A Blast in the Past
Ever since the breakout success of Grand Theft Auto III, open world sandbox games have had to try especially hard to distinguish themselves in a crowded genre filled with touchy third-person shooting, difficult vehicle controls and tired mission structures. Last year, both inFamous and Prototype gave us superpowers and a populated New York City (disguised or not) to wreak havoc upon. Red Faction: Guerilla was carried by its destruction physics. Red Dead Redemption showed us that applying the GTA formula to an underused setting can be enough to make the experience feel fresh. And now, 2K hopes to repeat that success with Mafia II, sequel to the popular 2002 PC game that was later ported to consoles. And from the looks of it, they just might have.
With Mafia II, Development studio 2K Czech hopes to hit the same notes as great gangster flicks such as Goodfellas, while creating an even more realistic world. The game opens in the last year of WWII with veteran Vito Scaletta returning home to find his family in debt and nowhere to turn. His old friend Joe Barbaro convinces him to take up a life of crime, and we are thrown into the midst of three competing families. You probably know where it goes from here, but from then on there will be plenty of missions from new contacts, lots of playing for and against the different factions, and a fair share of betrayals. And with hours of cutscenes and a script nearly twice the length of the first Mafia, anyone with an appetite for story will be satisfied.
Thankfully, the actual gameplay seems fully capable of entertaining on your way from one scene to the next. The game uses standard third-person shooter controls with cover mechanics, but the guns have a heft that makes them feel less like re-skinned M-16s, and more like WWII-era weaponry. As sick as I might be of using a Thompson submachine gun and Colt 1911 pistol, at least this time I won’t be firing them at Nazis. Every kill felt much more satisfying than in GTA, but my character also felt much more fragile (meaning not superhuman). I had to make good use of peaking around corners and waiting for the enemy to reload rather than simply walk down the street unloading my weapon. I’d say the shooting felt more akin to Uncharted than anything else.
There has been a deluge of shooters set in the 1940’s or 50’s since the original Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven. Most of them just use a grainy film filter and some old-timey radio music to evoke those nostalgic feelings of a simpler America. Mafia II isn’t resorting to only a few of these tricks to get you to buy into the setting. You will find painstaking detail at every turn in the fashion, environment and dialogue. Everything from the architecture of suburban homes to the way a closet is shaped looks distinctly WWII era, and it helps make the corny billboards and radio shows go down easier. You can even find up to fifty pictures of actual Playboy Playmates scattered around the city, if you’re into that.
One of the most interesting features of the game is the driving. Instead of allowing the player to get from mission to mission as quickly as possible, 2K opted to make the cars handle the way they truly would for the time period…that is, not especially well. In addition, the other cars on the road won’t slam on the brakes at the first sign that you might get in their way. If you come to an intersection, don’t expect to barrel through it and not get t-boned. This makes for an open world game that doesn’t feel like it’s revolving around the player, and the fictional city of Empire Bay becomes that much more believable.
If Red Dead and Crackdown 2 haven’t fully scratched your sandbox itch this summer, give Mafia II a try. You won’t be shooting down helicopters or driving sports cars off ramps, but you will be treated to a rich and well-crafted world of crime and Italian accents. While it’s not the most original game, it’s still got plenty to love. Instead of putting a rocket launcher in your hands, Mafia II has you inching your way from nobody to made man. Check out the demo now on PSN and Xbox Live. Mafia II hits on August 24th, 2010 for the PC, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.