What differentiates Mafia II from other open world gangster games, especially Take-Two's other popular driving and delinquency-filled Grand Theft Auto series? For one, Mafia II runs things at a slower, simpler place. It also has Playboy Playmates.
You may already know about 2K Games' partnership with Playboy, but unless you have already played Mafia II, as we did at GDC last week, you aren't familiar with Mafia II's vibe. Our demo started off casual, plopping us into lead character Vito Scaletta's apartment in Empire City, a fictionalized version of some 1950s era city.
First task: get dressed. Vito had a few options in his closet, so I opted for the casual suit. After poking around Vito's pad, checking for the hidden Playboy magazine that the game's producer tasked us with finding (it wasn't there), we stepped outside, started looking through Vito's weapon list and... bam! I fired a shot, mistakenly, from Vito's pistol, drawing the attention of some of Empire City's finest.
Rather than be locked up, I chose to bribe the cops, an impressive $300 investment. Problem was, every officer wanted a hand out and I was short on cash. Better to restart the demo? Yes. Only this time, I picked Vito's leather jacket.
The demo mission, "Wild Ones," sent Vito to a meet-up with Joe. I carefully elbowed my way into a nice-looking car, realized I was already familiar with the driving model and UI from various Grand Theft Auto games and clones, then met with Joe a few blocks away. The drive there made me appreciate the weight of Mafia II's cars, big, chunky rides that are hard to tame. Fortunately, there's a great, era-appropriate soundtrack to make the drive more relaxed.
When we got to the waypoint, I was told we were there to unload cartons of cigarettes—they had presumably fallen off the back of a truck—a mercifully brief mini-game of sorts that had me selling reds, whites and blues from the bed of a pick up.
Then the greasers, the titular Wild Ones, started a little trouble, fire-bombing our tobacco supply in revenge for encroaching on their turf. A few words and bullets exchanged, we then made chase with the greasers that Joe didn't shoot in the face. After losing them and making a quick phone call to find their hide-out, we made a quick detour to do a little destruction to the backroad bar they liked to hang out at. Me and my mafia buddies unloaded a few tommy gun cartridges and tossed a Molotov or three into the place, then went to the trainyard to exterminate the rest of the Wild Ones.
Here I learned that Mafia II's "stop and pop" gunplay is as Gears of War-like as the rest of it is GTA-like. The differences were mostly aesthetic from the games that Mafia II can be compared, but the third person shoot 'em up action was mechanically sound, lower key in mood and pace.
A few dozen greasers killed, one Playboy finally found nearby with the help of the game's producer—tame nudity filled the screen in the form of a full-sized pin-up—I was mostly done. The demo transitioned into a follow-up mission that involved driving the Wild Ones' hot rods to a buyer, but the demo's clock ran out before my mafia buddies and I made it too far.
Mafia II doesn't feel particularly different or necessarily innovative against the open-world shoot 'n' drive games players may already be familiar with. What it does do is put the player in a stylized, historically authentic environment in which to play the role of a bad guy doing bad. What often trumps gameplay evolution in these games is the narrative. Based on the hands-off demos we've seen and the skill at which Mafia II tells that story, with great voice acting and fine visuals, it's worth paying attention to for that alone.
Mafia II is still in the polish stage, being readied for a release this fall on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC. Wiser guys should keep an eye on it.