I’m in the bowels of London’s Soho Hotel, and among the trendy lighting and polished surfaces lurks the preview build of 2K Czech’s forthcoming Mafia II.
The venue’s an incongruously genteel counterpoint to the game’s premise, a sweary gangster epic set among the Sicilian Mafia families of 40s and 50s Manhattan, a natural evolution of the open world third-person shooter the studio originally released in 2002 under the name Illusion Softworks.
On a table, there are cakes and bottles of coke, sandwiches, scones, strawberries and cream, while on the other side of the room, journalists sit at Xbox 360s, wreaking bloody mayhem on virtual streets.
Sitting down to try the game for myself, the level of detail 2K Czech has achieved is immediately in evidence. You control protagonist Vito Scaletta, and can explore every corner of his well-appointed apartment. You can open a fridge and eat a sandwich or drink a beer, or you can head for the wardrobe for a change of clothes.
The stunning commitment to period detail continues as Vito heads outside, and the full Manhattan sprawl is revealed. Cars are modelled after classic 50s designs, all curves, soaring wings and ostentatious chrome. Getting in a car for the first time, it’s also obvious that 2K has worked on making Mafia II‘s vehicles behave like the floaty vessels the originals were. I drive out of my garage in a boat-like saloon, and the first few turns around Empire Bay’s bustling streets are spent getting used to the game’s handling.
I play through the first mission, set in 1945, which takes you through the controls of the game. One thing’s immediately clear: its debt to Grand Theft Auto IV.
Set in the 40s it may be, but that hasn’t prevented 2K Czech from adding in a GTA-like navigation system, which helpfully draws a line to your next mission in the little map on the bottom right of the screen.
Mafia II‘s story is related via lengthy cut-scenes, which drag a little on the first stage (particularly when you’re champing at the bit to get straight into the action), but become more engaging as you invest yourself in the fate of the characters.
In the game’s earliest moments, you visit your mother, engage in a lengthy conversation, then go to bed for a sleep. The next morning, you have to dress yourself (the game doesn’t let you walk out of the house in your underwear, sadly), and take a lengthy journey across town before you’re given your first proper mission.
Here, you have to leap over a fence, take out a couple of bad guys and steal a car. It’s a cakewalk, but introduces the mechanics of the cover-and-shoot combat well.
I also tried a later mission, where the action moves along to the 50s and depicts Vito’s attempt to get himself into a Mafia crime family.
Later, a bloody shoot-out shows off the destructible environments and its weapons’ hefty firepower, with the shotgun in particular packing a meaty, visceral punch. The object of the mission is to take out a rival mobster. Unsurprisingly, his lackeys won’t let you near him without a fight. Set in a grimy distillery, Vito’s exchange of bullets sparks a fire, and before long the entire warehouse is ablaze as you blast a path to your quarry.
Even in the hour-and-a-half or so I spent with the game, the time and effort invested in Mafia II is clear. The period detail is the most obvious evidence of this, but the game’s a polished one, with a solid feel to its controls that rivals Rockstar’s GTA games.
2K Czech also appear to be pushing the 360’s hardware to its physical limit with Mafia II, with the occasional texture pop-in showing up.
Nevertheless, Mafia II is shaping up to be an excellent sandbox game, and a mere couple of hours with the game isn’t really enough to give a true impression of the characters. If 2K has created an overarching narrative that draws the player in, then Mafia II could be one of the best open world shooters of the year.