Remember Mafia? It was an open-world game set in the 1930s that let you buzz around in ancient cars, shoot serious men in hats, and its developers thought it was the best movie Martin Scorsese never made. Well, it's coming back: released later this year, Mafia II will let you buzz around in moderately less ancient cars, shoot yet more serious men in hats, and its developer presumably thinks it's the second best movie Martin Scorsese never made. That Martin Scorsese, eh? He should stop not making his best movies and make games instead. That would give the Mafia team something to stick in their pipes.
Released on the PC in 2002, Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven was a fairly original take on sandbox gaming. At a time when most other open-world titles were happy to give you a jetpack and funny trousers and let you roar about the place causing chaos, Illusion Softworks (which has since become 2K Czech and is developing the sequel) took itself more seriously, offering up a gritty, rather unpleasant take on the world of organised crime, leaning heavily on the "painful consequences" end of the spectrum and rarely, if ever, offering you funny trousers. (You can read more about it in our Mafia Retrospective.)
Today, of course, the big daddy of free-roamers has grown equally serious itself, so Mafia's USP has been slightly diminished. And then there's the Godfather series, which plays up the whole historical angle Mafia had made its own, even finding time in its latest instalment to throw in a few strategic gimmicks, albeit only to middling effect. It's a classic mobster conundrum, then: with so many other kids muscling in on Mafia's turf, has Mafia II got what it takes to fend them off?
At least the porting won't be a problem. Mafia's PS2 and Xbox versions were afterthoughts and played like it. Sitting down in 2K's Windsor offices to watch a developer barrel through a little of the sequel, it's already running on 360, with PS3 and PC iterations being developed concurrently. Covering the Wii options, I'd stay tuned for Mafia Kart (I spent half the trip back honing that joke), where you team up with Birdo and Dennis Farina.
Mafia II will retain the original's balance of driving versus shooting, and narrative versus sandbox missions. The difference this time is that apparently the sandbox has been considerably embellished, although in our brief demo nobody got to see very much of that. What we did see was that the setting's changed. Lost Heaven has been replaced with Empire Bay, an East Coast megacity heavily influenced by New York. Meanwhile, the clock has rolled forward to the forties and fifties, bringing on the predictable slew of improved cars, shinier weapons, and a preponderance of oppressively permed dames sashaying down the streets. There's a new story, too, with lead character Vito Scaletti home from the war and itching to get into crime.
Empire Bay's a suitably swaggering slice of fifties America on the day we visit: it's a breezy afternoon in summer, and the fading sun is casting a golden glow over wide avenues and elegantly-trimmed skyscrapers, while an elevated train rumbles overhead. The city covers ten square miles, which makes it twice the size of Lost Heaven, and encompasses twenty different districts taking in slums, a mid-town, and white picket fences.
The developer is showing us a condensed version of Room Service, a mission occurring about half way through the game. It's an elaborate hit: a rival family is having a conference in a nearby hotel, and we're meant to take out the don. Our first step is to get there, so we meet up with a getaway driver, the rookie mobster Marty, young and terribly eager, and so clearly branded with "probably going to die very soon" that he may as well be wearing a Star Trek Away Team uniform.
It's immediately clear that where Mafia II excels is in the details. We're given a simple enough task, but the delivery is polished, exuding an appreciation of the game's historical and geographical setting that's even more admirable when you realise it's being developed in the Czech Republic, and not in the 1950s. The arm-swinging walking animations and sharp suits of the game's characters could have been plucked from a dozen different Rock Hudson films, and everywhere you look, the environment shows a high degree of TLC, from the fingerprints on the wing mirrors of cars, to the cigarette butts scattered on the floor around a tenement doorway.
The team has spent a lot of time and effort on a dynamic radio system that chooses period music to fit the current tone, offering up the right tune for a sad moment, a happy moment, or a moment where your mobile rings and you end up buried in a hotdog cart. On the way to blow up an old enemy, Johnny Cash's "Get Rhythm" appears to fit the bill, which alone would have ensured the unlikeliest of day-one purchases from my great aunt, had she lived to see Q3 2009.
The presentational skill runs deep: arriving in the underground car park of the hotel, we're treated to a brief cut-scene filled with snappy dialogue and characters that genuinely seem to act, all framed with a director's eye for tiny nuances: the way a preening mobster straightens his suit, or young Marty's fingers nervously drumming on the wheel of the car. Did I mention I reckon he's going to get killed?
The assassination plan is to get into the hotel disguised as cleaners, install a bomb in the conference room where the rival family is gathering, sneak onto the roof, head down the side of the building in a window-cleaning rig, and trigger the explosion from the outside once the conference room has filled. As strategies go, I have a few problems with all that. Isn't it a bit complicated? If successful, won't it leave us hanging from a burning building with nothing but a bucket of squeegies for company? Wouldn't it be easier to simply settle our differences with one of those Moon Pig personalised cards so snappily advertised on afternoon television? But this is organised crime, so presumably our elders have their reasons.
Heading into the hotel, Mafia II continues to impress with the little things: bar patrons exchange sleazy chatter as we pass, and, installing the bomb, an accomplice hums the Mission Impossible theme to himself, the kind of touch Rockstar would be proud of. With the bomb in place, it's onto the roof, where a handful of enemy guards gives the developer an opportunity to show off the shooting mechanics. It's Gears of Goodfellas, in essence: there's a cover system, over-the-shoulder aiming, and what looks like a rechargeable health meter, the only differences being that, unlike Marcus Fenix, you only need a few shots to go down, and, in certain cases, you can talk your way out of a gunfight if you wish: choosing whether to convince the mobsters they're needed downstairs, or send them upstairs instead, in a volley of bullets.
There's a sense of gentle upgrade almost everywhere, from the more tactical AI (not a big leap: in the first game, enemies would often punch oncoming cars) to level design offering more strategic options, and that missions move at a nice clip. If there's a potential problem, it's that Room Service, at least in this abbreviated form, feels competent rather than truly exciting, following a standard formula, and flowing from one event to the next well enough, but never really making you sit up and pay attention. While it throws a nice curveball near the end, with the don escaping the bomb blast after taking a trip to the toilet, that simply turns into an opportunity to shoot our way back through the building and into the traffic, exchanging gunfire while driving. It's hardly a major disappointment, but coming after such a polished introduction, it's just a little less than you might be expecting.
It's a problem facing every open-world developer at the moment, of course: how to create things to do that live up to the elaborate new worlds you can do them in? It's hard to tell from the tiny slice we've seen whether Mafia II's making any progress on this front. Even if it isn't, though, the game's looking smart and characterful: it just remains to be seen whether 2K Czech has enough design flair to raise the finished product to a level where the action can match the pitch-perfect delivery. As for Marty's fate? You'll have to wait to find out about that, too.
Mafia II is due out for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC in autumn 2009.