If you're going to make a game about Sicilian mobsters, then there's really no better period than the Godfather era. Post-war America was a place recovering from the hardships and trials Hitler forced on them, and naturally when there's no great enemy to fight, people will end up fighting each other. A true tribute to the gangster era, the original Mafia game, and now Mafia 2 draws in a lot of influences and parallels from other franchises. The player character is even called 'Vito'.
That car spontaneously combusted due to proximity to awesome.
Make no mistake, one of the first thoughts that will come into your mind is 'Grand Theft Auto', given the title's sandbox nature. It certainly does feel a bit like Rockstar's epic, but whether that's a good or a bad thing depends on how comprehensive the game world is. Like the GTA games, 'Empire Bay' is a fictional city that draws inspiration from places like New York and San Francisco.
The thing about Grand Theft Auto though is that it was designed so, apart from the story, there was plenty to keep you occupied with. Sadly we weren't able to poke around much, but in order to take some pressure off of the story (as in, lessen the need for it to be amazing), then there needs to be some random activities to serve as a distraction. For example: True to sandbox form we tried staging several shoot outs against the police, which were fun for a while, but eventually just go repetitive so random violence it seems isn't one of things catered for in this game.
The plot follows you, Vito Scaletta (or "Vito Bellic", if we're going to run with that gag), a WW2 veteran who returns home after having been injured during the war and granted some leave. Then, in a true showing of American Patriotism, you get your old friend to bribe an official to get you discharged from the army so that you don't have to go back. From there, you naturally fall into a life of crime (being Sicilian immigrants and all) and you spend the rest of 'Grand Theft Godfather' working your way up the ranks, joining a crime family and all that Jazz.
You may have noticed the wave of sarcasm in that last paragraph, but it's just for dramatic effect, honestly. To be truthful, it looks promising - one of the Grand Theft Auto 4's best features was how they made Niko believable more than anything, especially considering what the player could make him do from time to time. So far, it looks like 2K Czech's writers are keeping to a similar standard, so story wise we're quietly hopeful.
What did you say about my ma!?
We're unsure at this point how long the story could last. It's already been reported that there's two-hours worth of in-game cutscenes, and those have to be spread amongst the various chapters. We managed to get a peak at the list, but we can't tell you how many there are though. There aren't 13 though, I'll tell you that much.
The chapter we got to demo, named the "Wild Ones" didn't reveal much of the story, but it did show off the combat. It's certainly a challenge, and not something you can just grind through. All of the usual facets are there, peaking out of cover, sliding into cover, run and gunning, but you have to keep on your toes whilst engaged in a shoot. Optimal use of cover, using the environment (like explosive materials, for example) to your advantage - these things all play a part, and if you don't respect them you will die. Like we did... a lot.
Mafia 2 is going to be a multi-platform title, but much like how Empire Bay enters a 'boomtown' era of hope and optimism as the game progresses, some involved with Mafia 2 think PC Gaming is about to enter a renewed era of interest as well. Also at the hands on session was a Mr. Ben Berraonda, UK PR rep for Nvidia. Mafia II is the latest in a recent string of games not only to take advantage of the graphic specialist's PhysX technology, but also their more pioneering Apex technology as well.
To go off on a slight tangent, Apex apparently gives developers a 'scalable dynamic framework' with which to develop their games, making it easier for them to add in high-end graphical techniques on the fly. Arkham Asylum and Metro 2033 have also taken advantage of this technology, and whilst it can be used in console games, for PC titles and ports, it can help make them really special. Berraonda believes that, with tools like Apex (and putting aside issues like DRM) developing PC games will become cheaper and easier, and ultimately more interesting for publishers.
On the highest settings, the environment really lets you play around with it.
Coming back to Mafia 2, you can really see the engine and Nvidia's support technology at work. Bizarrely, the 2K PR machine has chosen to highlight Apex's affects on clothing, as if that's what really matters to a gamer, but to give credit where credit's due, I've never seen a 40's mobster coat look so good. Naturally, there's more to the technology than that though. Environmental effects are also pretty impressive, as were highlighted to us when we shot up a run-down bar. At the very least, this is going to perform well on the visual and technical level, and so provide plenty of eye candy to admire.
2K Czech's sequel is shaping up quite nicely so far. It's got the looks, it's got the sandbox... but we suspect a lot is going to hinge on the story, as well as the availability of extra-curricular activities. Sadly, whilst we're quietly optimistic that this is going to be at least an ok game, it may not be one that's replayable, but we'll just have to wait and see.
Mafia 2 is due out on the 24th August 2010 in North America and in other regions on the 27th August.