's destructible environments. While Vito and Joe took out the grunts, Clemente managed to escape in an elevator. The pair pursues him and discover Marty's dead body. This enrages Joe and I was told that Marty's death will have an impact on Joe's behavior later in the game. After more exploration and gunplay, the duo track down Clemente so that Joe can exact some revenge. Unfortunately, this is where the demo ended.
The music is another aspect of the game the should be pointed out. Since Mafia II takes place over the course of ten years, the music changes. When listening to a car's stereo, the music uses songs that fit the mood of the current mission and reflect the year the mission takes place. This was a was design choice for a few reasons. First, it would have been tough to compete with Grand Theft Auto's huge soundtrack and no matter what 2K did, it would have been accused of being "me too" as far as music goes. Secondly, controlling the music helps it serve as a score, instead of something the player has fun with. The use of period pieces and an orchestral soundtrack allows the developer to use the music as a storytelling and mood-setting tool.
From an early look at Mafia II, I was impressed by its gunplay, dialogue, and acting. I have no idea about its driving sequences and exploration aspects, but if they're similar in quality to what I saw then this game could be the surprise hit of 2009. In theory, it takes a lot of what critics and fans loved about the original Mafia (the PC version) and adds all the expected next-generation advancements. The truncated mission I saw was quite interesting, which really surprised me. I'm definitely keeping my eye out for this game at E3 2009 and I suggest that you do to.