One of the many computer games companies to emerge from the former Soviet Bloc in recent years is Illusion, who scored the Czech Republic's first big international hit with their World War II tactical combat game "Hidden & Dangerous".
While the inevitable sequel is now in the works, when we saw it at the ECTS trade show in London a couple of months ago it was at a very early stage and not looking particularly impressive. What did catch our eye though was Illusion's other title, "Mafia : The City Of Lost Heaven"...
Hey Good Lookin'
Mafia is a third person action game set during the golden age of the mob, setting you up as a gangster in America between 1928 and 1938. The city of Lost Heaven in which the game is set is imaginary but painstakingly authentic all the same, with a dozen square miles of terrain to explore in and around the city.
The whole thing is rendered in great detail, with locations varying from Chinatown to the slums and docks, not to mention churches, farms and business districts, complete with towering skyscrapers. The city is full of wide open spaces, and the game even features an entire airfield, with hangars, planes, zeppelins and waiting rooms. Building interiors are just as gorgeous, with beautifully modelled period furniture and subtle but effective lighting.
Characters are also highly detailed, with appropriate clothing for the time period, and take full advantage of Illusion's in-house motion capture studio for their animations. Texturing is near photo-realistic throughout, and this is certainly one of the most visually impressive games we've seen to date.
Once you get past the stunning graphics, the gameplay is looking rather promising as well, with a strong storyline to push things along. You play Tommy, a cab driver who is recruited by the mafia and gradually rises through their ranks, gaining respect as he works as a hitman, enforcer and driver for a local Don.
The whole game is portrayed as a series of flashbacks as you spill everything to the cops. It seems that you have crossed your mob boss, carrying out jobs on the side behind his back, and now he wants you dead. Out of desperation you agree to talk to the police, and the twenty missions which you carry out in the game are the incidents which Tommy is describing to his interrogators, ranging from smuggling liquor illegally imported from Canada to carrying out hits on rival gangs. There are even sub-quests which will allow you to gain access to better weapons and vehicles, and you can take part in underground fights involving anything from bare fist boxing and knuckle dusters through to baseball bats.
At times the brutality of his own actions makes Tommy wonder whether he is in the right job, but at the same time it's brought him wealth and a family, and during lulls in the gang warfare everything seems fine. You will be faced by choices throughout the game though, and in one mission you find yourself sent to whack a friend who is trying to get away from Lost Heaven. As he stands at the airport with his wife and kids, you have to decide whether to gun him down or to risk letting him live, hoping that your boss won't find out you let him escape. It adds an interesting moral side to things which you don't find in most computer games.
As you might expect, cars play an important part in the game, and there are around 60 different vehicles available in the game, all of which you can buy or steal. These are modelled in as much detail as everything else in the game, with shiny paintwork and plenty of reflective chrome to admire.
Each vehicle also has its own handling characteristics, and you can even take them out to the local race track to practice driving them without having to worry about the city's traffic and police getting in your way. For the more environmentally conscious (or simply skint) player, there will also be a full public transport system, including overhead railways and trams. If you do use a car though, you will want to avoid lapsing into Carmageddon-style hit and run driving, as the police will keep tabs on any of your illegal activities which they witness, and will become far more determined in tracking you down if you start ploughing your Model T through crowds of innocent pedestrians.
Out of the car you will have a wide range of weapons to use, ranging from Colt and Smith & Wesson revolvers to tommy guns and sawn-off shotguns. For some missions you will be provided with sniper rifles or explosives, and you can always borrow some fire power from your fallen enemies if you find you need something with a little more punch than you were given at the start of the mission.
Join The Gang
While a lot of attention is obviously being lavished on the single player game, multiplayer is also being taken care of. "Everyone in the company is a big fan of Counter-Strike", so we can expect mission-based teamplay modes to be included, but with a distinctly gangland flavour.
There will also be a capture the flag game, as well as basic deathmatch and Rocket Arena style "last man standing" modes, with a wide range of settings from the single player game for you to fight over as you indulge in your own little Valentines Day Massacre. Docks, parking lots, abandoned prisons and airfields should all make for interesting locations for a mob shoot-out.
And cars are also set to get a look-in on the action. Hopefully vehicles will be included in some of the standard multiplayer modes for a spot of drive-by shooting, but there will also be seperate motor racing modes in which you can go up against other players on a whole series of out-of-town tracks, driving the car of your choice. A bit like Grand Prix Legends then, but with added shotguns...
Mafia was originally planned to be released around Easter 2001, but now it's not expected until near the end of the year. Given how ambitious the title is, from the highly detailed locations to the involving storyline and fairly freeform gameplay, it's perhaps for the best that Illusion take their time to make sure it all fits together. But judging from the early code we have seen it's looking very promising so far.
Console fans may also have cause to celebrate, as there is a chance that a PlayStation 2 version of Mafia will be available at some point, although this was "still under negotiation" the last we heard. Given that Sony pride themselves on the polygon pushing capabilities of their console and its ability to handle vast open spaces without intrusive fogging, it could well be the perfect match.