AU Exclusive: Mafia II first look
Posted 08:11am 13/05/09 by: kreese
Gunplay, story and driving. That’s the three things that Mafia II’s producer Denby Grace wants to nail with the sequel to the surprisingly good Mafia: City of Lost Heaven. Back in 2002, Grace was a lowly QA guy, slaving to find bugs in a game which nobody really could accurately predict success or failure on. Flash forward a handful of years – through the likes of Prey, Don King’s Prizefighter, and most notably, The Darkness, and Grace is back on a Mafia title, but this time in the driver’s seat of what must be his most important game yet. Oh and he's putting it out the year after Take Two-contracted outfit Rockstar North rocked our worlds with Grand Theft Auto IV. Pressure? Maybe.
First things first. Mafia II isn’t Grand Theft Auto 50s. It’s not Godfather II with a rewrite. In fact, if you ask Grace what game Mafia II is inspired by, and he’ll tell you BioShock. His reasoning: Mafia II has gone super long on storyline and characterisation. Protagonist Vito Scaletta comes home from World War II to find his mum is almost on skid row. What’s a guy to do? His friend Joe joins him for the guns, girls and glory – and the story will feature the two together. Joe sounds like Robert DeNiro and looks like a slicker version of The Sopranos’ Big Pussy.
Joe - just one big cuddly teddy bear. An armed one.
Vito looks like an Italian Clark Kent minus the glasses. You’ll control him, but Joe as your buddy is a critical plot device. He and a surrounding cast of villains and innocents will define Mafia II’s level success as a story, even more than the setting.
Get your motor running
And so we find ourself taking in the air in Empire City. After a stroll to our car, we’re off and rolling through streets alive with colour, and somewhat light on traffic. Empire City is a concoction inspired by the likes of New York and Chicago. Grace explains going down this route not only gave the designers freer rein to make the landscape fit the action, but also will prevent inevitable debate with wannabe urban planners arguing for rigorous, pebble-level accuracy.
As our video feature (coming online any
Boyz in the Hood. Well, behind it, anyway
We weren’t behind the steering wheel for the demo, but the car seemed to have a decent amount of heft to it – perhaps not as solid as the vehicle modeling we’re used to with GTA, but enough that the car appeared to not be on rails. Just how it feels is obviously something a hands-on will determine. 2K’s Dynamic Radio system will pump out the appropriate tunes of the 40s and 50s (in keeping with when the tracks came out during that period) and will also serve to change depending on the mood of the gameplay.
Perhaps it’s because we’re so used to seeing other engines at play – be it Unreal, id’s Tech series or Rockstar’s RAGE even – that Mafia II’s “Illusion Engine” ( a reference to 2K Czech’s old moniker, Illusion Softworks) looks… different. There’s plenty of opportunities to see it doing slick things as we saw it outdoors (driving, walking about, combat cut scenes) and indoors (all the same, barring the car part). The demo featured plenty of creative camera angles which helped showcase what the engine can do in the hands of a storyteller-minded developer.
"I'll shoot the guy on the left, you squeegee the one on the right
Take the scene where Vito and Joe are on a window washer’s scaffold looking into a high-rise building. The reflections off the glass and the view inside look dead on. One thing we did note in the demo was the engine hit slowdown on the odd occasion, usually on occasions where there was a lot of geometry on-screen. The ball’s in 2K’s court how they’re going to work this out prior to launch. Given the solidity of the code (no crashes in our demo) and the finished look of the textures and models, it’s fair to say the team has left themselves with ample time to iron out any areas of bad stutter.
Squaring off: Mafia II combat
Sweet gunplay is one of Grace’s promises, and while we’ll need to get hands-on to have the final verdict it looks promising. Your weapons will feature the usual suspects – a meaty looking shotgun you’ll catch a glimpse of in action in the video, as well as era-authentic pistols and submachineguns and doubtless other wrinkles we didn't see in the demo.
On first inspection, the enemy AI seems to be sound enough to force Vito to have to use his cover move as opposed to standing in the middle of a room and blowing the head off anything that moves. Headshots (at least on the henchmen we saw go down) are rewarded with an instant kill, while incoming damage starts tinting the screen red to remind you a made man is not Superman.
