Published on April 11th, 2010 | by prime1
Mafia II – Hands On
We’re selling boxes of cigarettes from the back of a van, watching the dollars slowly start to trickle in as a crowd gradually starts to form around the area we’ve chosen to offload our latest delivery. If that wasn’t suspect enough, the collection of clientele that’s gathered round is certainly enough to raise a few eyebrows, as one well-dressed ‘client’ briskly pushes his way to the front of the queue. “You’re on my turf”, he yells to us, hurling obscenities and a Molotov cocktail towards our direction. A fire breaks out, and our – or rather our mob boss’ – investment goes up in flames. Our best friend Joe Barbaro, a man more at home with a woman on each arm and a pistol in each hand, doesn’t take too kindly to the hooligan’s act of sabotage. Needless to say, it doesn’t end particularly well for the rowdy gangster, as we jump into our Cadillac-alike and give chase to the rest of the fleeing mob.
Mafia II is Goodfellas: The Game in all but name, then. A game built around the theme of organized crime, and one that pays homage to some of the greatest moments in cinema. But pay close attention to that word ‘organized’, as this is no ‘run amok in a city’ GTA-type. Far from it, in fact. Instead, the idea of creating chaos is as far discouraged in Mafia II as team-killing is in your favorite online shooter – meaning you really shouldn’t do it. The game sticks fairly religiously to the principles set in the 2002 PC original: shunt and bump and the cops will want a word; break the speed limit and you’d better be ready to pay up; whip out your shooter and you’ll be Empire Bay’s most wanted. Indeed, for all intents and purposes, Mafia II’s very much a linear game in a non-linear world.
But this limitation on what you can and can’t do, though seemingly fairly restrictive on the outset, actually enhances the impact of the game world, making instances where you are let loose much more significant. After checking with mob boss Eddie via a payphone – Mafia II’s equivalent to GTA IV’s mobile phone – we’re tasked with shooting up the rival gang’s diner, the Crazy Horse. It’s a rickety wooden eating house on the outskirt of Empire Bay, and is the perfect place for a quick and easy revenge attack.
And so we, along with the rest of our five-string army, grab a Tommy Gun and shoot the barn to splinters. Its wooden frontage buckles and twists as the signage loosens and disintegrates from the impact of our bullets; broken glass flies into the air as our bullet case tinkle on the ground below, and a loon reaches for a fire bomb as we watch the scene erupt in an orange haze. It’s one of the most impactful moments we’ve ever witnessed in gaming; a moment of cinema created perfectly on our console, adorning our faces with the same level of awe as those it imitates.
Of course, Mafia isn’t always this explosive. “Narrative is key”, explains 2K Czeck’s Alex Cox. It opens in the winter of 1945 as player-character Vito Scaletta returns home after taking a bullet fighting in the war. We catch up with him wandering through the city’s snow-drenched streets making his way to his mother’s apartment. It’s a glorious setting; snowflakes twinkle in the moonlit sky, snow hangs from the wheel arches of the vintage vehicles and NPCs slowly negotiate the icy paths. It’s stylish, it’s sophisticated and it’s a shining example of Mafia II’s ability to impress at a far more subtle level.
Of course, whether Mafia II will strike a chord with much of the industry’s audience is still far too early to call – we can see a fair few gangster-wannabes flicking it off in disgust upon first being introduced to the speed limiter – but, much as it did with BioShock in the first-person shooter sector, 2K looks as if it’s about to shake up the open-world with another genre-defining release.
Some may label Mafia II as derivative, others inspired, but whichever way you look at it, it’s hard to ignore the tantalizing prospect of being able to live out the life of a mobster, and from what we’ve played, far more successfully than EA managed with its Godfather series. It may share a similar fate to its predecessor and end up more a cult favorite than a celebrated classic, of course, but with its fantastic dose of mobster movie-inspired action, terrific focus on narrative and stunning set-pieces, we’re fairly certain Mafia II may well end up as the Don of 2010’s open-worlders.