Vito checks out the in-game lighting system
Joe tends to run around doing violently-appropriate things while Vito is in combat. When in the middle of a hot pursuit of a mob boss through a building full of rival mobsters, Joe stops off to throw Slow-Witted Henchmen #5526 out of a window. Grace attributes little touches like this to 2K team's focus on story, claiming there's abundant examples of them in the game. Again, while we weren't on the controller it seemed like it was more the gameplay funneling you towards the event rather than control and the camera yanked towards the vignette saying "hey, look what we spent hours coding so you better watch it". Scripted yes, but the kind of touch that brings a smile to your face. Especially if defenestration is your bag.
The bartender's last call proved a hit and miss affair
In the midst of a heated firefight we saw both sides spray the daylights out of a old-school wall of glass framed cubes – the gunfire leaving a cubist trail of where the bullets had been walked across. And yes – people were able to get hit on the other side. Cunningly, Vito took cover behind a wet bar while Joe opted for a more direct approach, running across our line of fire to help make short work of the resistance.
Sandbox or not?
One area where Grace and 2K seems to be wanting to have their cake and eat it too is in how they define the game. They say Mafia II is “a sandbox game” in that you can drive about and do your own thing, however it’s execution is more likely to be approached as a pretty linear experience – with two story branches ending in one of four endings.
This observation can be leveled at GTA IV, Prototype… just about any modern game that gives you an open world but still expects you to follow a hefty plot. However with Mafia II we suspect the open world aspect is more a function of the tools the developer has used than any great desire to make a player feel like they need to explore every last pixel on the map.
He Built This City: lead city designer Tomas Moucka
You can go walkabout – but it’s more a matter of doing so in the missions which give you some latitude to gather some gear or fetch (something). Because the game doesn’t stick to the stopwatch – missions are separated by weeks usually as opposed to keeping a real world clock constantly ticking over creating the history of You – you’re often going to wake up having to get right onto the job. Strictly speaking it’s sandbox, but practically speaking – the open world is more icing on the cake than make or break, from what we could tell. Then again if you couldn't do it, the game would look hopelessly anachronistic. But from what we've seen to date it's fair to say you won't be spending hours trying to break your wheelie record. Probably because you ... won't be able to.
The wash up
We’re pretty pumped for Mafia II. What we saw didn’t come off as a cornball cheesefest, which is usually the big danger when any developer wants to go all story-mode on us. The action and dialogue we saw looks "authentic" enough to stand the test of time. It also looks superb and absolutely nails the setting. When it's up (EDIT: 2K has now extended their embargo by a week - so...next Monday April 27), watch the video feature to see what we mean, and you'll get the word straight from the producers’ mouth.
(Producer Denby) Grace under pressure? (hur hur hur)
Any company the size of 2K is not a conventional underdog, but you find yourself hoping Mafia II cashes in on its promise. The money poured into making the game hasn't gone on splashy licenses or big name voice actors. It's largely been put together in Czechoslovakia, which while Grace asserts is a nice place isn't a code superstar magnet like London, New York or San Francisco. Even Grace himself is a friendly (if tired), unassuming sort. It's the gangster game that could, basically.
Barring the lack of multiplayer, the potential areas it could fall short appear to be under control – those being the combat and driving elements. There’s a great deal of confidence coming from 2K about the storyline - Grace says it will be the element gamer's most remember about the game - so ultimately it’ll be when we get hands on with the game that we can see if the balance can match up. Speed the day.
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Gunplay, story and driving. That’s the three things that Mafia II’s producer Denby Grace wants to nail with the sequel to the surprisingly good Mafia: City of Lost Heaven. Back in 2002, Grace was a lowly QA guy, slaving to find bugs in a game which nobody really could accurately predict success or failure on. Flash forward a handful of years – through the likes of Prey, Don King’s Prizefighter, and most notably, The Darkness, and Grace is back on a Mafia title, but this time in the driver’s seat of what must be his most important game yet. Oh and he's putting it out the year after Take Two-contracted outfit Rockstar North rocked our worlds with Grand Theft Auto IV. Pressure? Maybe...
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